Marineh KhachadourMy husband has purchased an old Zhiguli from a Yezidi young man for $400. It is white with golden velvet interior.
“Fit for a lamb,” Charlie jokes as he straps Arpa, our almost two-year-old son, on the back seat. I sit next to him, so I may quickly reach for him if a need arises. Old Soviet cars were not manufactured with seat belts. Local people don’t seem to mind, but for us who have been indoctrinated with the American standards of life, having a child loose in the back seat is unconscionable.

I sing to him the Armenian version of my favorite children’s song:

I wake up in the morning and what do I see?
Popcorn popping on the apricot tree.

Is it really so, or it just seems to me?
Popcorn popping on the apricot tree.

In a time and place of war where death and destruction dominate the surroundings and mar every aspect of life, a little bit of imagination and magic can go a long way. Today, I will teach this song to the 70 refugee children I visit every Saturday at the Arzni pansionat some 18 miles north of Yerevan, the capital city in Armenia, where we have made home for the past six months.

Our makeshift classroom is the hall of the Soviet era resort building where women and children have been housed. Leaving their husbands, fathers, and sons to fight for their homeland, they have fled their homes in Nagorno Karabakh, an Armenian enclave that Josef Stalin granted to the neighboring Azerbajan in 1923. The demand of the people for independence and self-determination in 1988 turned into a full fledged war when Azeris decided to exterminate the Armenian communities in Sumgait and Baku in retaliation.

Like all government operated facilities, the building has been deserted since then, and five years later, it is in dire need of repairs. The once indigo-washed-white now greying lace curtains are fluttering in the breeze. An oversized planter that used to be the centerpiece of the room has been pushed into a corner. A few green leaves are dangling on finger-thin stems. The paint on the ceiling is chipping. Mold is growing in the communal restrooms. Slats of parquet, leftover wood used for heating the space on cold winter days, have been peeled and stacked against a wall.

I hope no little feet get stuck in the holes of dry, black tar as children run to meet me for a weekly activity. Somehow they manage to bypass or overpass the ditches without much concentration. I wonder if they will be able to circumvent the holes war leaves in their lives as swiftly.

Many of them have their mothers who hug them tightly, wipe their snotty noses and the tears of fear and pain. Some, however, don’t have that privilege. 8-year-old Anoush is in care of an eighty-year-old woman she calls “grandmother.” She is not her real grandmother but is from the same village and knows Anoush’s parents who are both at the front lines. Who knows when they will come back for her or if they will at all. I think, I might want to adopt her.

In a video of a previous visit, made by my husband, Arpa is tugging on my leg begging me for attention,”Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…” he repeats while I am determined not to lose the focus of the two dozen or so eyes following me as I take out jewel-colored eggs from the basket. Charlie reaches out and takes Arpa’s hand. Father to his rescue! And, it allows me to continue my lesson without being interrupted.

In the background, Zakar, our musician friend from Lebanon, plays the flute. It’s a melodic song about lilies. Girls and boys 5-13 years of age repeat the verse over an over, calmly gazing at the lens of the camera when it focuses on them. They seem so serene and content. Yet, I know if I ask them what they wish for at that moment, their eyes will tear up, and they will say, “I just want to see my father again.” I know this, because I have asked them before and have received the same response.

It is May. We meet in the courtyard, by the dried up pond with exposed tarnished pipes where a fountain used to flow. The children interrupt each other wanting to tell me the big news. Ten of them who were picked by an aid organization to spend the winter months in Iran have returned! It is close to 75F degrees outside, but they walk around with their ski jackets and boots, valuable as gold, that they have received as charity.

I proceed with my lesson about spring, hope, and popcorn on the trees.
“In the spring, Father Sun reaches out for Mother Earth,” I say, “holds her hand and reassures her that all will be well.” Today, it is my goal to help the children experience this, since their own fathers will not be able to do the same for them.

As I pass out the bags of popcorn I have wrapped the day before, among the sea of faces in front of me, I see the old woman but can not find Anoush.
“Where Is Anoush?” I ask. No one seems to know of her whereabouts.

Suddenly, I hear the old “grandmother” scream as if she was struck by lightening, “May I go blind! I locked the door and left the key. The child was sleeping inside! There is no way she can reach the lock!” She says with her face turning beet red.
“There must be a way,” I say, trying to not lose composure.
“There is no way. The lock is too high,” say the women, all obviously worried at the same time. A few of the men, wounded soldiers in convalescence, rush to look into the situation on the eighth floor, while the rest of us try to calm “grandmother.”

Minutes later, a child points to the balcony on the top floor of the hi-rise and says,
“Look, there is Anoush!”
I can not believe my eyes, as I watch the little girl climb out between the metal rods and balance herself on the pipe that stretches from on end of the building to the other about six inches just below the balconies on the eighth floor. Anoush carefully walks herself towards the balcony next door from where, by now, men are extending hands for her to grab on to.

I hug Anoush and look at her sparkly eyes, her triumphant smile between her dimpled red cheeks, and know that she knows: ALL WILL BE WELL.

Charlie is hesitant when I suggest that we take Anoush home with us.
“You know, she ‘s not real. She is a mythical character capable of the unthinkable,” he argues in his typical dramatic way whenever he wishes to dissuade me.
“She is courageous. This girl has no fear. I wish to give her a fair chance to thrive. Besides, I would love for our son to have a big sister like her,” I insist.

A few weeks later, we agree to bring her home for a trial period. After a meal and a bath, and three episodes of Barney the Purple Dinosaur, the children and I fall asleep until my husband wakes me up.

“Where is Anoush?” I ask noticing her empty bed.
“By the door,” says Charlie. “She tried to escape and won’t give up.”
“I kneel by her and ask if there is anything that she wants.
“I want my father,” she says and gets up to unlock the door.
“Your father is far away,” I say, “You can stay with us until he comes for you,” I say.
“My father is where my home is in Karabakh. I want to go home,” she says and makes an attempt at the door again.
“I will take you back to Arzni in the morning. You can be with “grandmother” and the other children, if that is what you want,” I promise her. She does not respond. I put my hand out. She takes it, and we go back to bed.

After Anoush’s second attempt to take off that night while everyone is asleep, I glue myself to the floor in order to guard the door and prevent the little girl from roaming the streets of Yerevan in the middle of the night.

The phone rings early in the morning. The care coordinator at the pansionat says, “Her mother has come for her. She wants to take Anoush back to Karabakh.”
“What about her father? I ask.
“No one knows where he is,” she responds.

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