Content Warning: This article contains topics of domestic violence and foster care.
“One of the teenage orphanage girls approached me, and said, ‘It’s so amazing that you were all here, but the sad thing is that you will leave and forget about us’.” These words struck Shoghik Mikayelyan, and she assured the girl that she would come back to the orphanage.
“She then said to me, ‘do not make a promise you cannot keep’. Her words touched my heart, I wanted to do something…” Shoghik explained this defining moment in her life, but she was not sure about how to proceed with channeling her desire to make a change into a concrete solution. Richard and Ara Chackerian, two diasporan American-Armenians, approached Shoghik about starting a mentorship program in Gyumri. Upon this offer, Mikayelyan was already fueled by her life-changing experience from visiting the orphanage and accepted this great challenge. She began to collaborate with the Chackerians on what they could potentially do to make sustainable change.
Today, Shoghik Mikayelyan is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for Nor Luyce Mentoring Center for Youth— a position she has been passionately dedicated to since 2009. Nor Luyce is a non-profit organization located in Gyumri, Armenia, whose mission is to provide teenage girls from orphanages, vulnerable families, and low-income families with one-on-one mentorship, skill-building training, career planning, improved communication skills, and financial independence. Over the years, Shoghik has done extensive research to make innovative changes to the program that would help the girls grow in the most beneficial, efficient, and influential ways possible.
The program is comprised of three phases, each lasting one year: mentorship, skill-building, and higher education. During the mentoring phase, mentees have weekly meetings with their mentors to discuss counseling, guidance, and support. Group meetings occur monthly, with guest speakers and open discussions on relevant topics of priority. Over the summer when the girls are away from school, the program offers English classes and computer classes. During the second phase, the mentees focus on developing their skills and career planning. They learn about leadership skills and gender discrimination. They self-reflect to learn about their skills and interests, and how these skills and interests translate into professions they are interested in. The program offers empirically-based tests to help them recognize the right career path. The girls are also taken on field trips to different universities in Gyumri, and meet with professionals in their careers of interest to discuss how those professionals overcame the difficulties to get to where they are today. Nor Luyce not only provides skill building opportunities, but a safe space for girls to apply them through local volunteering, cultural events, and presentations. During the third phase, mentees matriculate to universities and qualify for scholarships from Nor Luyce to cover their tuition, transportation, and material fees. They also receive continued support from the organization with key speakers and group meetings.
Female Empowerment and Addressing Domestic Violence
Shoghik Mikayelyan emphasizes, however, that the mentorship and training for the girls are much more than just professional— important life lessons for empowerment are critical for the girls to develop strong self-efficacy, confidence, and independence.
“The girls, especially ones from the orphanage, [prioritized] getting married—they would marry anyone or any person who they met the first time because they saw him as a way out of the orphanage. What I wanted them to understand is there are other ways to get out of the orphanage, like for example having a career or being a professional in a certain field. If they didn’t want to go to college or university, they still could achieve independence and get out of the orphanage by developing skills to be good at vocational jobs such as being a good make up artist or hairdresser [instead of getting married just to escape]––a skill they can use to sustain or take care of themselves. The girls didn’t understand what value they bring to society, what power they have. They could do everything and they are the ones bringing change— they are going to be mothers, great leaders, they have the potential to bring a lot of changes that they didn’t know they can bring. Society didn’t let them out of the shell.”Shoghik Mikayelyan
Shoghik, along with the other mentors, helped to break that shell. With guidance, empowerment group activities, and mentorship, the girls began to realize their power and potential to be independent and self-sufficient, leveraging their skills as productive contributing members to society.
When asked about gender inequity in achieving financial independence, Shogik explained how a woman’s financial independence varies based on her social circle–– “What I have seen so far is [that] if a woman is working, most of the money will go to the husband. If the woman doesn’t work, then the husband will keep all the money and she will go and ask or beg for the money. I think a lot of cases are that [when women] get their degree they feel the need to get married and have a family, [and are] not so much thinking about being financially independent. They commonly say ‘Oh I am a humble person and loyal so I need to give everything to my husband’, but that is not about being humble or loyal, it’s about being able to have your own money. You can have a shared family budget for emergencies or if they want to buy something for the house, and you can have some [money to yourself so that] you wouldn’t go ask your husband for money to go to [a] cafe with friends or buy something outside by yourself. But men control the money, even if the woman works…”
Shoghik and the mentors utilize several firsthand, inspirational methods to empower the young girls that would overcome these perceptions and have them realize their ability for financial independence. However, the obstacles that the girls need to overcome are not only financial.
“In Armenia there is domestic violence and a lot of times society accuses women to make them think it is their fault to be abused, so I wanted them to understand and have the power to understand that they have a value and no one can abuse them. We also have a lot of domestic violence discussions and I want them to know if anything like this happens— that this is the cycle and if they go through it, they should be able to break the cycle, they can do more than they think.” -Shoghik MikayelyanInterview with Shoghik Mikayelyan
The Nor Luyce mentorship program ensures that these social concerns are addressed by creating a safe space to have open discussions about difficult topics such as domestic violence, counseling services, and changing perceptions about domestic violence.
It was evident in the interview with Shoghik Mikayelyan that she has done extensive research while being reliably flexible to the needs of the mentees in the program to ensure sustainable positive change. One example of Shoghik’s spectacular leadership is elucidated by the fact that when the program initially launched, it was initially only for girls from the orphanage. However, according to Mikalelyan, it was difficult to make impactful progress with the girls from the “me vs. them” mentality they possessed. By introducing girls from vulnerable homes and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds to the program, the orphanage girls realized that they are not the only ones who face struggle transforming into a form of solidarity between the two groups of girls and bonding over their struggles to form strong friendships and support one another. The positive sustainable changes from this program can be observed in many ways, with many of the mentees coming back to become mentors themselves.
COVID-19 and The Future of Nor Luyce
The overall resilience is not just demonstrated by the success of this program, but particularly during these difficult times amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Mikayelyan and other organizers in Nor Luyce have demonstrated exceptional instructional resilience to ensure that these girls from marginalized and vulnerable backgrounds are still receiving critical psychosocial support and mentorship with social distancing precautions. To observe social distancing precautions, the mentorship program has moved its group meetings to be online via Zoom. For those mentees who come from homes without adequate technology to participate through Zoom, the mentors call the mentees everyday to feel supported as they go through this crisis. Supplemental materials from the group meetings are sent to these individuals to make sure that they will have access to the same content that those who can attend the meetings do. Another problem that Shoghik states they faced during this crisis was that some mentees have a lot of siblings but only one cell phone or laptop to share. If some of those mentees can’t be a part of particular group meetings, the group meeting coordinator would send them all the materials while remaining in touch to make sure they read the material and have discussions with them over the phone. The instructional resiliency and adaptiveness of this program have been exemplified by how Nor Luyce ensures mentees are engaged and supported even with these specific adversities and setbacks.
Mikayelyan has positive and concrete plans for the future directions of Nor Luyce, with her first goal being the expansion of the program’s services to more mentees through moving the program to its own separate building. She wants to utilize more space to recruit more mentees each year to incorporate important groups with one-on-one counseling for mentees, and provide a library space for girls to have access to a safe space to study and organize meetings of their own. She believes that the girls can grow not just within the physical capacity of the building, but also abroad through exchange programs for the girls to learn about different global perspectives. Additionally, Shoghik hopes to incorporate training for mentors regarding identifying red flags for domestic violence, abuse, and more modern counseling approaches. Mikayelyan is optimistic about the future of not just Nor Luyce, but for socio-cultural shifts in Armenia on perceptions regarding women achieving financial independence, domestic violence, and privacy.
“Nor Luyce” can be translated to “New Light” in English, a very fitting name for the non-profit organization given its transformative impact on the future generation of women in Armenia. It is through Nor Luyce that a new generation can arise, bringing hope along with it.