Wednesday, October 27, 2004

If you remember, a couple of months ago, I posted logged about the new U.S. embassy and the unfair and insulting labor practices that was and is going on there. Well here is a great piece from The Armenian Weekly's posting on Groong this week that is written by someone who was at the construction site and witnessed first hand what has been going on. A little bit long, but worth the read.

Feature: An Account of Travels and Teachings in Armenia
By Azad Merian

[The following is an account by Azad Merian from Ocala, FL who traveled to Armenia in July 2004 as a construction instructor to teach Armenians in Yerevan all phases of western construction methods. Merian is a retired general contractor originally from Detroit, MI who today builds custom-made bolt action rifles and stocks for those rifles.]

In March 2004, the Armenian Assembly of America, in conjunction with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Academy for Education Development (AED), announced openings for construction instructors to teach Armenians in Yerevan all phases of western construction methods.

These positions required applicants to be state-licensed contractors who also spoke Armenian. Ed Derbabian, an acquaintance in Detroit, MI, who was aware of my qualifications called and encouraged me to apply for one of these positions. With his moral support and confidence, I submitted my resume.

On July 1, I received a call from USAID in Washington notifying me that this 73-year old man had been selected as the instructor for carpentry, suspended drop ceilings, metal framing, and drywall trades. I excitedly accepted the position, and the arrangements were rapidly made for me to arrive in Yerevan on July 10, with my classes beginning on July 12. As a previous visitor to Armenia and Karabagh, I had an idea as far as what to expect of the classrooms. True to form, this building was in total disrepair and without toilet facilities.

The first morning of class, I stood before my students with patriotism to perform my duties, to the best of my ability, as an instructor from America. I introduced myself and could see and read the expression on the students faces--"He's just another Armenian-American here with a broom to revolutionize Armenia." I stood before them, knees trembling, hot flashes, and fear, awaiting help from above.

At that moment my Masonic background as an orator put me at ease. I said to them, 'I am unlike any man you have ever met, just give me an hour to prove this point. Don't look upon me as the enemy. You are all the ages of my sons and grandsons, and will be treated in the same manner. You will learn many trades to benefit you in the future.' From that moment on we were an army of one and acted accordingly.

My students were so eager to learn; they would arrive 30 minutes early every morning, conduct studies during smoke breaks, have lunch late, and remain two hours past the last bell. During three weeks of classroom studies, they built a wood frame construction home using western technology.

They installed suspended drop ceilings, erected metal frames, and installed sheetrock. They amazed themselves as well as the USAID directors in Yerevan. They were paid 36 cents per day for transportation and were provided with a free lunch.

They were so destitute and poverty stricken that each night they would wash and dry the only clothing they owned so that they would look fresh in the morning. They came from the hidden back streets, clustered with dilapidated apartments, places where the average tourist never ventures.

During my session, one of my students had the misfortune of losing his mother. He could not afford a proper funeral for his mother, so in lieu of flowers I made a donation so that he could bury his mother.

Reluctantly, he accepted the money. All of our students attended the funeral, again wearing the same clothing that they washed and dried every night.

The service was performed at the entrance of the high-rise apartment building, because they could not afford a church funeral.

On week four and five, we were sent to intern at the new US Embassy that is under construction. It is the largest US Embassy in the world to serve a country the size of Armenia. It is a bastion of defense, impenetrable against any attack. The embassy is being built by J.A. Jones Construction from North Carolina. The first employees were Turks; they received $7 per hour.

They were found incompetent and replaced by Armenians who received 50 cents per hour to work 10-hour shifts, six days a week. Punch your calculator with these numbers to see the profits that J.A. Jones Construction made. The student interns were paid 70 cents per hour by USAID and AED. Gone are the days that $5 supported a family for one month in Armenia.

The OSHA conditions at the embassy were horrifying. Seven port-a-johns were set up approximately 400 yards apart to serve 700 Armenians. They had not been pumped out and serviced in a month. There was only one sink provided to wash your hands.

The work site was scattered with debris, had poor lighting, there was a shortage of tools and material, and the temperature inside was 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Water was passed out to the workers twice a day, and the free lunch was not worthy to eat.

All of the windows were sealed with two-and-a-half inch bullet-proof glass, and covered with tape which kept sunlight and ventilation out.

If the 700 Armenian workers were prisoners of war, the Geneva Convention and International Law would have intervened, rectified this inhumanity to man, chastised America, and put the contractor on notice. These workmen were all enduring hunger, 15-20 pounds under weight, and in need of clothing and medical attention. They prayed each day for America and the Diaspora to be their patron saint.

With one week remaining, I invited and insisted that my students and their family members be present at my hotel for a farewell banquet in their honor. These people never ate a meal away from home, their children had never tasted a Coca Cola, and they had never been seated and served a meal by a waiter.

One could see the pleasure that the 50 people were experiencing from the expressions on their faces. For seven hours we dined, danced, made merry, and they never showed how forlorn they were.

Each student rose, with tears flowing, and gave a farewell address to me. In turn, I saluted my students and their families with sincerity, fondness, and humility.

After the banquet I gave the 11 students each a plastic shopping bag filled with my 14 changes of new clothing, my personal hand tools, books, cigarettes, and my remaining cash. I divided it 11 ways and returned to America with $10 in my pocket.

The next morning at the embassy the students gave me a special welcome and thanked me for the dinner and the gifts. They all knew in five days Azad would return to America. Each remaining day was like being on death row with the execution scheduled on Friday at 4:00 pm.

That last week our brigade bonded with everlasting brotherhood. They were admired by all the Armenian workers and foremen because of their talents.

Friday morning, our last day together, the students and I had a meeting regarding future employment with J.A. Jones Construction Company. They knew I had a meeting at 3:00 pm with Superintendent Tipton to discuss this matter.

At 3:00 pm sharp in Mr. Tipton's trailer office, he told me that he was pleased with my students and asked how many were seeking employment. I replied, "in all due respect, only two. The others wish to determine a pay scale with you." His eyes squinted, his cheeks rose upward, and he snarled, "How dare your lazy Armenians want to discuss a pay rate." Instantly the "Delray Detroit" instinct lurched me across his desk, my left hand went for his throat with an oncoming right fist to his white teeth.

Instantly thoughts were flashing through my head, and I stopped short realizing that this man wants me to act like this; he is goading me to explode like a car bomb to substantiate his views of my Armenian people.

I told myself, don't strike him; I will embarrass my beloved America, USAID, and myself. It was a finger on his Adam's apple that made him turn pale. With rhetoric, I assaulted him and his company for their incompetence, and the indifference they displayed toward Armenians.

He confessed to not being aware of the low wages and miserable conditions the workmen were enduring. I told Mr. Tipton that his company was far too behind schedule to quit using these Armenian workers.

I returned to my students, we hugged, and gave a sobbing farewell to one another. We began as an army of one, and finished as a brigade of brothers that will succeed in the future.

I accomplished the mission that USAID and the Armenian Assembly sent me to perform in Armenia.

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