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'If I was to start again I would still choose this exceptional career'

Mira Antonyan, president of the Armenian Association of Social Workers, on practising in her country and why she loves her work

Mira Antonyan, president of the Armenian Association of Social Workers
Mira Antonyan, president of the Armenian Association of Social Workers

Professional Social Work magazine - 1 October, 2019

What are the main social issues affecting the people you work with?

Since independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union our entire country experienced total blockade, sudden poverty, economic collapse and war.

In the meantime, the northern part of the country faced a devastating earthquake. It’s been challenging for everyone in Armenia and we have been dealing with the consequences of this for the last 30 years.

After the ‘velvet revolution’ in 2018, people were impatient for positive change. They wanted to see improvement in living standards, better employment conditions, elimination of blockade and finally the end of the ‘neither war nor peace’ situation.

People are optimistic, however levels of poverty are still extremely high, allocation of social services is uneven and there has been a decrease of support from non-formal networks, which is a key challenge for our practice.

As social workers we work with people and families who face diverse struggles. The expectation on us from the government and society are different. People are looking for an individual approach, whereas the government promotes a more standardised approach.

We also have specific issues, such as the admission and integration of refugees, asylum seekers and especially unaccompanied minors.

How are social workers perceived by the public?

For some people social work has a ‘magic stick’ that can solve any issue, while for others they are seen as mediators between the state and the people. Among the general public, the perception of social workers is not negative. However, as social work is a new and developing profession in Armenia, there is some lack of understanding of the role.

Many social workers in the state system are given solely administrative, distributive functions and are therefore not perceived as they should be, both by social workers themselves and the general public. Social work in non-state agencies, however, is seen as a cooperative, trustful, helpful profession.

What ethical issues do you have in practice?

In common with many homogenous societies, there are issues around discrimination towards those who are different in appearance and towards those who have different national values.

We see confidential details about people's personal lives discussed intensively on social media.

Ethical issues also arise around the lack of understanding and knowledge of language and culture.

What are working conditions like? 

To put it mildly, not favourable. Wages are low and unattractive. Often social workers lack transport and opportunities for trainings and learning. In addition, workloads are high, which directly influences the quality of the work undertaken by social workers and consequently the quality of services received by their clients.

How do politics impact upon your job?

Despite mangy challenges, social workers are influencing real change. Our advocacy work focuses on changing approaches for families affected by poverty and other extreme situations. As a result, the government has started to adapt its policy with the aim of eliminating poverty through empowerment instead of just distributing money to people living in deprivation.

Also, the deinstitutionalisation of children from residential care has started, which is the result of lobbying by social workers and other stakeholders. The government is changing its attitude towards people who are poor and this is a positive development.    

What’s the best thing about your job?

I’m in love with my job in a way that it is difficult for me to put down to one thing. It might sound strange, but I like even the difficulties, which I overcome during the process. I like to follow how all the statements and issues that have been raised throughout the years become a topic for advocacy. 

I like when we make changes not only in the lives of children and families or individuals, but also in the perception of issues by stakeholders in the field. This, in turn, changes working cultures.

During the last two decades, I have contributed to the introduction and establishment of almost ten different models of social services in Armenia. They include an outreach mobile service; a child protection hotline service; a small group home-crisis intervention service; foster care; community mobilisation centre, a family poverty alleviation model; community preventive service and a model for work with unaccompanied and asylum seeking children. The best thing about all these services is that social work is key and the basis for all of them, which is just fantastic.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

The hardest part is the lack of flexibility, in particular the bureaucracy, which tries to place the diversity of social life into ‘boxes’ of legal acts. This hinders the possibility for finding solutions for a particular case, instead placing the case into one of those boxes.

Another difficulty relates to the conflict and interests of various agencies such as health and education, which splits work with service users into pieces. That results in a lack of comprehensiveness and integrity. It is extremely challenging when an attempt is made to ‘fit the elephant into a mouse’s body’. It is difficult when social issues and solutions to them are addressed during the life of a certain project only, and quickly forgotten about afterwards. It is especially challenging when dealing with the stereotypes of public opinion.

What do you think UK social workers would be most surprised by about social work in your country?

I think much of what I have said will not be alien to them, though different in its scope and scale, of course.

However, working conditions would be the most shocking for them to see. UK social workers may be surprised to know that the average salary of a social worker in Armenia is about £160 and they do not get any health insurance.

In some places they lack computers and access to the internet. Many of them practice in the field without proper education and training.

Why did you become a social worker?

It was a happy coincidence but I also think there were some prerequisites for that. I grew up in an environment where I witnessed through the example of my father how it is possible to struggle against hardships and oppression but be willing to help others. I learned lessons in resilience through my parents and I think these attributes got their best use when I became a social worker.

I became a social worker because I knew it would enable me to bring concrete changes in people’s lives and to the entire system. It can be as concrete as one wishes and at the same time as analytical as one wants it to be. It is a profession of infinite possibilities. If I were to start again, I would still choose this exceptional profession.

It is often said people enter this profession to help others but I believe that I received more than I gave. My clients have taught me serious life lessons, they fortified me, they helped me to appreciate what I have, to enjoy the achievements and non-stop struggle.

I enjoy it so much – it’s about creating something new and always being in motion.

My current motivation is the organisation where I practice – the Crisis Intervention Centre for Children.

It is rare to find professional freedom in any organisation where you are free to be as creative as you are able to be.

I may not be able to describe why I became a social worker in one sentence, but I know why I’m a social worker now and why I don’t ever think about changing.

How do you relax?

You may not believe it, but I relax when I work.  When I go to the university to teach I get away from the problems of my clients; when I’m dealing with cases I’m resting from teaching; when we brainstorm in the team and manage to find specific solutions to certain problematic situations, I feel as if I have relaxed the whole day and did not work.

It of course goes without saying that sometimes I do need to do nothing to digest the consequences of stressful situations and bring my thoughts in order. I also like travelling and socialising with people I don’t know. When travelling to other countries I’m always keen to know about people’s interests and thoughts. 

I enjoy cooking for my family but most of all I relax in my tiny garden with wonderful flowers - I talk to them almost every day! Taking care of the flowers gives me complete peace.

I also like watching movies on social topics, films that make me think long after they have finished.

I also love dancing - I may dance for hours with lots of energy!

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers