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Teddy Bears Bring Jobs, Hope To Armenian Village

The organizers hope the Berd Bears catch on in the West and the project will take on a life of its own. (Photo courtesy of
The organizers hope the Berd Bears catch on in the West and the project will take on a life of its own. (Photo courtesy of
In northern Armenia, an initiative by a women's resource center has provided work for the many unemployed women in the small town of Berd.

Begun by U.S. Peace Corps volunteer John Hart, who had recently founded the Berd Women's Resource Center Foundation to help women in the region, and Timothy Straight, the founder of Homeland Handicrafts, an organization that supports job creation in rural Armenia, in March 2011, the project has even grown into an animated series for children.

As the "Armenian Weekly" describes it:

In March 2011, Straight visited Berd, and met with the two dozen or so women who had assembled at a local school. The women sat around a stove at the center of a cold classroom. They showcased an array of intricately made crafts, from embroideries to tablecloths to carpets. The knitted bear, however, made by a woman named Seta, caught Straight’s eye. "I distinctly remember saying, 'All of you, one year from now, will be doing something related to the teddy bear,'" he recalled, as Hart and I sat in a Yerevan cafe, surrounded by Berd Bears Straight had brought along.

Berd lies a mere 9 kilometers from the border with rival Azerbaijan, which has been closed since the conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh as the Soviet Union broke apart in the late 1980s.

The population, once around 14,000, is now half that. "The conflict came; the border closed; all trade stopped; and the jobs disappeared," Straight says. "The choice basically is: become a hired soldier at the border and be shot at for $400 a month, or emigrate to Russia."

The women had been taught to knit the teddy bears by a German nun, Sister Hanna, 10 years before, and the technique had spread among women in the town.

Two months ago, the Berd Bears were launched on the crowd-funding website, where sales began to take off. Straight hopes that the Berd women can now begin to get stable orders from abroad and the project will take on a life of its own.

"If an upscale toy store in the U.S. were to latch on to this and make it a permanent thing, and order 1,000 bears every three months, that's when my job is done. It's all for the women, so that they can go and have a happy life. I would really like them to have their own customers in Australia, Europe, and the U.S."

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