We often hear about the role large charities play locally and globally, most people have heard of Oxfam, NSPCC and others, but there are many thousands of small charities in London, and it's they that keep the capital moving. Less publicity, fewer resources and money, many nonetheless improvise with the resources they do have. When I entered the Centre for Armenian Information (CAIA) and Advice in Mill Hill, I had little idea of the diverse range of activists such small charities could do.
Misak Ohanian, a larger than life figure within the local Armenian Community, founded the centre nearly 30-years ago. Working out of his living room, he eventually built his charity into the communal hub it is today. Located in a three-storey converted building on a residential street, the outward appearance of the building deceives the first-time visitor about the importance and scope of the charity. An estimated 20, 000 Armenians call Britain their home and more arrive in the country every year including refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Globally, there are believed to be 8 million people of Armenian heritage and the majority live outside present day Armenia- making it one of the world's largest Diaspora communities. Before the First World War, most Armenians inhabited what is today a region in Eastern Turkey, but with significant populations in other Middle Eastern countries. Since the First World War, many were scattered throughout the world and ended up in countries that ranged from Syria, France to The United States. These differences in geography and generational changes that has occurred since the First World War presents the Armenian Diaspora with challenges. Many are integrated into the societies they live in, but they also want to maintain their cultural heritage.
Armenian Information and Advice Centre helps serve this function, it hosts a library of books and publications on Armenia, History, Culture, Politics and Literature in a number of languages. They run their own youth club, elders club and even facilitate the two to meet and have intergenerational dialogue. A variety of cultural events, a newsletter, a health centre, training and educational programmes and advice and counseling services. But these services are under constant restraint, because like a lot of smaller charities, CAIA has had funding cuts from the council.
As Ohanian told me, "Well it's effected us a lot (cuts in council funds available)," he pauses for a brief second before resuming, "We've been going for almost 30-years and when we started, we use to get funding from the local councils, which was a pot of money that all the London boroughs and over the years that been reduced and in the last several years we are not receiving anything. So we had to approach each individual, local authorities where we know there are sizeable members of our community to seek assistance- some like Ealing and Hounslow were forthcoming, but now they have cut as well. This has led to Hounslow cutting our funding altogether and we are now forced to cancel our Monday's elders lunch club....we will now have only have one elders lunch club a week... this is just an example of the cuts we've made- but the cuts are real."
The future of the charity was clearly something that he worried about- the case work that the charity is undertaking only ever increases. CAIA advisor, Arthur Mcahill, told me that in a month the charity deals with 40 cases in person and 80 over the internet. The trouble is that CAIA is London-based, but receives cases and pleas for help from across the country and even across Europe. The recent violence in Iraq and Syria has led to Armenian refugees coming into the UK, however, most have no connection or contacts in the UK and are sent to Bradford by the Government, despite the fact that most Armenians are based in London.
"People who have internet access, the first thing they will do when they come to London, is to look online for an Armenian community or Armenian help and thankfully our website comes up and that they've come across it. What I've noticed is that refugees coming in from Syria and Iraq, who have made it to the UK, they're unaware of an Armenian community or Armenian Centre. We get a lot of inquires from Bradford and Cardiff and people who have been relocated, asylum seekers relocated, and they are obviously trying to get hold of people in the community. So they can integrate and speak to people, who speak the same language, but its difficult. We're based in London, we can do what we can by email and telephone, but we're restricted, we're based in London and they in other parts of the UK." Arthur told me.
Most people I spoke to at the centre, including those seeking assistance were positive about the future of the charity. But what was intriguing, is how important smaller charities are at maintaining and building communities beyond emergency aid. Charities like CAIA were able fostering and strengthening communal culture and identity, in addition to providing much needed assistance. However, a much wider debate about how charities are funded is needed, otherwise charities like CAIA will face an uncertain future.