At her local church in Yerevan, Armenia, Siranush lit a candle and prayed that her daughter would survive the night. Lusine, 22, was hovering between life and death in a nearby hospital after a terrible car crash.

As Siranush pleaded for her daughter's life, she offered up something in return. "If you save Lusine, I promise I will find out what happened to Meri," she prayed. "Wherever she is, I will find her."

For Lusine was not Siranush's only daughter. Five years earlier, she and her husband, Artur, had a baby girl. But after a long delivery fraught with complications, the baby, Meri, had died.

At least, that's what they told their family. But as Siranush prayed that night, she was also grappling with something heavier on her conscience. Meri had not, in fact, died at birth.

"We committed a sin about Meri," Artur says. "But now we wanted to find her again."

And so with one daughter fighting for her life, Siranush and Artur began, belatedly, to fight for their other one.

The "sin" Artur talks of began on August 12, 2009. Siranush's labour was not going well, and after an emergency Caesarean, a gloomy-looking doctor appeared before Artur. She said his wife had been saved, but their daughter Meri had been born with heart defects and Down syndrome.

Then their trusted family doctor broke even worse news - Meri would very likely die within a few days. She said it was best if Siranush and Artur returned home and left Meri to die peacefully in the hospital. "You have other children already," the doctor reminded them.

Meri
Meri's parents were told she would only live for a few days.Human Rights Watch

Siranush was fiercely against this, but Artur gently persuaded her to follow their doctor's advice. As small-scale fish farmers, the couple had no medical knowledge or reason to doubt the doctors who said it was hopeless.

And so Siranush and Artur's secret began. The questions about where their baby was were so painful, Artur says, it was simpler to tell everyone she had died.

In the following weeks, the family tried to return to normal. But Siranush could not.

Even though the couple guessed Meri must have died soon after they left her, Siranush continued to sense her daughter's presence. As the months turned to years, she began having a recurring, vivid dream that Meri was alive.

For his part, Artur had convinced himself that Meri was dead. But Lusine's car accident quickly unravelled his conviction.

"We were at church constantly," Artur recalls. "My wife began worshipping, promising that whatever happened to Lusine, we will find Meri and lighten our sin."

And so Artur and Siranush set to work. Within days, they discovered that Meri had survived and been moved among various orphanages. With the help of a relative, they managed locate her in an orphanage just a short drive from their home.

Finally, after five long years, they met the daughter they had reluctantly abandoned. "I was shaking all over my body," says Artur. "I was hugging the child, I couldn't speak. It was very emotional."

Meri 2
Meri spent five years in an orphanage.Human Rights Watch

Artur describes an instant bond with the daughter he last saw when she was just three or four days old: "She recognised me immediately. Solely on our blood connection she could feel it. It was instinct."

The family swiftly met with the orphanage director, "a good woman", who agreed to let Artur and Siranush take Meri home just 40 days later.

Five years in an orphanage had taken its toll on Meri. She could not walk, or talk, and got around by crawling.

But she felt instantly at home. "Meri knew all the corners in our apartment," said Artur. "She accepted us easily. She did not appear upset with us. Either from our warmth, or our common genes, she felt like we are her family."

In the loving care of a warm home, Meri, now almost eight, began to change. She's formed a strong bond with her elder sister, Lusine, who survived her accident, and now dotes on her new-found sibling with obvious affection. She adores music, and has a keen sense of humour. Meri has learned to walk, and can even say simple words like "ma" and "pa". "The difference is like mountains," says Artur proudly.

Meri's story may seem incredible, but it's not unique. More than 3,000 children live in orphanages or other institutions in Armenia. But, as new Human Rights Watch research found, many of them are needlessly separated from their parents. Sometimes it's because the child has disabilities, sometimes it's because the family is too poor to cope. A staggering 90 per cent of children living in institutions in Armenia have at least one living parent.

While institutions can look clean and decently equipped, they are often overcrowded, and children get scant individual attention.

And even the most well-resourced orphanage can't replace a home.

The next step for Meri is to attend school. The Armenian government has vowed to provide fully inclusive education by 2022, allowing children like Meri to study alongside her peers. But for now that remains a pipe dream, and Meri attends a programme for children with Down Syndrome.

Artur and Siranush still feel deep shame for giving Meri up. And they are not alone. Social stigma, poverty, and misleading medical advice mean hundreds of other parents in Armenia are pressed into the same, devastating choice.

Yet despite the grief they carry, Siranush and Artur now feel blessed. "We found our lost princess," says Artur. "Meri is our happiness and we all love her."


Stephanie Hancock is senior media officer at Human Rights Watch. This article originally appeared here.