By Aram Arkun
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Hundreds of thousands of Armenians fled Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the Karabagh conflict and violence against Armenians in Azerbaijan culminated in pogroms in Sumgait in February 1988, in Kirovabad (Ganja) in November 1988 and Baku in January 1990. It has been roughly 20 years now that members of this unique group of immigrants have lived in the United States. The purpose of this article is to examine how they have fared in the United States. This is admittedly an unscientific survey based on interviews of only a handful of individuals either involved professionally with this community, or active members of this community.
Most Armenians from Azerbaijan came to the US from roughly 1989 to 1996. The first wave came after the US agreed to give them refugee status.Before this time, it was very hard for Soviet Armenians except for repatriates (who came to settle in Armenia from outside the USSR in earlier years) and political dissidents to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
Armenians were settled in nearly every state of the US. The government divided them up between different non-profit American organizations located in different states. Sometimes there were not many American-Armenians at their destinations, which included far flung places like Fargo, ND and Boise, Idaho. In 1994, for example, seven families were sent to Alaska. Michael Guglielmo, who was director of the Social Services Department of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) from 1992 to 1997, remembered that an old Armenian woman would call occasionally from Idaho. She had lived in large cities like Baku and Moscow all her life, and now, stuck in the boondocks, she would wake up and see elks. She was depressed.
The largest groups ended up in Brooklyn and adjacent parts of New York, though substantial communities also settled in Los Angeles and parts of New England. The Congressional program allowing visas for Azerbaijani Armenians ended around 1994. By the late 1990s it became much harder to come to the US. Those who had initially come to Russia could no longer show any immediate threat to themselves because they were no longer in Azerbaijan.
Armenians from Baku and Azerbaijan are still trying to come to the US for family reunification, but it is very hard because of the limited numbers of visas available — 25,000 per year for people throughout the world with family in the US.