Azerbaijani-Armenians in the US

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

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.

The khachkar in front of St. Vartan Cathedral dedicated to the pogroms in Baku

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There is no reliable estimate as to how many Armenians from Azerbaijan now live in the United States. Three different State Department agencies were contacted while this article was being researched, and none of them had access to the necessary information. Neither did a number of Armenian-American organizations. Individual Azerbaijani-Armenian informants have given estimates ranging from around 10,000 to as high as 100,000. It should be kept in mind that there were approximately 400,000 Armenians in Azerbaijan, which included around 150,000 in Nagorno-Karabagh, in 1989, and most of those outside of Karabagh went to Armenia and Russia.

Guglielmo explained that there were several ways that Armenians from Azerbaijan came into the US. People involved in politics came to the US directly with tourist visas, and then applied here for asylum status as political refugees. The majority were already recognized as refugees however even before coming to the US. The United States government worked with nonprofit resettlement organizations, and it was the latter, which could choose the people they wanted, and where they wanted to settle them. These organizations were largely religious in nature, and included Catholic services, Church World Service, Lutheran Services and Catholic Migration.

Anna Baghdassarian, who was involved in helping refugees from Azerbaijan in the 1990s, and now works at the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service, explained how the process worked with the Church World Service program in Los Angeles. At that time, they brought roughly 800-900 people annually from various countries like Azerbaijan, Iran and Africa. The Armenians included Pentecostals as well as members of the Church of Armenia. Those who came to Los Angeles, “had to have a relative to meet them at the airport. We did the rest of the work. The relative would take them to find an apartment, but we assisted with furniture, objects for daily living, health exams, social security cards and employment services. If they could not find work, they went on welfare. Welfare would provide assistance for nine months for single people, and several years for families. Then we would do follow-ups with 30-day home visits to see if there were any other needs.”

Once the refugees received their residency papers and became US citizens, they were on their own.

The Social Services Department of the Armenian Diocese was the main Armenian organization in the United States providing assistance to the newcomers. Most of them had no financial means. In the New York area some had friends or family who helped them until they found jobs paying cash. The Diocese gave some food or clothing as direct help initially through a small fund, and helped do visa paperwork, if necessary. Guglielmo traveled to other parishes in the Diocese to try to help, as well as to get these local parishes to also participate in the effort. At that time, many Armenian-Americans still felt the refugees should have settled in Armenia but there was no light or heat there, and these people were traumatized after massacres.

Guglielmo pointed out that “in New York there were a lot more of the asylees. There was the crazy situation of people who were intermarried. They had no religious identity before 1989 and now it meant everything. Where were they going to go? Sometimes they themselves were already half-Jewish, half- Armenian, and were married to spouses who were half-Azerbaijani and half-Russian.”

When the asylees got here, they had to make their case to the government. Guglielmo stated that “proving Jewish ancestry helped, or if you were actually injured there in a pogrom and could prove it, that led to asylum.” The Diocese had a pro bono network of lawyers who assisted individuals, a Hebrew service and some committees of human rights lawyers. However, some people had no documents or proof, and could not prove their case. Many of these stayed illegally, without papers, or married an American citizen.

The immigrants themselves also made at least one attempt to organize in order to help one another. A group in Rhode Island, supported by Guglielmo and the local Diocesan priest, created the Armenian Refugee Social Economical [sic] Development Association. Garen Bagdasarian, who was a founder of this organization, described its work: “The main goal was to have a representative like a non-profit organization in Congress to act like our lawyer. Every year in Congress, there are debates over which groups will receive priority, or continue to receive priority, as refugees permitted to enter the US. It is necessary to explain why a particular group or nationality is in danger in a country.” At the time, a nonprofit group in Colorado that lobbied on behalf of Russian Jews was willing to help the Armenians, but asked for around $30,000. This group would have represented the Armenians to a committee of seven national organizations that helped refugees. The Armenians attempted to raise money through parties and other efforts, but it did not succeed. The main problem apparently was that the Armenian-American community at large felt that Armenians from Azerbaijan should go to Armenia, not America. Meanwhile, the Congressional program allowing Azerbaijani Armenians to receive a priority refugee status expired by the mid-1990s. The organization still exists, but only in Rhode Island and it chiefly helps local Armenians. For example, it provides assistance for the burial of needy Armenians.

Brooklyn and the New York Metropolitan Area
The New York City metropolitan area, and Brooklyn in particular, contains one of the largest communities of Azerbaijani-Armenians in the US. It is difficult to make an estimate of its Azerbaijani-Armenian population precisely because of its largeness. Fr. Mardiros Chevian, Dean of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in Manhattan, estimated that there are several thousand in New York City and New Jersey.

Dr. Svetlana Amirkhanian, chairwoman of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Mission Parish Council, felt it was not possible to give an accurate number. There were approximately 400 families on the parish mailing list, but it was unclear what percentage of the total population of Azerbaijani-Americans this represents. The majority were in Brooklyn, but some moved out to Manhattan, Bronx, Queens and New Jersey, as their economic circumstances improved. They arrived at different times.
Angela Kazarian, treasurer of the same mission parish, had heard a figure of 5,000 bandied about for the NY metropolitan area.

Marina Bagdasarova, vice chair of the Brooklyn mission Parish Council and Armenian school principal, pointed out that the first wave of immigrants were those with some connections. They moved first to Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Greece and even Argentina, and from there came to the US. Some had money to go on their own. However, the majority came in the second wave, which began in 1993-4, but the biggest wave was in the spring of 1995, because it was done on a governmental level. More than 90 percent of the second wave came to Brooklyn originally and only moved out later.

They came from different places in Azerbaijan, chiefly Baku, Sumgait and Kirovabad. At the beginning of the second wave of immigrants, Bagdasarova related, Lutheran and other Christian churches and organizations provided help, but when the numbers became huge, it was very difficult. She said, “Although people had been in Russia a few years by then, they had to start from scratch. I myself only had $100 in my pockets.” In addition, before and after the Diocese had its Social Services Department, Jewish community centers filled the void and Armenians got pulled into their world of activities.

New immigrants still keep arriving via Russia or Armenia every year. Some manage to come through their relatives here, while others win green cards in the lottery.

Chevian pointed out that most of them initially connected with the Diocese for a variety of reasons, including the larger complex and resources of the Diocese, its direct affiliation with Echmiadzin, about which they would have at least some knowledge, and the fact that the Diocese was fairly tolerant of their not speaking Armenian. Individually, of course, some refugees also did join Prelacy-affiliated churches.

After the Department of Social Services of the Diocese was closed in 1997, some of the Azerbaijani Armenians were already attached to the Diocese, and made the cathedral their place of worship. There is no physical church in Brooklyn closer to them.

The Diocese soon intensified its efforts on behalf of the new group. A mission parish in Brooklyn had already been established with a visiting pastor. Then in 2000, the last Primate of Azerbaijan, former Archbishop Anania Arabajyan, came to the US, and focused his energies on the immigrants. For three years, through 2002, Arabajyan performed the Divine Liturgy monthly in Brooklyn in a rented church. The weekend school for the new immigrants was moved from St. Vartan to Brooklyn too. Arabajyan frequently traveled to other parts of the Eastern Diocese where there were communities of Azerbaijani-Armenians. These places included Hartford, Philadelphia, Nashville, Providence, Charlotte (North Carolina), Greenfield and Lansing (Mich.), Erie (Penn.), Columbus (Ohio), Syracuse (NY), Richmond (Va.), Kansas City (Missouri) and Jacksonville (Fla.).

In hopes of attracting more Russian-speaking Armenians to church, Arabajyan began a primarily Russian-language magazine (with several pages in Eastern Armenian) called Vera Nadezhda Lyubov/ Havadk hoyser, which was published for several years. After this was halted, he translated the Armenian Church periodical into Russian for several years. Arabajyan also translated various booklets about prayer and the church into Russian. His Russian translation of the Armenian Divine Liturgy was published in 2002.

In recent years, as there is no permanent priest for the Brooklyn mission parish, occasionally Chevian went to Brooklyn for sacraments and pastoral work, while Deacon Sebuh Oscherician visited the school to help with religious instruction. Oscherician exclaimed, “The kids are wonderful! They are learning Armenian, and recite without papers — unlike many Armenian-American children.”

At present, the Armenian School of Brooklyn is the main institution in the area for Azerbaijani-Armenians. The school was initially established at the Diocesan complex in Manhattan in 1995. Bagdasarova, the present principal of the school, explained that it was difficult for the parents who largely lived in Brooklyn to bring their children each week to Manhattan. It later was moved to Brooklyn, and then stopped for two or three years. Afterwards, it was revived, and worked  continuously for the last eight years.

When Amirkhanian became involved in the administration of the school in 2001, there was barely a student. By the end of that year, there were 20, and soon the total number reached 40 to 50. “We teach Armenian history, music, dance and religion. There are English language classes for parents. I hope that we will have computer classes for adults this year.”

Bagdasarova explained that it took place on Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. There are now five teachers, including three for Armenian language (one also teaches kindergarten-age children), one for Armenian music and recitation, and one for traditional Armenian dance. The afternoon begins with Armenian language classes, then music, and finally dance. The children range in age from 2 ½ to 14-years-old, and are largely from Azerbaijan, though there are some from Armenia who are largely the newest arrivals in the area, as well as a few from other Soviet countries.

The children are grouped by age, but a complication is that some already have learned to speak some Armenian at home (though they don’t know how to read or write), while others do not know any Armenian at all. Textbooks are brought from Armenia and copied here, while Gilda Kupelian, Armenian Studies coordinator at the Diocese, provides some other materials.

The children are taught some of the major events in and issues of Armenian history, ranging from Vartanants to Sardarabad, and including tragedies like the pogroms in Sumgait and Baku, the Armenian earthquake of 1989, and the Genocide, all presented in a manner appropriate for children. They are also taught some of the basics of Christianity — some prayers and how to participate in services, when Chevian comes to Brooklyn. For example, the Divine Liturgy was conducted in the church whose rooms they are renting. They learn the anthem of the Republic of Armenia, and the meaning of its flag.

One of the unique things about the school is that it is the first school in the tri-state area to teach the Yerevan dialect of Eastern Armenian. Bagdasarova explained that “many of the children would speak the Karabagh dialect at home, like a lot of Armenians from Azerbaijan [whose roots are in Karabagh]. However, there are no textbooks and teaching materials for the latter. In addition, we thought that it is best for children to learn the language of the [Armenia] state, as it is the standard one.”

Bagdasarova stated that the school officially was part of the St. Gregory the Illuminator mission parish, and as such, was supervised by the Diocese. However, financially it is independent and always had to raise its own revenue for renting its hall weekly and paying the teachers a modest salary. Bagdasarova donates her own salary back to the school because the needs are so great and funds are always in short supply. The school organizes fundraising events and tries to get donations through mailings in the tri-state area.

Amirkhanian explained that the school and the mission parish did more than just school work: “We help preparing applications for green cards and other issues for no charge, so we are like a social services organization. We work with adults, as well as children.” Bagdasarova added that “We help newcomers with their English, and with American history. We do as much as we can to help with arranging things like insurance. We can’t help financially since all the money we raise goes to the school. We think that this is the most important thing, to keep our language and heritage alive.”

According to Amirkhanian, “the school participates in all the local Russian festivals and events, thus showing our existence and placing us on the map as an Armenian community. It participates in festivals organized by Jewish organizations with performances wearing Armenian costumes.” This participation is not important solely from a cultural point of view. In the local Russian-speaking world of New York, Armenians face an aggressive effort at propaganda by Brooklyn Azerbaijanis. Urged on by their consulate in the UN, they arrange for shows on Russian television programs which are broadcast throughout the world. On these shows they claim that Armenians were the aggressors who harmed them greatly and committed massacres. Amirkhanian pointed out that “this affects the newcomers who live in this Russian-language environment and makes them feel bad. We are not able to show information on Sumgait or Baku the way they [the Azerbaijanis] do. It is a matter of money, since we have to buy the television time. So our voices are cut off and we are forced to be on the defensive. We have to justify ourselves — it should
be the opposite.”

Amirkhanian added, “The parents now are very enthusiastic and themselves have changed. They came from various places, but see the school now as a cultural center for them. We organize family evenings, celebrate various holidays, the children make friends. It is an important environment. Even my own grandchildren living in Baltimore are members of our parish.”

The Brooklyn Armenians feel that they could accomplish more with more resources. Amirkhanian felt that: “the parents are not that well off financially, being the first generation of immigrants here.” Furthermore, there was a different mentality in the USSR, where the government did everything. Thus, the immigrants are not used to paying money, or working as a community. In addition, “They see that Jewish centers provide services for free. They ask why the Armenian community or the church does not do the same. They don’t understand the way things work here.” She felt that hopefully the next generation will be in a better position to be helpful to the community, “but meanwhile more financial or administrative support would lead to even more successes. A cultural center would be helpful, with perhaps a chapel. This would be the permanent site of the school. We need the Church and cultural organizations to help us.”

Hartford, Conn.

Hartford was one of the smaller places on the East Coast which became a settlement site for Azerbaijani-Armenians. They largely came from the beginning of the 1990s to 1995, initially via Armenia and later through Russia, and were often settled through Church World Services or Catholic Charities.

Fr. Tateos Abdalian, now director of the Department of Mission Parishes for the Diocese, but the pastor of Hartford’s St. George Armenian Church from 1993 to 1999, declared that mostly families, some two or three generational, came to Hartford. There were roughly thirty to forty families in all. They were political asylees. According to Karine Abalyan, who came to Hartford with her family from Baku via Armenia as a young girl, there were as many as one hundred families in the Hartford and New Britain areas (there is another Armenian church in New Britain).

The people in Hartford welcomed the newcomers. They found them apartments, jobs, and schools for their children. They took them to doctors. Abdalian continued, “In exchange, the people that came from Baku stayed in the Hartford church community. They took positions in the church. They took over from the Armenian-Americans. They reenergized the community.”

Slowly they got involved. They helped out in the bazaars and picnic functions, sang in the choirs, and began to come to church regularly. Abdalian understood that “they had a simplicity of faith. They knew that there was a God. They did not know who he was, or anything about Trinitarian formulas, but they knew God was with us. I always found them to be really good people.” He felt that they struggled mightily to keep their identity while living in a Turkic land which was part of the Soviet Union: “I would refer to them as the heroes of our people. They kept whatever they were taught by their parents and grandparents as Armenians in their hearts and minds. They had no radio or television programs in Armenian, or books, but transmitted whatever they could to their children.”

Karine Abalyan, today working at the Diocese as coordinator of public relations, left Baku with her family in the fall of 1988. They were assigned to Hartford upon arrival in the US in 1992. Catholic Charities provided initial assistance and job placement.] She thought that one of the greatest unifying factors for the Armenians from Azerbaijan was the church — St. George of Hartford — which organized clothing drives and help for the newcomers. They established an unofficial school in our church club in the first few years where kids would recite poetry, sing songs, and act in plays, all in Russian. Then people developed their own friendships and networks. Most of the families stayed in the area, though they moved from the inner city to the suburbs and purchased homes.” Some children took Armenian lessons on weekends at the parish school, “but it is hard to get fluent with once-a-week classes.”

(Part 2 will appear next week, on Baku Armenians in the US.)