St. Stephen’s Armenian School student Siran Arakelian with teacher Ardemis Megerdichian

Shutting Down a Physical Community in Watertown and Belmont

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WATERTOWN — As the coronavirus spreads throughout the world, it begins to affect every aspect of our lives. Here in Watertown and neighboring Belmont, the Armenian community is already hunkering down, with “non-essential” businesses asked to halt operations and people to restrict their contacts with each other as much as feasible. Armenian community institutions have had to close down or radically alter their interactions with the public. So far, it appears that no Armenians have been identified as victims of the coronavirus in this area, but some at least know other non-Armenians who have self-isolated and tested positive.

Fr. Arakel Aljalian of St. James Armenian Church in Watertown said that most of his parishioners are at home and are understandably nervous. As the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America has recommended no clergy visits, based on medical recommendations, to avoid infecting people, Fr. Aljalian has been keeping in touch via email and making telephone calls. He has been conducting services alone, without deacons or others, out of an abundance of caution. The office staff of the church has only very limited hours, which are going to be further restricted due to new regulations of the state of Massachusetts.

During such challenging times, he said that people are stepping up and volunteering to help others. Parishioners are reaching out to individuals to see if they need help, such as for grocery shopping or getting medicine from pharmacies.

He encourages parishioners to follow the public health advisories and help each other as a community. In one of his email missives, he encouraged people with the following words, “Sometimes, it is unexpected difficulties that lead us to a real understanding of faith, courage, gratitude, sacrifice, and love.”

Fr. Vasken Kouzouian, pastor of Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cambridge, concurred that “our community is shutting down.” He said there is a fear of getting together, and even in the limited services conducted on March 22, the altar servers stand apart from one another.

Holy Trinity parish council members and parishioners cleaned and sanitized the church 10 days ago (before the churches were closed to the public)

The church itself essentially is shut at least till Holy Thursday. Spiritual messages and even liturgical services are being made available online to allow people to connect virtually. Facebook is used for broadcasting. Fr. Kouzouian said, “A number of them have said to me, ‘Der Hayr, this is such a boost, and I needed this.’ Good feedback means that we are on the right track.”

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In addition to traditional means of communication like the telephone, his parish is trying to use more technology to combat the physical distancing. Yeretzgin Arpi Kouzouian has come up with various types of online meetings with the youth. A spiritual online or virtual “lock-in” is an example being attempted on March 27. Zoom is being used with teens and young adults, which is like an online town meeting, as Fr. Kouzouian characterized it.  The young adults themselves are trying to come up with programming for their age group, Fr. Kouzoian said, as well as for the parish at large, to keep it together as a community as well as spiritually.

Bags of food that were prepared for delivery to the elderly and shut-ins at Holy Trinity

As in St. James, the Holy Trinity parish, including the youth, is reaching out to help elders and shut-ins with deliveries of groceries, medications and other necessities.

Kouzouian said, “I think right now this is uncharted territory so we are all trying to figure out where we are and how to take care of today’s immediate needs.” Eventually, he said, the greater community and organizations will need to think about coordination. He concluded: “We reach out spiritually through social media and through personal contact, and we look to a future of hope.”

The Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

The virus has posed a great challenge to nursing homes throughout the country. The chief executive officer of the Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (ANRC) in Jamaica Plains, Mass., Stewart R. Goff, said that following national guidelines, physical access to residents with few exceptions was cut off on March 13 even to immediate family members to protect the former from infection. This had followed quickly on the heels of prior visitor restrictions, so now Skype and telephone calls were left as the ways of contact. Furthermore, the residents’ group activities and communal dining were stopped.

There is no COVID-19 virus in the building today (March 23), Goff said. The goal is to keep the coronavirus out as long as possible through these restrictions and other measures since older adults have been identified as at greater risk for this virus.

Goff is taking the long view of the situation. He is using a timeframe of 12 weeks for planning purposes, unlike in the case of earlier short-term local disasters, like blizzards or hurricanes, though he suspects the virus danger may continue even longer. ANRC is sending out frequent messages to family members of residents, and will post updates on the Facebook pages of ANRC and its sponsor, the Armenian Women’s Welfare Association.

A major challenge at present is facing the fears of staff and residents. The staff are concerned with the decreasing supplies of personal protection equipment. Standards were changed twice over the past week by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in order to conserve such supplied, and this means using less protective equipment than in the past. This is part of a worldwide problem, Goff noted.

The supply of gloves and gowns is sufficient for now but facemasks are scarce. Goff said that after the CDC announcement of March 17 that homemade masks can be used as a last resort, ANRC purchased a supply of bandannas.

In Goff’s March 20 dispatch — “week two” — he wrote that he is trying to train the staff about the biological response of fear versus anxiety, a mental process about the possibility of a real threat, in order to manage the stress.

In the same dispatch, he said that he believed that the elder residents felt less anxiety than the staff and family members. This, in part, might be due to only a partial understanding of what is unfolding, but also due to having overcome such great challenges in their lifetimes.

He gave the example from a past disaster, 9/11, when he was trying to comfort elders in a different nursing facility, and in response, a woman over 90 years old tugged on his sleeve and said in a soft voice to him, “Honey, we’ve been through a great depression and a world war. We’re going to be okay.”

Schools

Like public schools, St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School in Watertown has been physically closed since March 13. The original closure was only for two weeks, but that was extended to April 6 following the order by Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. Now, however, Principal Houry Boyamian said that she believes the closure will last a longer period and so the school is making more long-term plans. Even its 17th annual graduating class trip to Armenia, originally planned for May 16-31, is on hold.

Unlike many public schools, St. Stephen’s never stopped teaching students because it made plans even before closing the school. Parents were asked on Friday, March 13 to pick up packages prepared by the teachers as well as the students’ textbooks and educational materials. Boyamian stated that on Monday, March 15 all teachers began teaching remotely with various platforms depending on the grades such as Google Classroom, Google Forum (for assessment), Google Meet/ Google Hangouts, and Zoom.

Kindergarten to fifth grade teachers are conducting whole class and small group instruction, she said, along with individual virtual meetings with each of their students. Interestingly, while participating in these classes some students choose to put on their school uniforms.

A longdistance preschool music lesson with teacher Yelena Hakobyan of St. Stephen’s Armenian School

The preschool teachers, immediately after the elementary school ones, began conducting circle time remotely and sending videos of songs so that the students could sing along, in addition to reading books to their students.

The administration conducts regular faculty meetings remotely, as well as video conferencing with the school board and education committee. It participates in webinars offered by the Association of Independent Schools in New England. In addition, Boyamian is planning to participate in a video conference with the principals of the Hovnanian School (New Milford, NJ), Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School (Bayside, NY), and the Armenian Sisters Academy (Radnor, PA) to discuss the new situation and exchange ideas.

Boyamian is thankful both to the proactive and cooperative work of the teachers in the school as well as the partnership of the parents in the education of their children, especially the younger ones. While no one so far is confirmed as infected with COVID-19, she said that at present, the worst thing is that no one knows how long the school must be kept closed.

Armenian Saturday and Sunday schools are facing a similar situation. Erebuni Armenian School is a Saturday school in Belmont with 170 students and 13 teachers headed by Principal Armine Manukyan. Erebuni only missed one class, on March 14, but reopened on March 21 via technology. Each teacher was given a Zoom certificate to allow meeting with students at the usual class time.

As many teachers have their own children attending the school, and there are often 2-3 children from each family, the school divided into two groups of different time periods so that parents could monitor their children and teachers/parents can teach. Teachers also meet online for preparation.

Naturally some adjustments had to be made to the regular curriculum to account for the new way of interaction, Manukyan said. Fortunately, she said, all students have access to laptops.

Toddlers, 3-4 years old, benefit from art and stories via Zoom, which allows for dialogues with the little ones. The online instruction for older grades is mostly theme-based and focused on Armenian vocabulary and writing, she said. For example, they discussed fables by Vardan Aygektsi and talked about their meaning: e.g. why the author uses animals as characters to teach a lesson. During the dialogue, the students shared their thoughts, gave some examples and talked about good and bad choices.

They also talked about Armenian traditional costumes, the difference between the Western and Eastern Armenian styles, and the specific colors that characterize them. The teachers shared a PowerPoint to visually see what was being discussed.

The remaining grades primarily follow their textbooks and the activities that go with the topic. Teachers use a whiteboard to make the instruction easier for the students.  Aside from regular lessons, the classes have even discussed children’s reactions to the coronavirus online and what the children have learned from the situation. Manukyan noted that online chess classes will begin this week. The teacher observes as the students play chess, as if they were in a physical classroom.

She said, “This is a new concept for us. We are learning as we go. We wanted to start sooner than later so our students won’t forget what they have learned so far. It was very important for us to be proactive and do something to keep the learning going. I will tell you that the students were excited to see each other and their teacher via the computer.”

Armenian Museums, Cultural Organizations and Libraries

Armenian museums, cultural organizations and libraries are shut down too. The Tekeyan Cultural Association of the United States and Canada (TCA), headquartered in Watertown, decided to halt all public activities, and its greater Boston chapter postponed several events it was planning for April and early May. Ironically, substantial renovations were nearing completion of the Baikar Building at which some events were to be hosted.

The Armenian Museum of America in Watertown closed its doors to the public on March 13 and subsequently closed its administrative offices until it is safe for all to return to work. Some staff members will continue to work remotely.

Dr. Alisa Dumikyan, the museum’s visiting scholar from Armenia, has been working on an exhibit that was scheduled to open on April 1 as part of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Month. This exhibit discusses the role of Near East Relief (NER) and the Azgapetians, a husband-and-wife team which worked to raise money and support for the American foundation. Sadly, with the closure of the museum, visitors will not be able to physically view the exhibit at this time. However, the exhibit will be featured, in part, on the museum website (www.armenianmuseum.org) while the installation will go forward once the museum reopens.

The website will feature several images from the exhibition, along with captions and there will be a matching social media campaign. The Museum’s president, Michele Kolligian, stated that it will also be featuring edited videos from past concerts to bring another level of entertainment to the community while so many are feeling the isolation of this unbelievable situation.

She expressed her gratitude to the devoted staff of the museum and looks forward to resuming operations with new and updated exhibitions, programs, concerts, and the opening of a new elevator at the end of this crisis.

Marc Mamigonian, Academic Affairs Director for the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in Belmont, said that the coronavirus has substantially affected its operations. Several weeks ago, it determined to postpone all of its public programs in Belmont and elsewhere, at least through the end of April. It had constructed a brand-new building which, like TCA’s Baikar, must remained closed for the time being to the community.

Mamigonian said that the NAASR staff are working primarily from home and come in only as necessary, avoiding overlap of physical presence for safety’s sake. The bookstore is still accessible online and orders are being placed and filled. [March 25 update: NAASR announced the online bookstore is also closed.] NAASR, he said, has thought a little about doing online events but has not yet taken any definite steps toward it. He said, “If we were to do so, I don’t think it would be an attempt to replicate what we do in our programs but rather to do something else to fill the void created by this virus.” He added, “We are really looking forward to the time when we can welcome the public back to our beautiful new building.”

Armenian Restaurants/Caterers and Groceries

Restaurants in Massachusetts, as in many other states, are no longer allowed to have diners onsite. Only takeout and delivery are permitted.

Hovannes Janessian, owner of Ani Catering and Café in Belmont, said that more than two-thirds of his business has been eliminated due to the coronavirus crisis. One third consisted of catering for college and corporate lunches, and another third for parties and social gatherings. The other third included its restaurant and takeout, so at present Ani has to survive on only takeout and delivery, which has not increased. It is primarily regular customers, he said, who continue to buy meals.

Despite the difficult situation, so far he has not had to let anybody go. The staff is operating in accordance with all the new sanitation guidelines. Customers are encouraged to prepay so they do not wait at the counter. They can either come to pick up their orders or use curbside delivery and not even leave their cars.

Sarkis Ourfalian of Massis Bakery in Watertown said that it has been really difficult for his business to adjust. Initially, people were panic shopping. Customers who would normally purchase one loaf of bread would try to purchase ten. He and the other staff would ask them not to do it. This has deceased, he said, but could increase again with the further closures mandated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of non-essential businesses.

Despite this, the store still has everything in stock. Ourfalian said the distributors are still sending in supplies regularly, both locally and from the New York-New Jersey area. Even merchandise from abroad is still getting through although Europe is closed for travel.

There are more customers for cooked foods now. Although the store is quite busy, Massis has had to cut down on the number of employees working fifty to sixty percent in order to increase the necessary physical distance between them for health reasons.  “With a smaller crew,” Ourfalian said, “it has been that much more difficult to manage the amount of work, and we are also worrying about keeping these distances between customers.” Right now, Massis only allows a limited number of customers inside at a time, usually five or six, with a six-foot distance from the cashier to the customer, and markers on the floor. Only one customer is allowed per aisle.

Ourfalian said this is probably okay to implement during weekdays, but Saturdays when it is usually more crowded will be difficult.

The store closes earlier, at 5 p.m. instead of 7, in order to have time to sanitize all surfaces and do stocking on the shelves away from the customers. Ourfalian added that every half an hour or so the staff disinfect the store with sprays. All handling places are being sanitized both during and after work. Inside the kitchen, each employee has his own section away from one another.

Under these new circumstances, Massis is working on getting curbside pickup working soon so people can call ahead of time for the order to prepared, and when they come it is just brought to the car. At present, Massis does not have a delivery service.

Ourfalian said, “Some customers really understand the situation and wait, but others don’t pay much attention. People just need to be more diligent. This is an unprecedented time for everyone.” He said that even though the volume of business may have increased, it was an uncomfortable situation for all.

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Ultimately, the current crisis is a test for what community means for Armenian Americans. What happens when physical contact and ties are not possible? This article is just a glimpse into the start of this crisis, and the Mirror will continue provide more coverage as feasible.

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