From left, Kristine Toufayan, Greg Toufayan, Karen Toufayan and Harry Toufayan

Greater New York Region Devastated by COVID-19

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NEW YORK — Life has ground to a halt in the United States as the coronavirus pandemic spreads through the nation, particularly in the densely populated metropolis of New York and New Jersey. The hardest hit region has experienced loss, chaos and disruption at every turn, for every industry. The response from the Armenian-American community, however, has been one of vigilance. From medical professionals to businesses to outreach-minded organizations, each group has mobilized during this unprecedented time to meet the needs of its consumers, give back, and provide hope during this calamitous period.

While Toufayan Bakeries is well-known for its pita bread and baked goods, the family-run company also focuses on corporate social responsibility in their daily operations. Headquartered in Ridgefield, NJ, with additional factories in Florida, Toufayan Bakeries is helping out in various ways — from increasing wages of frontline workers to donating to food banks and hospitals across the country.

Toufayan Bakeries has a history of giving back since its founding in 1968, according to Karen Toufayan, vice president of marketing and sales. An integral philanthropic presence not only in the Armenian-American community but nationwide, Karen and her siblings follow in the footsteps of their parents, Harry and Suzanne, who always donated to communities they lived or worked in as well as places in need across the country.

Prior to the pandemic, Toufayan Bakeries (https://toufayan.com/) consistently donated to a number of organizations, including Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, Eva’s Shelter, St. Paul Episcopal Church Men’s Shelter, nourish.NJ, Oasis, and Interfaith Social Services, in addition to the plethora of initiatives and support the family has contributed to the Armenian community in the Diaspora and the homeland.

“My father is grateful to be living in the United States and when he sees places that experience devastation like how Tennessee was affected by the tornadoes, his first instinct is to figure out a way to get bread to the folks there in the community,” said Toufayan. “The same goes for what is happening in our communities now with the coronavirus pandemic.”

When the pandemic surfaced in the US and was particularly menacing in the New York metropolis area, Karen and her siblings took the lead in managing their New Jersey headquarters and reassured their parents to remain in Florida.

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“My siblings and I have been coming to work every day and we are doing our best to stay open so we can continue to employ our workers and feed families,” said Toufayan, noting that the company increased employee wages with a bonus throughout the pandemic and will match that amount with a donation to local charities. “Our family also decided to donate $100,000 each to two food banks, including nourish.NJ and Second Harvest Food Bank in Florida.”

In addition to the monetary donations, Toufayan Bakeries has shipped hundreds of cases of bread and cookies to three shelters in Paterson, NJ, and to the first responders in the hospitals in New York City, “who are helping all of us keep healthy and safe.”

After a phone call from a customer who expressed need for food banks in the Boston area, the Toufayan family sprung into action and filled a truck with baked goods and shipped it to the food pantries in New England that were beginning to run low.

“When we give back to the communities where we live, work and sell our products, it is just returning the favor for all those who have helped us become successful over the years,” said Toufayan.

“Our faith in God and our strong connection to the Armenian Church is what is helping us get through the stresses,” said Toufayan. “I’m grateful to the St. Leon Armenian Church in Fair Lawn, NJ, for streaming their services every Sunday because it gives me a chance to forget about everything that is going on and pray that we all stay healthy and safe.”

‘War Zone’

On the healthcare front, entire hospitals have become Intensive Care Unit wards in the New York and New Jersey area as doctors and healthcare officials face an unprecedented number of sick patients. As of Friday, April 17, more than 200,000 residents had confirmed positive cases in New York State with over 17,000 hospitalized and close to 13,000 deaths. To meet the demands on the healthcare system, hospitals sought out retired physicians, universities coordinated to graduate medical students early, and also re-tasked doctors to the ER and ICU to help with the growing number of patients. Each day over 30,000 new infections are cropping up nationwide.

In New York City, Dr. John Arek Kileci, a community member through the Knights of Vartan, has been on the frontlines helping battle the coronavirus at the New York University (NYU) Langone Health in midtown Manhattan. He is assigned to patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and likens the pandemic to a “war zone.”

“Many people are dying including young ones,” said pulmonologist Dr. Kileci, noting that the Intensive Care Units are full. “As an ICU doctor, I wish all the strength and luck to all my healthcare colleagues and workers.”

Showing support for essential members of the community, Hirant Gulian, Chairman Emeritus of the Knights of Vartan, expressed gratitude to all of the frontline workers, including Dr. Kileci.

“Our entire Brotherhood, from coast to coast, is very grateful to all the doctors and nurses during these challenging times,” he said. “We thank Dr. Kileci for his dedication and devotion to mankind.”

Dr. John Arek Kileci

COVID-19 Task Force

After recognizing the severity of the pandemic in early March, a task force was set up in collaboration with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Armenian Youth Federation, Armenian Relief Society, Hamazkayin and local New York and New Jersey churches to respond to community needs and bring aid in a variety of platforms, from making get-well baskets to community members stricken by COVID-19, to securing housing and basic needs for the vulnerable, to delivering groceries for the elderly. These organizations are ready, willing and able to assist members in any capacity throughout the New York tri-state area.

“This is a humanitarian need and we are both the community leaders and the servants at the same time,” said Mher Janian. “In the last one hundred years we never left anyone homeless or hungry and we always make sure to serve our people.”

The youth are also playing an essential role, raising funds for local hospitals, shopping and delivering food, while also preparing hot homemade meals and setting up a food bank and shelter at St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Douglaston, NY. The AYF members also filmed and circulated videos informing the public to stay at home and to reach out to them if they needed any items. Other public service announcement videos informed the community about small business loans and grants that may be relevant for Armenian-owned companies and operations. Janian acknowledged that Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian’s support and leadership has been instrumental in helping mobilize the organizations and provide relief for the community.

“We’ve been affected the most in New York City where we have elderly Armenians who live in these areas that have the highest rates of infection, from Queens, Brooklyn, all the way out to Long Island,” said Janian, who urged anyone in need to contact him (mher.janian@gmail.com). “A generation ago, these elderly that we are serving now were the ones who served our community, and now it’s our time to give back to them.”

 

Times Square Demo Cancelled

Just a month ago the city streets were filled to the brim with tourists lined up for Broadway shows and snapped photos of famous sites while locals hustled to their offices. In its place now are barren sidewalks and emptiness, especially in symbolic Times Square, where the annual Armenian Genocide Times Square Commemoration, sponsored by the Knights and Daughters of Vartan, has taken place every year since 1985. Due to the pandemic, the significant event has been postponed to April 25, 2021. Instead, the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide will be held virtually around the US on both coasts. In the New York tri-state area, the ANCA Eastern Region will host a three-day commemoration honoring the victims of the Armenian Genocide, thanking members of the US Congress for their recognition of the Armenian Genocide and demanding justice from its perpetrators. The virtual event will take place from Friday, April 24 until Sunday April 26 on Facebook (facebook.com/ancaeasternregion).

Going Online

In Paterson, NJ, an industrial city that was once the hub of textile factories and an Armenian population at the turn of the 20th century, the longstanding Nouri Brother’s Middle Eastern Shopping Center has transitioned its business model to cater to its consumers in new ways during the pandemic. George and Christine Noury, whose father and uncle opened up the business in 1978, are helping lead the center’s operations that includes a grocery, cafe, electronics and jewelry department and switching from customer-facing interactions to online shopping and phone orders.

“We are minimizing contact and making sure we are taking the proper precautions,” said George Noury, who along with his sister is helping box, ship and deliver goods while offering curbside pick-up for the shopping center as well as Nouri Cafe. “We are rolling with the punches and helping out our workers, customers and community however we can.”

Although they were tuned into the news and prepared for the increase in customer traffic before the lockdowns went into effect, George and Christine were still surprised at the empty shelves and flood of customers on Friday, March 13.

“Once we saw how packed the store was, we started figuring out what our new normal would be,” said Christine. “We had to adjust according to our means and abide by all of the new rules.”

Cleanliness and sanitation remain a priority to the family-owned business and in order to avoid any possible health risks, George and Christine decided early on to close the store during the stay-at-home orders and only focus on pickup, delivery and the shipment of goods. Their user-friendly website (https://nouribrothers.com/) lists all of their items and they also added a delivery option within a 15 mile radius. After a month-long voluntary closure of the store to help keep the pandemic at bay, the essential business will reopen on Monday, April 20 for in-store shopping with a limited number of customers permitted inside Nouri’s at one time.

“It has been difficult for our customers because they liked to come into our store, browse and hand-pick their items,” said George. “This has been a big change for everyone.”

Half-Armenian and half-Syrian whose parents hail from Aleppo, Syria, both George and Christine are involved in the community and have been helping hospitals by contributing meals, in addition to donating family dinners, all while keeping operations running as smoothly as possible.

“At first we did have issues with distribution, but everything is on track now and we have fresh bread made onsite everyday which is a customer favorite,” said Christine.

Looking towards the future, George and Christine want to continue the current services they’re offering to customers well after the pandemic is over.

“As the second generation, this is a good opportunity for us to prove ourselves that we can manage this long-established business and that we are up to the task,” said George. “We are taking it as a challenge to transition forward and implement our vision.”

Schools Shuttered

The largest education system in the United States also shuttered in the face of the pandemic. All New York City public schools were shut down on Monday, March 16 and will remain closed through the end of the school year, affecting the day-to-day lives of the 1.1 million students, teachers and parents alike in over 1,800 schools throughout the five boroughs.

In a short period of time teachers had to train themselves with remote learning programs such as Google Classroom and adjust to explaining lesson units virtually. To meet the needs of an estimated 300,000 students who did not have wifi or laptops at home, the New York City Department of Education purchased devices with assistance from Apple, T-Mobile and Google to provide the proper technology for all students.

The closing of the schools caused other concerns, such as how essential workers, including healthcare professionals, first responders and transit workers, would care for their children during school hours. In response, the city provided physical locations where students could be dropped off. Many students also relied on the schools for meals and the city administration organized “grab-and-go meals” for families to pick up breakfast and lunches during normal school hours.

Karine Abalyan, who teaches social studies at a public school in Queens, said that despite these setbacks, her school has seen success with remote learning. “I am very proud of my students,” she said. “They have been completing the work, attending virtual office hours, and e-mailing to ask for feedback on essays. They even took the time to share touching words of encouragement with me and their classmates to keep our spirits up during this uncertain time.”

Lenna Salbashian

Mental Health Care

As millions stay quarantined at home and battle the tangible and intangible consequences of the pandemic, such as unemployment and isolation, it has led to an increase in mental health and anxiety issues as people’s routines and daily lives have dramatically altered. Thanks to the advent of teletherapy, medical professionals like Lenna Salbashian, a licensed psychotherapist and art therapist, can remain connected to their clients and help them conquer any adverse mental effects.

“I’m extremely grateful that teletherapy exists because it is providing some means for me to continue to be supportive and to help people during this crisis,” said Salbashian, who is licensed in New York and Massachusetts as a registered Art Therapist, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Yoga Teacher. According to Salbashian, staying mentally and emotionally healthy is critical for coping, building resiliency, and maintaining overall wellness through this crisis.

She credits virtual platforms such as Zoom for providing a “healing space” and connection with her clients, who are responding positively to the online sessions.

“Teletherapy allows us to communicate with people during this time of change when they are inundated with more anxiety, depression, isolation and fear than ever before,” said Salbashian, who runs her own private practice and is part of the group private practice Whole Living Center. “In that way it’s been a saving grace.”

She acknowledges the importance of maintaining mental health and staying both mentally and physically fit to help combat the stresses that have been brought on by the change in everyone’s day-to-day routines. According to Salbashian, staying mentally and emotionally healthy contributes to one’s emotional and physical health.

“Even before this crisis we knew feelings of isolation can have serious detrimental effects on mental and physical health and that loneliness is a huge risk factor for diseases like diabetes, heart disease and arthritis,” said Salbashian. “At the root, isolation can compromise the immune system and increases production of stress hormones that put us at a greater risk for developing and being prone to illnesses.”

Salbashian gives options and alternatives for people who are isolated and experiencing loss, loneliness and grief. She suggests taking up a routine to create some sort of structure and maintain groundedness. By implementing daily practices, like meditation, people can “go inwards and heal from the inside.” She cites a number of free resources available on Instagram, YouTube, Zoom and online meditation groups that allow people to connect with one another over technology and pursue a creative practice, such as cooking, painting or clay-working.

“I’ve been offering clients ways to get creative using art materials so people can establish a sense of control, groundedness and acceptance for what is going on within oneself and around the world,” said Salbashian, who offers a list of therapy services at http://www.whole-living-center.com/ and her instagram @artandyogatherapy. “Creative practices activate your mental and emotional health while physical practices like yoga, help you ground and connect through breathing and movement.”

Salbashian also encourages reaching out to friends and contacting people with whom communication has been lost over the years. She recommends connecting with a therapist and notes that some insurance companies are currently waiving copays for telehealth. Above all, she states that offering support can alleviate fear.

“People say the opposite of fear isn’t courage, it’s compassion,” said Salbashian. “If we can show up for other people in our greatest time of fear and loss, then that’s the most beautiful thing we can offer.”

 

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