Gov. Gavin Newsom

Los Angeles Community in Wait-and-See Mode

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LOS ANGELES — The epicenter of the Armenian-American community in the United States adapted across all sectors when California’s “Safer at Home” mandate went into effect in March, ordering citizens to stay at home and non-essential businesses to close as a way to counter the COVID-19 pandemic and flatten the curve of cases. Although the number of infections, approximately 20,000 in Los Angeles county, did not ravage the city as much as anticipated, government leaders are erring on the side of caution and the organizations, institutions, restaurants and entertainment that are vital elements to the lives of Armenians throughout the metropolis, are still on lockdown as citizens become accustomed to a new way of life.

Following Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide shutdown that was echoed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City of Glendale declared a state of emergency on March 19 and ordered all nonessential businesses to close and declared residents to stay at home, according to former mayor and councilmember Ara Najarian.

“Glendale took specific steps on this matter and closed all city events, playgrounds, pools and hiking trails,” he said. “We increased social services including our senior meal program and we delivered meals to the homeless and obtained temporary lodgings for them in motel rooms.”

Glendale acted fast and made its citizens and sanitation its priority by installing portable bathrooms and handwashing stations throughout the city, waiving fares on all municipal buses, developing a COVID-19 telephone hotline where residents could report abuses of city orders or request special assistance, ordering all residents to wear a face covering outside the home and implementing an eviction moratorium and a freeze on all rent increases. In addition, the City Council focused on educating residents by sending out mailers informing them of the COVID-19 orders, enacting automated calls to all households and preparing informational videos about the coronavirus in Armenian, Spanish and English.

“The residents of Glendale have adapted fairly well although it has taken weeks for many to wear face coverings in stores and now outside of their homes,” said Najarian.

One source of frustration have been reports that residents continue to hold celebrations and get-togethers with family and friends, congregate outside, and open up stores for business, which violate the emergency orders set forth by the city.

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“As our stay at home enters the second month, it’s clear that people are becoming impatient and want to return to a normal life sooner than the medical authorities and governments will allow,” said Najarian. Like many around the country, residents are questioning and challenging the mandate, with some saying it’s too much and others expressing it’s not enough.

“Placing orders that are often done with little warning or time for debate draws the ire of many residents,” he said. “What they don’t understand is that as leaders we have to act quickly and we do not always have the luxury of time.”

Najarian is aware that the emergency orders fall on the front line of elected officials, including the City Council and mayor and they are well aware of the public input that is discussed online and over the telephone, text and email, in addition to conversations at stores and City Council meetings.

“Clearly these times call for courageous leadership and I appreciate that I am in this position at this time of crisis to lead Glendale to a safer future,” said Najarian. Further updates can be found on the City of Glendale’s website https://www.glendaleca.gov/.

Mary Basmajian

Employees of non-essential businesses, such as the beauty services sector, now find ample time on their hands as they await instructions on when they can return to work. Many are using their wide-open days to pursue projects they had put on the back-burner, including Glendale hair stylist Tamara Arakelyan. While her days were usually spent styling, cutting and coloring the hair of local women in the heart of the city at Fantastic Sam, located by the trendy Americana outdoor mall, Tamara found herself without her daily routine when the salon shut down on March 16. Instead of lamenting the closure, she found a new way to create and put her hands to good use by fulfilling her longtime interest in fashion and jewelry.

“I wanted to stay productive during my time off work so I started sewing bags with fine leather and making bracelets,” said Tamara who set up a website for her designs. “I miss my job but I’m improving on my skills everyday and putting in the effort to create my own line of products and see what else I can accomplish.”

Schools Go Online

With the pandemic came school closures as the state of California halted in-person instruction to help stem the spread of COVID-19. A number of Los Angeles-based Armenian private schools quickly adjusted to the suspension of classes, including the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian Armenian School in Canoga Park. In a short amount of time, the staff handled the transition from in-person learning to remote instruction for its 700 students, from K-12, under the leadership of Principal Arpi Avanesian and her dedicated team.

“Once we got the stay at home orders, we knew time was of the essence,” said Avanesian. The closure went into effect on March 13, giving her only a few days to help train teachers and students on the virtual classroom experience, order resources from Amazon and provide laptops and document cameras to whoever was in need.

“It was definitely a learning curve and we had some bumps in the road but luckily we have a great IT service provider and a good group of educators who sprung into action,” said Avanesian, who individually targeted the needs of the elementary, middle school and high school students. “We wanted to maintain the same school day structure online so when the kids came back it was a seamless transition for them.”

She conceded at times there were glitches with the wifi and technology from Google Meets, Zoom, Seesaw and other such platforms, but they kept communication lines open with parents and “readjusted based on feedback from families and students and we balanced out what we felt was appropriate.”

Helen Kalognomos

While high school students were more independent in terms of logging into the virtual classroom, the elementary-aged students had a different experience since their needs placed more pressure on parents who had to help their children log on and sit with them through classes.

“The elementary students have also felt more uneasy and have been asking why they are home from school as they grow accustomed to online learning,” said Avanesian, who acknowledged that students miss the dynamic with their teachers and classmates. “In response, the teachers went the extra mile and recorded and posted their lessons so students have it for reference anytime.”

All of the school’s staff continue to go beyond expectations, the nurse checks up individually on each student and teachers offer one-on-one tutoring through Zoom, virtual office hours and compiling extra resources.

“We noticed competition runs very deep in our blood as Armenians and many parents were requesting additional work so we created online resource folders for those who wanted to complete extra assignments,” said Avanesian.

For AGBU-MDS’s preschool, instruction had to be removed since a significant part of the day is socializing, playing with friends and receiving care from teachers, according to Avanesian, who noted that tuition was suspended for preschool families but the Board maintained everyone on payroll and preschool staff continue to teach and reach out to the littlest ones with fun daily activities through Zoom and social media platforms.

Avanesian, who has been the principal at AGBU-MDS for the last five years, also made an effort to find roles for each staff and administration member whose on-campus roles didn’t necessarily translate to the virtual experience, such as cafeteria workers and on-campus counselors. She tasked them with important assignments, including tracking down student participation in classrooms and increasing communication with parents. The cafeteria staff’s abilities are now being used to package boxes for AGBU Global’s “AGBU Cares Campaign.” Other social services including donating food to Armenian families affected by COVID-19 and making care packages in an attempt to help the greater Armenian and Los Angeles area citizens as a whole.

While there have naturally been drawbacks over the last couple of months, including the cancellation of fundraising opportunities usually scheduled for the Spring and the possible postponement of graduation, Avanesian is staying positive and doing her best to provide an alternate experience for the graduating class.

“Most of our seniors have been at our school for over 14 years, since preschool, and this isn’t how we want to usher them out so we are figuring out what to do,” she said. “We are all sad and uncertain during this time, and we want to be together, but I have to make sure the educators, students and administration have what they need and that they feel supported.”

Western Diocese Programs

The Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America maintains its integral roles as a religious, cultural and humanitarian organization and is delivering much-needed assistance to the most vulnerable populations of the community by supporting various initiatives in the Diaspora and in the homeland. Through the efforts of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese, $100,000 was raised and transferred to the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin to support humanitarian programs in Armenia to help those affected by the pandemic.

During a time of high-demand for COVID-19 antibody blood testing, the Western Diocese has mobilized a drive-up testing center site in the parking lot of St. Leon Armenian Cathedral, in collaboration with HOT Clinic, to set up a mobile serology testing clinic.

“Having antibodies to COVID-19 is key in getting people back to a normal version of reality,” said Edward Zaghikian, operations manager of HOT Clinic, who estimates test results within 10 minutes. “If we have enough of the public with the IgG antibodies, we will have heard immunity and can get back to our lives.”

By offering the service as a drive-up testing site, staff and patients are protected during the process. Hundreds have already taken advantage of the conveniently located site in Burbank and HOT Clinic has secured enough testing kits to fulfill patient requests.

“The response has been extremely positive from participants,” said Zaghikian, who said patients can book their appointments online at www.hotclinic.com. “Patients are very grateful for this type of service and we try to make the process as easy possible by providing quick results as well as minimizing wait times.”

Although church doors remain closed at the Western Diocese (https://www.wdacna.com/) and all in-person liturgical services and cultural programming is on pause, social media has been a significant mode of communication with the faithful. Thanks to a state-of-the-art studio located in-house at the Cathedral, videos, podcasts and other technological programming are available online as free resources to anyone around the globe and are also broadcast on a weekly basis on USArmenia and PanArmenian TV television stations.

“When the pandemic forced us to close the doors of our churches, we were able to bring the churches to the homes of our faithful through the use of social media,” said Diran Avagyan, program director and assistant to the primate. “Having all the necessary tools to act, we live-streamed the church services, including the Holy Week and Easter and on a weekly basis recorded messages of encouragement and other materials for spiritual nourishment, including devotional messages and spiritual reflections by the Diocesan Primate and other clergy.”

The Primate’s Easter messages, recorded in both Armenian and English, were a highlight for the community, where over 200,000 viewers tuned in on Facebook. The Western Diocese has also prepared and released special video editions specifically for children. Through the Zoom platform, Saturday and Sunday schools remain functional as well as meetings, Bible study sessions, ACYO and Nerouj discussions.

In a recent show of solidarity, priests around the Western Diocese organized virtual candle-lighting ceremonies and welcomed prayer requests. Parishes are remaining active by keeping in contact with their faithful individually and organizing food preparation and delivery for the elderly and less fortunate.

April 24 Commemorations

Another casualty of the pandemic was the chance for Armenians around the world to unite and commemorate the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. For the last 55 years, the Armenian-American community in Los Angeles gathers on April 24 to follow a decades-old tradition that includes a requiem service at the Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument in Montebello, the March in Little Armenia and the protest demonstrations in front of the Los Angeles Turkish Consulate. Due to this year’s stay at home orders, the Armenian Genocide Committee, United Armenian Council of Los Angeles and the United Young Armenians, in coordination with major area organizations, including the Western Diocese and the Armenian Assembly of America, memorilized the past while giving back by organizing a humanitarian fundraiser to support Feeding America and honor the Near East Relief’s aid to Armenians during the genocide, which helped save over 130,000 Armenian orphans.

Mihran Toumajan, Western Region Director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said the organization has long been part of commemorative programming in Los Angeles and this year’s Feeding America initiative, launched on April 17 via Facebook’s fundraising platform, was a valuable way to contribute during the pandemic.

“Initially our aim was to secure funding to provide 1.5 million meals, in memory of the 1.5 million Armenian lives lost during the genocide,” said Toumajan. “When we exceeded our aim on Monday, April 20, we shifted gears and set our sights on raising 3 million meals.”

They again surpassed their goal and within a week, 5 million meals were donated by contributors. Toumajan expressed thanks to Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit organization with over 200 food banks and several food pantries located across America, for partnering up with their coalition. He also praised the Tony Robbins Foundation that matched what was raised dollar for dollar.

“The ‘Feeding America’ initiative is a manifestation of Armenian Americans’ efforts to “pay it forward,” and show their gratitude to the American people and to Near East Relief, who raised over $116 million between 1915 and 1930,” said Toumajan. “They directed the funds to save the lives of millions of genocide survivors, Armenians, Assyrians, Syriacs, Greeks and others, dispersed across the Middle East or having found refuge within the borders of the first Republic of Armenia between 1918 and 1921.”

Restaurants Out of Bounds

The Los Angeles community is ripe with highly praised and critically favored restaurants of Armenian and Middle Eastern cuisine, where the appeal lies in the cozy atmosphere reminiscent of home. Large groups are known to sit family style in close quarters and share meals and conversation, but since the pandemic, restaurants have been forced to close their ambiance-filled doors and focus on take-out and delivery. While some eateries decided to forego take-out and delivery orders because of the unpredictable climate of the months ahead, one well-known family-owned chain, Zankou Chicken, a staple in the California food scene since the 1980s, remains open. Though the crisis has affected the day-to-day operations, the multiple restaurants throughout the state continue to serve their customers while implementing new guidelines for their loyal customers and workers on the frontline.

“We are thankful that we are still open and now offering Uber Eats and Grub Hub,” said Dikran Iskenderian, Director of Marketing for Zankou (https://zankouchicken.com/). “We are also working hard to keep our employees safe by providing masks, hand sanitizers and anything else they may need. We are thankful to our customers and prayerful that our community gets back to normal safely and soon.”

In the San Fernando Valley, the popular Furnsaj Bakery & Restaurant, famous for its variety of flatbreads, is a favored spot for Armenians and is also driven by take-out and delivery (www.furnsaj.com). At the outset, the restaurant decided to pursue its operations and focus on enhancing deliveries and take-out orders, such as free delivery options effective May 15.

“We are staying positive in the eye of the storm and continue to serve our customers while abiding by the Mayor’s and city ordinance,” said Mel Succar, who owns the Lebanese-Armenian cafe with his brother and chef Charlie Succar. “We love our community and decided from day one to stay open and maintain our service-oriented dedication to our customers.”

In Need of Laughs

In times of despair, the world finds solace in the arts and entertainment, particularly comedy, which provides an upbeat outlet from the consequences of a crisis. Two Los Angeles-based actresses, Mary Basmadjian and Helen Kalognomos, have teamed up to unite their signature personas of the Hayastantzi Vartoush Tota and the Barskahye Clodette, to film brief satirical and comedy-filled sketches and videos on topics ranging from the coronavirus to matchmaking to chicken and pilaf recipes. As creative professionals, Basmadjian and Kalognomos have dedicated more time to creating digital content and becoming an even more active presence on social media viewing platforms since live performances have been postponed for the time being.

As a make-up artist regularly on set for films and television shows, such as HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Kalognomos went on hiatus when productions shut down in Hollywood due to the pandemic. To nurture her artistic edge, she slipped back into her Clodette character, which mirrors her Armenian-Persian upbringing.

“Clodette was inspired by many women I’ve known or seen in my life,” said Kalognomos. “I love her interactions with her friends and family, and that nothing has really changed for her since the pandemic started. For Clodette it’s just another day.”

Quarantined at home along with much of the rest of the world, Kalognomos found herself with few distractions and increased her video production over the last month, filming and editing her clips and making sure to subtitle her Armenian language videos so everyone can follow along.

“If it’s not about the pandemic they’re about sound bites I’ve had in my head for years,” said Kalognomos who shares her videos on instagram @kalognomos. “Humor is such a big part of how I deal with life so the videos are helping distract me from the stress of our current situation. The introvert in me is happy being home with lots of time to make them.”

A fixture on the Armenian comedy circuit, Basmadjian, who is a stand-up comedian, actress and producer, makes regular appearances in Los Angeles area comedy clubs like Flappers in Burbank and The Ice House in Pasadena. She’s particularly known for her character Vartoush Tota, a busybody Armenian aunt who emulates the accents and gestures of an off-the-boat immigrant. When fused with Kalognomos’s Clodette, a clash of Armenian cultures and camaraderie results in pure laughter.

“Now that everyone is at home and worried about everything going on, I’m more likely to make videos addressing the general concerns through the voice of Vartoush Tota,” said Basmadjian, who has developed the beloved character for over 6 years. “She was influenced by many characters I met throughout my life and she vibes with Clodette because of how different they are from one another.”

Basmadjian finds herself spending more time in front of the camera these days, which took some time for her to modify her mindset.

“It does feel weird not to be on stage,” said Basmadjian, whose material and booking information can be found on www.marybasmadjiancomedy.com and @marybasmadjian on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. “I miss the audience, the energy and the build up.”

She notes that some comics have started doing shows on the virtual platform Zoom but she’s not sure if she’ll dive into that territory yet as “the stand-up world is still split up” on the idea.

What she has been focusing her efforts on are personalized video messages for fans who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries while in quarantine. Dressing up in character as Vartoush Tota or Piso, a superficial and vapid Armenian young woman, Basmadjian uplifts those on their special days.

“I’ve been getting great feedback from the public and it’s helping people who are stuck at home on what are supposed to be happy and celebratory occasions,” said Basmadjian. “It makes me feel good that I can make people laugh during such a difficult time.”

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