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Florida Community Makes the Best of a Difficult Time

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MIAMI — The Armenian-American community in Florida, one of the newer diasporan pockets in the United States, has created a strong presence for itself in the Sunshine State that has become even more evident during the pandemic crisis.

The estimated 30,000 Armenian-Americans, who are scattered throughout the state in cities such as Boca Raton and Miami in the south and Orlando and Tampa in the central region, are anchored by several Armenian churches and a community that has come together in times of celebration and hardship. Acclaimed for its year-round sunny weather and over 1,000 miles of emerald coastline, Florida currently has close to 40,000 cases of COVID-19, concentrated in the south, which precipitated the closure of non-essential businesses, parks and beaches and the enforcement of social distancing.

Miami Beach City Commissioner, Mark Samuelian, the first-Armenian-American elected official in Miami-Dade County history, has assumed a strong leadership role during the pandemic. He noted the city was “very quick to heed the warnings” and immediately implemented the “safer at home” order. If individuals enter essential businesses, from pharmacies to grocery stores, they are required to wear masks, groups are prohibited from meeting and public amenities remain shut down.

“We wanted to protect the entire community and the most vulnerable, including the seniors and those with pre-existing conditions,” said Samuelian. By reacting fast, the hospital capacity stayed at a manageable rate and Miami “didn’t have the surge and spike other states have had.”

Overcoming the initial stage of the pandemic threat, Samuelian said the city’s attention has now turned to increasing testing and contact tracing. A testing center outside the Miami Beach Convention Center will be launched this week, making it the first in Florida to provide walk-up and drive-through testing. Another advancement is antibody testing in Miami Dade County that will determine how many people have been exposed to the virus. Samuelian also noted that Miami Beach has been named one of 10 cities in the US to be included in the Rockefeller Foundation’s COVID-19 National Action Plan, which will enhance testing and contact tracing.

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“I am so impressed with how folks in Miami Beach and the Miami area have come together,” said Samuelian. “The community has taken our lead and followed many of the measures we put forward even though they were difficult.”

Helping Community with Food

Humanitarian initiatives and partnerships also sprung into action, such as Meals for Heroes, a Miami-based not-for-profit organization that Samuelian himself is personally involved in, that provides food to residents and frontline workers. The group raises money from the community, buys warm meals from local restaurants to provide them with revenue and delivers them to hospitals and first responders.

“It’s a wonderful win-win situation,” said Samuelian. “The community is engaged and there is the opportunity to support restaurants and first responders who deserve so much.”

Another project geared towards aiding the public emerged from the Miami Beach High School Robotics Club, whose members came up with the idea to make masks for residents. Samuelian bought their first order and presented it at a press conference where others followed suit.

“The greater community of Miami Beach has come together and shined during this terrible time,” said Samuelian. “It’s been tough for everyone but out of the darkness comes light.”

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Samuelian has been a longtime resident of South Florida and appreciates the “vibrant” Armenian-American community. Although Armenian Genocide commemorations were cancelled due to the pandemic, Miami Beach passed a unanimous resolution, spearheaded by Samuelian, to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide.

“This resolution is a recognition of truth and the policymakers and leaders at all levels of government are willing to stand forward and say on the record what exactly happened,” said Samuelian. “Florida Armenians can be proud that they have such an impact in their community.”

In past years, Florida Armenians commemorated April 24 by organizing walk-a-thons, panel discussions, film screenings, liturgical services and wreath placements at the memorial cross stone in Boca Raton. While there couldn’t be in-person events this year, the Armenian Genocide Committee, Inc. (AGC) donated to the Armenia Fund to help those in the homeland who are battling COVID-19.

“The pandemic affected so many different aspects of our community and it’s positive to see the Committee’s contributions and their goodwill towards others,” said Samuelian.

Small Businesses Suffering

Small businesses have long been the heart and soul of the US and are integral to the neighborhoods and communities in which they exist. Millions of small businesses across the country face challenges during the pandemic, including the Boca Raton-based Aces Barber Company, owned by George Hovsepian. His business, which specializes in haircuts, style and beard grooming for men of all ages, has been closed for two months.

Aces Barber Company prior to the COVID-19 era

“We’re watching the news everyday and waiting for instructions,” said Hovsepian. “Other barbers call me up and ask what I’m doing and I tell them we’re all in the same boat.”

Hovsepian likens his city now to a “ghost town” noting that only essential businesses like the Publix supermarket and gas stations are open.

“In the beginning, a lot of Floridians didn’t take it too seriously,” said Hovsepian. “But once news broke out about how severe the coronavirus was in New York City, I shut down my shop, which was two days before the stay at home orders were announced.”

Hovsepian, who has been operating for five years and recently signed a 10-year lease in his current space, applied for a Small Business Loan but hasn’t received any updates yet. He oversees his barbershop’s operations with his wife, who also cuts and styles hair, and has created a welcoming atmosphere for clients. Personalized flat screen televisions accompany each leather barber chair and the lounge area is complete with couches, a cappuccino machine and gaming systems to keep clients occupied as they wait their turn.

Like many Armenian-Americans who fused their passion and work ethic, Hovsepian turned his teenage hobby into a fully fledged business that’s open seven days a week and remains a popular spot among residents from Boca Raton and neighboring cities.

“My mother gave me clippers one day and I started cutting my twin brother’s hair,” said Hovsepian. “Soon I was cutting hair for the whole neighborhood.” Eventually he enrolled in a barber training program where he sharpened his skills and business acumen.

Once Aces Barber Company is given the green light to open, Hovsepian said they will take “even more precautions” to ensure the safety of their clients and employees, who will wear gloves and masks.

“We’ll leave one empty chair between each client and have more people wait outside in the beginning so the customers feel comfortable and safe,” said Hovsepian. “This is going to be a different world when we reopen.”

While the closure of his barbershop has posed its fair share of difficulties, Hovsepian said he always “prepares for the worst.”

“When it rains it pours so you better have that umbrella ready,” said Hovsepian, who anticipates a busy crowd when businesses are permitted to open their doors. “We’re all going to learn a lot from this experience.”

Armenian Church

It’s been a particularly challenging time for the Armenian Church and its faithful, who have missed weekly liturgy, the milestones of weddings, baptisms and special Easter services, in addition to the cancellation of religious, educational and cultural programming. Rev. Fr. Hovnan Demerjian, pastor of the St. Hagop Armenian Church in Pinellas Park, said the severity of the pandemic in the greater Tampa community has been mild, however the Church faces similar problems as others across the nation, including the isolation of members, cancellation of in-person services and events and the loss of income.

“I believe the deepest challenge, however, is a spiritual one,” said Demerjian. “The pandemic has forced loss and change on the entire world and the routine, values and the very structure of our lives has been altered.”

Demerjian believes that the church’s first task is to help people “feel, communicate and accept these losses rather than denying or avoiding them.”

Turning to God during these turbulent times is also of significance because “God’s grace has the power to transform any and all of our loss into miraculous gain.”

To stay connected with church members, Demerjian has live streamed church services since March 22, though there have been drawbacks to the virtual experience.

“Our church is a living breathing body, meant to come together in the flesh,” said Fr. Demerjian. “Although the virtual services are somewhat disembodied, there are benefits, such as engaging a different and larger slice of our community and those who live distant from church can participate in virtual services more often than regular ones.”

By utilizing the virtual platform, Demerjian has added creative enhancements, such as scrolling the names of community members’ ancestors whose lives were lost during the Armenian Genocide as a visual overlay during the Genocide Martyr’s service. He also has plans to experiment with ways for people to engage and understand worship better by reading or hearing English without altering the traditional service.

The St. Hagop Armenian Church community has come together during these trying times and “brought out the good in many of our members.” According to Demerjian, the Parish Council has redoubled its regular outreach efforts, including coordinating outreach phone calls to all parishioners, particularly the most vulnerable, and other thoughtful gestures to lift their members’ spirits.

“One of our parishioners had a milestone birthday planned but when her family from New Jersey had to cancel their trip, we decided to flood her with cards from the community that covered her entire mantle and wall,” noted Demerjian. “This woman experienced a bit of Christ’s overwhelming love via the small acts of kindness of our community.”

Despite the stay at home orders, many cultural organizations, including the ARS Sosseh Chapter of South Florida, are keeping busy. The board members hold virtual meetings, led by Chairperson Mary Andonian, who noted they were thankful to remain connected even from a distance.

“Everyone was very happy to see each other and we took the time to discuss our elderly and the online fundraiser we are participating in with the Feeding America relief organization,” said Andonian. “Unfortunately we had to cancel our very successful annual Mitchink Lent Dinner, however we are planning online practices and rehearsals for the Arevig Dance Ensemble that the kids have every week.”

The chapter, which usually meets and plans their events at the Armenian Community Center (Hye Getron) in Boca Raton, recently celebrated its 35th anniversary of serving the community through social, education and humanitarian efforts.

“The planning for Mother’s Day was cancelled for this year however we are making baskets to deliver to many mothers who are vulnerable and also to community members who are our supporters,” said Andonian.

The Sosseh Chapter has also focused on raising money for the ARS’s Global Emergency Response Fund, which will benefit Armenian communities around the Diaspora and the homeland. The next generation, the AYF South Florida “Arev” chapter, has also mobilized its group members to donate and raise funds in their community.

The St. Mary Armenian Church in Hollywood, and its fellowship hall have been empty for almost two months now, which has posed difficulties for worshippers and pastor Rev. Fr. Vartan Joulfayan, who has had to adjust to streaming church services every Sunday. Along with one acolyte, Fr. Joulfayan chants hymns, reads the scriptures and psalms and addresses his sermon towards his smartphone, instead of his usual faithful in the pews.

“This new way of connecting virtually with the worshipers gives an opportunity to those at home to follow the prayer service and remotely feel connected to the Badarak and celebrate their faith in Christ,” said Fr. Joulfayan, who has been reaching out to parishioners on a daily basis to check in with them and make sure they are safe and healthy.

Along with the Parish Council and a group of volunteers, Joulfayan provides for families who may be in need of groceries, medication and any special needs. He also makes short video recordings and live streams messages on Facebook, while scheduling Zoom meetings to connect with church families and have Bible lessons.

“This pandemic has certainly changed our lives dramatically and forced us to adapt to new ways of connecting with each other,” said Joulfayan, who acknowledges human connection as a vital component of daily life. “How to cope with this new situation, which does not show us a certain future yet, will be our biggest daily challenge with its anxieties, fear and unknown.”

Nevertheless, Joulfayan added he believes the faithful will persevere and derive strength from God.

“As people of faith, believers in the resurrection of our Lord Christ Jesus, and as descendants of survivors of the Genocide, we must keep going forward by any means necessary to stay connected with each other, never lose hope, and always depend on the power of almighty God,” said Joulfayan.

Arts Scene

The arts and culture scene in Florida has also felt the shockwaves of the pandemic, as thousands of performances have been cancelled throughout the state, including concerts by oudist, singer and composer Joe Zeytoonian. A resident of South Florida, Zeytoonian is co-executive director of Harmonic Motion, a non-profit cross-cultural arts organization that focuses on folkloric music. Along with dancer and percussionist Myriam Eli, they regularly perform Middle Eastern and Armenian music and collaborate in the rich genres of jazz, flamenco, Balkan and Afro-Cuban.

Joe Zeytoonian

“When social distancing became the norm for halting progression of the pandemic, all of our performances were cancelled,” said Zeytoonian, who has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and was the recipient of the Florida Folk Heritage Award. “I had the fleeting thought of teaching online and quickly abandoned it in favor of study and sending out sonic video postcards through Facebook.”

A well-known presence throughout Florida and the global music scene, Zeytoonian has been involved in Armenian Genocide commemorations and helped organize a centennial concert at the Arts by St. Johns on Miami Beach in 2015.

Zeytoonian, who has toured the world and recorded with chart-toppers Gloria Estefan and Shakira, acknowledged that the “loss of life due to the virus became deeply personal.” When the time is right, he will seek new ways to connect with his audience, including “the possibilities of creating performance video and teaching via Zoom.”

Connected from Afar

College student Victoria Gechidjian, who currently lives in Miami and is a parishioner of St. Mary Armenian Church, credits the tight-knit community that has been supporting one another throughout the pandemic ordeal.

“Although it was a difficult transition, the change was not as drastic because everybody has kept strong communication with one another,” said Gechidjian.

An active member of the Armenian Church Youth Organization (ACYOA), she has participated in maintaining the community connection by organizing meetings through Zoom for religious discussions, such as Bible study, or to simply watch movies together, chat and keep one another company.

“Our Armenian community coming together made it easier for us as individuals to find trust and faith during these difficult times,” she said.

As an architecture student, Gechidjian acknowledged the abrupt transition from classroom to online learning has not been an easy one because she was used to spending “a lot of time on campus and in the studio.”

“While this pandemic has hindered my learning process to a certain degree, it has also allowed me to learn how to prioritize my work and how to be more independent when it comes to thinking of designs and concepts for my projects,” she said.

While Florida, and much of the world, is adhering to the stay at home orders, Gechidjian is finding the positive during this problematic period. “Having to stay at home has allowed me to really focus on my personal growth and well-being, which is something I am immensely grateful for.”

For New York native Raffie Bagrevandian, the stay at home orders pushed back his plans to return to his hometown. A resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida for the last two years, Bagrevandian made the move for educational and professional opportunities but is staying put until it’s safe to travel back to New York City. In the meantime, he’s following precautions in his South Florida community.

Raffie Vahak Bagrevandian

“I’ve noticed increased usage of face masks and latex gloves for preventative measures,” said Bagrevandian. “People have also been friendlier and helping one another out.”

As an advisor in the digital field, Bagrevandian is thankful the pandemic didn’t affect his work and his projects can be completed remotely.

“Florida is home for now until we have a clearer picture of what direction this is going in,” said Bagrevandian. “This is certainly an obstacle that prevents the production of our jobs and duties as citizens, especially when we see our resources become limited, so I’m praying and thinking about the safety of people around the globe.”

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