Lebanese Armenian Heritage Club flag at a pub in Batroun, Lebanon (Sept. 2019). The first social gathering of the school where the club welcomed new members.

Lebanese Armenians Managing Life Despite COVID Pandemic

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BEIRUT, Lebanon – Perhaps the most resilient country in the Middle East, this sliver of land enveloped by the glistening Mediterranean has faced adversity time and again throughout its storied history. Thousands have taken to the streets since last fall to protest government corruption, casting all divisiveness aside as the country battles its worst-ever economic recession. From the shadows emerged another threat when the coronavirus pandemic broke out earlier this year. Already facing inflation, unemployment and poverty, the country’s leaders implemented a strict lockdown, successfully resulting in the mitigation of a potential disaster, citing 809 cases and 26 deaths among the population of just about 6 million. Although the curve has flattened, economic problems persist and protesters are returning to the streets to demand economic and political reforms.

Despite the daily conflicts and years of a senseless civil war, the spirit of the people has not dimmed. For Armenians, Lebanon signified a haven from hell. Genocide survivors arrived in the country by way of Syria, battered and bruised, ragged and ravaged. Lebanon welcomed them at the turn of the 20th century and offered the chance for a new life. Armenians soon transformed the swamps of Bourj Hammoud into a bustling enclave on the outer banks of the city center, implementing their work ethic, ingenuity and industrious nature. At its peak, a quarter of a million Armenians lived in Lebanon, a number that heavily decreased because of emigration during the civil war that raged on from 1975-1990. The contributions of Armenians to Lebanon, however, have not dwindled and they remain a force to be reckoned with in every sphere, from performing arts to education to politics to entrepreneurship – particularly during times of crisis.

Lebanon’s swift and strict response to the pandemic avoided a catastrophe, under the leadership of representatives like former Minister of Tourism Avedis Guidanian, who led the Armenian community’s task force. Organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), with strong cooperation from other organizations, the cohesive group excelled in providing relief, aid and food assistance to low-income families across the board, while honing in on the health, living and social conditions of the Armenian community.

Minister Avedis Guidanian

“Lebanon is now considered one of the fifteen top countries in the world that had success in overcoming the coronavirus pandemic,” said Guidanian.

When the first case was diagnosed on February 21, he said “the government took very severe measures concerning the highest level of precautions.”

Testing sites, preventive actions and concentration on discovering silent cases and clusters were enacted quickly throughout the city. Lockdowns and curfews were imposed, schools and universities closed and all restaurants, pubs and nightlife were shut down, leaving only supermarkets, pharmacies and essential businesses open.

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“This is a double pandemic for Lebanon,” said Guidanian. “We have been in a critical situation as a community because of the revolution over unemployment since October.”

He noted the task force distributed close to 5,000 sanitizer units for families and prepared food parcels and vouchers. Thanks to philanthropists and the Armenian Prelacy, an additional 3,000 food parcels were earmarked for families in a humanitarian initiative that includes the participation of the younger generation, who help deliver groceries and medicine to the elderly and immunocompromised.

“Everyone is working together and coordinating to do our best so each and every family can have their share,” said Guidanian, who acknowledged there is a deep need to distribute 5,000 food parcels per month.

On the medical side, clinics have been set up in Bourj Hammoud and other regions to provide patients with services and medication at no cost, in coordination with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Social Affairs, Lebanese Red Cross and local hospitals. Guidanian, who estimates that there were five positive cases in the Armenian community and three deaths thus far, said there is a hotline for residents to call and speak to doctors who are on standby.

Awareness campaigns and orientations were also activated to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, mostly through social networking sites such as Facebook, so residents can educate themselves on how to prevent themselves from getting sick.

“The government has done substantial work and achieved positive results,” said Guidanian. “The Armenian community is a powerful presence in Lebanon and we are at a good level of cooperation.”

Regarding reopening, he said it will be done in phases “very slowly” to minimize the risk of recurring waves. Businesses, such as barber shops and restaurants, will be subject to significant sanitizing measures and will operate at 30% capacity at first to ensure social distancing.

“The people in Lebanon are able to adapt to any kind of situation and we have done our part by providing these services,” said Guidanian. “The majority are aware that there will be a new way of life after the coronavirus, but we will come back to life again.”

Music has long been an outlet and source of refuge for people around the world, particularly in Beirut, an epicenter of cross-cultural fusion. During times of strife, the music community adjusts and brings people together, like the acoustic music band Garabala, that has revitalized Armenian folk music with an inventive approach by modernizing Armenian songs for the contemporary generation.

Finding popularity at home and abroad, the band focuses on traditional Armenian tunes and mixes up their repertoire by dipping into Tsigane, Jazz and other genres in their musical arrangements for a purely unique sound. The seven members live all over the globe, from Lebanon to Germany to France to the United States, due to their professional careers, but maintained their passion for music by seizing every opportunity they had together to rehearse, perform and compose.

Garabala, which was founded in Beirut in 2011, includes Hrag Karakashian (guitar and vocals), Khatchig-Hrag Demirdjian (violin), Aram Papazian (percussion), Sebouh Aintablian (accordion), Aline Naccashian (vocals), Hagop Harfoushian (saxophone, bass guitar) and Shahan Kilaghbian (double bass, keyboard, melodica), who have all become accustomed to working remotely, a practice they continue during the pandemic.

“The members in Lebanon usually met and recorded arrangements together and shared the content with the ones living abroad and vice versa,” said percussionist Aram Papazian. “Since the pandemic doesn’t allow any of our members to get together right now, our goal is to develop original content digitally and plan ahead for post-pandemic.”

Instead of waiting for travel bans to be lifted, the band became proactive and decided to meet on a weekly basis online to discuss new arrangements and upcoming projects. Each week members record and share their audio files with the rest of the band. Although it’s not ideal, the group is managing as best they can, given the current circumstances.

“The lockdown pushed us to realize that regardless of barriers, such as physical distance, it’s always possible for people to communicate and create,” said Papazian.

While the scheduling of upcoming performances remains unclear due to the pandemic, vocalist Aline Naccashian said the band has been doing its utmost “to stay creative and craft a way to work on arrangements using different technologies,” while appreciating the solitude as an artist.

Social media and the virtual medium are effective channels for Garabala during the lockdown, as they record and share fresh arrangements with their listeners.

“To keep engaging with our audience, we launched a remotely recorded version of Ara Vay, which was also a good learning experience for the band,” said Hagop Harfoushian, who plays the saxophone and bass guitar.

Band members say they have been living in unprecedented times in Lebanon since October 2019 because of the economic crisis that paralyzed the nation and halted its vibrant nightlife and celebration of art and culture – at least on the surface.

“The music did not stop,” said Papazian, who praises the efforts of individuals who spread their message in the face of difficulties. “Most bands are collaborating online, recording homemade videos for social media and engaging with the community and the fan base more than before.”

“There is no doubt that music has been a means to evade reality, to cope and to create, in order to stay sane and alive,” said Naccashian. “It is also an attempt to unite people, in a city that is constantly bombarded with rhetoric that aims to divide people.”

Over the last couple of months, the lockdown has altered the environment and the thought process of citizens, giving them time to assess their lives and circumstances, a notion that also impacted the band members.

“We hope that once the lockdown is over people don’t go back to the same rushed routine and instead value the simple things,” said violinist Khatchig-Hrag Demirdjian. “The lockdown helped us remember how to live.”

The concept of working remotely has also become more favorable to Garabala, who recognizes its plausibility on a wider scale, particularly with the increasing influence of social media.

“Prior to the pandemic, we thought less of remote working and waited for band members to be in one place to arrange new songs and practice,” said Harfoushian. “But this has changed now and we are almost as productive as working in person when it comes to arranging new music.”

One of the most legendary vinyl record shops found its doors closed and its 10,000-piece collection untouched as the threat of coronavirus loomed over Beirut. The generational Chico Records ceased physical operations for the last two months as business “is at a standstill,” according to Diran Mardirian, whose father Khatchik founded the musical haven in 1964.

Diran Mardirian at Chico Records

“Even my online sales have suffered as the lockdown includes the airport and our postal service,” said Mardirian. “What makes matters worse in our case is that the country is in the throes of financial collapse, something that preceded the whole coronavirus lockdown debacle.”

Chico Records is known for having the finest collection of Middle Eastern records in the world, as well as rare records and albums that are in demand by well-known DJs and producers.

Amidst the pandemic, Mardirian is staying positive, observing that the spring has a “wonderful flavor” in Beirut where windows and balcony doors open up and “a liveliness exists after sunset that is at odds with the eerie quiet during the day, translating into an excellent assertion of continuity and normalcy.”

The longest running record shop in Beirut, Chico Records was witness to the 15-year civil war that played out in neighborhoods across the city, including a bomb that went off near the business in 1976. Despite the violence, the Mardirians stayed in the same location for 40 years, until 2004 when they moved to their current location near the American University of Beirut in the Hamra neighborhood, once hailed as the city’s intellectual center.

“I’m sure some shoots will bloom through the cracks and flourish because that is the nature of things,” said Mardirian. “Life goes on.”

Laughter has always been a welcome distraction in Lebanon, setting the stage for performers like Pierre Chammassian, an actor and comedian who made a name for himself during the civil war and in the decades since. The full line-up of Chammassian’s 20 shows planned for Lebanon, the Middle East, Europe and Armenia this year were cancelled because of the pandemic. While others have opted to live stream performances, Chammassian prefers to have a live audience to feed off their energy.

“I can’t get interaction from the audience digitally, except through the comments section, which does not have the same impact,” said Chammassian, who is known for reviving the Le Théâtre de Dix-Heures towards the end of the civil war that brought their comedy troupe international acclaim.

“The Lebanese civil war, for me, was the golden age of my theater,” said Chammassian, who is known for his comic Batale theater performances and who writes, directs and performs in Arabic and Armenian. “The Lebanese audience prefers to go out and have fun, and even to laugh underneath the bombs.”

Although there have been changes in daily life during the lockdown, Chammassian continues to write jokes, make astute observations and provide political commentary through humor.

Despite the hard times, he focuses on what has gotten him, and the Lebanese people, through chapters of discord and suffering.

“It’s very important during the pandemic to help people remember that a day without laughter is a lost day,” he said.

The Lebanese are known for their hospitality, accented with generous portions of Mediterranean cuisine and a warm ambiance, making Beirut’s restaurants a hub of the social scene. As a result of the shutdown, notable restaurants such as Mayrig, with its sizzling plates of mante, crispy souboureg, and its famous sour cherry kebab, closed its dine-in service at its fashionable Mar Mkhail location.

Executive Director Ramy Nehme said the restaurant scene in general was “deeply affected” by the lockdown of employees and clients and Mayrig chose to continue to provide meals through take-out and delivery.

“Our kitchen employees, many of whom are mothers, work hard everyday to prepare our orders, with the highest and most effective hygiene measures,” said Nehme. “Our delivery services reach all mobile applications and websites, making sure our food is still on the market.”

Management also became creative in its approach to adapt to the pandemic by creating frozen dishes as an option for customers who crave their signature menu items.

“We prepared the frozen meals that can be cooked and enjoyed in the vicinity of your own safe space,” said Nehme. “These are available at all gourmet grocery shops around Lebanon.”

Established 15 years ago, Mayrig Restaurant focuses on time-honored recipes from the Armenian Diaspora and is housed in a charming building from the Ottoman period. Over the years, its commitment to their society hasn’t waned.

“In order for us to give back to the community in Lebanon, especially during the economic crisis, we are donating food and cooking for the elderly and those who are less fortunate,” said Nehme. “We’re trying as much as we can to help families in need by bringing food to their tables.”

A number of lauded Armenian schools in Beirut, including the Vahan Tekeyan School, have faced the dual challenge of continuing to educate students during a pandemic and economic crisis that has caused uncertainty for the future of these institutions.

Festival at the Vahan Tekeyan School of Beirut

The school, which has been closed since March 1, has been following the Ministry of Education’s recommendations and plans for all grades to be back in session on June 8, only if the situation stays stable, according to principal Galina Shememian Nadjarian.

Over 100 students comprise the nursery through intermediary grade levels, who are now all learning remotely to stay on track and complete the digital lessons teachers submit to students on a daily basis.

“Distance learning has been a suitable option to carry on through temporary school closures,” said Nadjarian. “But with the absence of interaction, we believe that e-learning is not a solution to the emotional instability students are facing because of this devastating pandemic.”

Nadjarian acknowledges the toll the closure has taken on the students’ mental and emotional health and ascertains that school staff, students and families remain in constant communication.

“We are all trying to stay connected through this hard time,” said Nadjarian. “The board of trustees, the board of education, the teachers and the administration all have regular meetings online.”

The Vahan Tekeyan School, founded in 1951 by the Tekeyan Cultural Association and located in Bourj Hammoud, recently received an emergency donation of $10,000 from The Central Board of the Tekeyan Cultural Association of the United States and Canada to help combat the economic and political situations.

“We are forever grateful to the TCA during this critical time, as we have no other sort of income for our school,” said Nadjarian.

Higher education in Beirut has also been affected and forced school closings. Haigazian University, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, closed in late February and switched most of its 220 courses online by using various platforms, including the school’s Course Management System and Zoom.

“Two dozen courses, such as science lab sessions, community service, classroom observation training in schools, therapy sessions, were more challenging or impossible to offer online, and we are currently trying to see how we will solve the related problems,” said Rev. Paul Haidostian, Ph.D., President of Haigazian University, who noted that new assessment and grading methods have been introduced in relation to the online classes.

Haigazian University

As Haigazian University’s geographical location is central to government headquarters and banks, Haidostian said the neighborhood has witnessed many incidents and protests since last Fall.

“COVID-19 simply added to the accumulated problems, and especially the economic ones,” he said. “As a consequence, close to half of our students have not been able to complete tuition payments, thus putting extreme pressure on our budget and cash flow.”

The leadership, administration and board of trustees, however, have taken contingency measures and succeeded in maintaining a sense of balance, at least in the short-term, for its 600 students and 500 school teachers and adults who follow certification programs or continuing education courses.

“Lebanese society has been polarized in new ways, but Haigazian University, with its usual Armenian positive attitude and peaceful nature, has been able to keep a strong sense of peace on campus among Armenian, other Christian, and non-Christian members of our community,” said Haidostian, who has kept in constant communication with students, faculty and staff by sending email messages on key issues, setting up hotlines for student matters, and addressing psychological concerns.

The school’s public and community events, including international conferences, its 65th anniversary and commencements have been postponed or cancelled and the majority of students living in the dormitory returned home to Kessab, Lattakia, Yerevan and Dubai before the borders and airports closed, according to Haidostian.

Research activities are continuing during the crisis, however, including three volumes in Armenological studies that are being prepared for publication in the coming months.

“As a university, the pandemic has limited our direct links with the global academic community, but our strong IT abilities on campus have kept us somehow connected,” said Haidostian.

Founded in 1955 with ongoing support from the Armenian Evangelical community, Haigazian University welcomes students from Lebanon and internationally, from regions like South America and Africa and countries such as Kuwait, the UAE and Armenia.

“As Lebanon seems to have controlled the spread of the virus somewhat successfully, an official five-phase plan has started to ease the lockdown and open-up the country gradually and carefully,” said Haidostian, noting that universities will be allowed to open after May 25. “Our inability to foresee how 2020-2021 will look like academically and financially, however, has created anxiety on campus.”

The American University of Beirut (AUB) is known as one of the Arab world’s oldest universities, where Armenians have studied and become part of the institution’s mosaic over the decades. Their presence on campus remains effective, particularly through the Lebanese Armenian Heritage Club of AUB that upholds the mission of promoting the Armenian culture to the AUB community and Lebanese public at large. Over the years, the club has organized cultural and social events such as concerts, picnics and the annual Armenian cultural day, as well as academic discussions, lectures, exhibitions and documentary screenings, resulting in one of the most active clubs on campus, according to senior Narod Seroujian, who leads the robust organization.

“We are driven to promote our culture because of the emotional satisfaction it brings us when we see others become interested,” said Seroujian, who collaborates with other clubs on campus by helping newly admitted students with course registration and organizing charity events. “Being part of a culture that is so rich yet not so familiar to others motivates us to share our heritage.”

Although the club was unable to organize in-person events, they remained steadfast in commemorating the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and organized a live webinar, “Recognition, Justice, Activism” on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 featuring speakers Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America and Bedo Demirdjian, Secretary of the Armenian National Committee of Lebanon and former PR and Communications officer at European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy. The webinar was a success and reached more than 6,000 views during and after the live event.

“Our aim is to shed light on one of the biggest injustices humanity has ever seen,” said Seroujian, who studied sociology and anthropology. “We need to educate others about the Armenian Genocide, especially in dire times like these when we are witnessing the daily oppression of minority groups, individuals being racially profiled, inaccessibility to health and basic human needs, and millions facing socio-economic inequalities.”

As classes have shifted online, Seroujian acknowledges the struggles that come with virtual learning, particularly in Lebanon “where the country’s electricity shortages have contributed to cuts and poor internet connection.”

“The academic year of 2019-2020 was a tough one for the Lebanese Armenian Heritage Club members, and for all students in Lebanon since they were affected by Lebanon’s October revolution, the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic all at the same time,” said Seroujian.

Students who were looking forward to their graduation ceremony are also dismayed, as the milestone has been postponed indefinitely.

“Many seniors attended their last college classes from their homes, sitting on their couches,” said Seroujian. “I was very emotional because I’m the first in my family to attend University and my parents were dying to see me wear my graduation gown.”

During a time of unease, the need to stay mentally healthy is a priority. As a response to the uncertainties that have plagued the country, entrepreneur Yervant Shallagian launched a health and fitness startup, LocalSpace, a platform that combines the elements of mindful living with the purpose of “making health and consciousness accessible and effective to everyone in society, while striving for a balanced environment that ensures sustainability.”

Entrepreneur Yervant Shallagian

According to Shallagian, the fear and distancing brought on by the lockdown will motivate people to invest in smarter and healthier choices to achieve a more tranquil and meaningful lifestyle. Prior to the pandemic, Shallagian helped organize in-person events, from hiking to yoga to pilates, to spur energy renewal. The LocalSpace app also provides insights for healthy eating, holistic medicine and a network to share knowledge. Since the lockdown, Shallagian has digitally connected users to various yoga studios in Beirut that offer classes online through Zoom, allowing “movement in your own space and your own place.” Having seen divisiveness in his home country and “the power to fight wars in the name of religion, sect and color,” Shallagian maintains the importance of “embracing the harmony of creation.”

Interacting with his community has always been of keen interest to Shallagian, who conceived the idea of the Bourj Hammoud Walking Tour, taking participants on a tour of the lively district to explore and engage with the Armenian culture. Shallagian, who studied human resources at Haigazian University, asserts that the residents in the neighborhood have been “able to support and cultivate a sense of belonging to their ancestral origins.”

“Although Armenians have been dispersed throughout the Diaspora, I believe they are a symbol of how a culture can sustain strong roots while blending within diverse regions of the world,” he said.

He finds “great purpose” in providing the tours to teach others about Armenian history, food, culture, lifestyle and their ability to remain united while adapting to foreign surroundings.

“Armenians are masters of coexistence and understanding, as they built their own churches, schools, theaters and artistic communities, which still thrive today,” said Shallagian. “Lebanon has never been an easy place to live, not only for the Armenians, but also for its own people.”

Shallagian affirms that the economic imbalance and the repercussions from the coronavirus pandemic has caused unemployment to soar as the country grapples with “inflation and debt that have been eating up the country from all directions.”

Nevertheless, Shallagian maintains a peaceful and evolved demeanor to overcome adversity in his community and brings that same mindfulness to his community.

“My life has felt like an ever-moving sea, full of unexpected waves, and I learned to flow with uncertainty and trust the unknown,” said Shallagian. “As we arise each morning, we determine to respond with love and kindness to whatever might come our way.”

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