Violinist Ruben Hovsepyan

A Vibrant Argentine-Armenian Community Awaits End of COVID-19

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Although the usually lively streets of the capital city are silent, the culture and spirit of the people mingle from all four corners: in the kitchen of the popular restaurant, behind the curtain of the cathedral altar, backstage of the theater and from the closed doors of apartments that give way to the soothing sweet sound of music played by musicians like Ruben Hovsepyan.

A violinist in the Orquesta del Tango de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (The Tango Orchestra of Buenos Aires), Hovsepyan has been in lockdown for over two months but continues to play tango pieces with his fellow members. They rehearse and perform as an orchestra virtually and share their performances online through social media, including a recent video of Nocturna by Julián Plaza, with a caption that reads: in the times of compulsory social isolation.

Throughout the composition, 15 performers pop up on screen, each orchestra member from his or her home playing instruments from the piano to the bandoneon to the guitar.

Tashd Park

“The pandemic has affected us greatly since all of our in-person performances and rehearsals have been cancelled,” said Hovsepyan, who noted that residents can’t travel too far from their homes and need permission to do so. “But we have found a way to pursue our music together and I’m also experimenting and creating for myself while at home.”

His projects include composing a violin concerto, which is a fusion of modern tango, jazz and Armenian folk. When he’s not busy practicing or performing with The Tango Orchestra, he plays some of his favorite songs with his own personal arrangements – including My Funny Valentine by Frank Sinatra, Groong by Komitas and Une Vie d’Amour by Aznavour, which he posts on Facebook regularly for listeners.

Born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia, Hovsepyan studied at the Komitas State Conservatory and has been performing with The Tango Orchestra for over a decade. His story is like one of many Armenians who arrived in Argentina with new opportunities on the horizon but held his culture close to his chest. He plays a slew of meaningful folk songs, like Dle Yaman on his violin every evening that keep him connected to his homeland. His sentiments are mirrored by the 100,000 or so Armenians who live in Argentina, a country which boasts the largest Diasporan population in South America.

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A significant portion live in Buenos Aires, where they are active in music, culture, politics and education, and where their determination and resilience slips into gear once again as the pandemic makes its presence felt in more ways than one.

Schools Closed, Trip to Armenia Cancelled

Community leader Mihran Sarafian said the government in Argentina had the “foresight to start quarantine early and help prepare everyone for what was to come.”

On March 20 the nationwide lockdown, which is still in effect, was implemented and the government imposed one of the strictest travel bans in the world by prohibiting domestic and international flights until August 31. The severe measures helped slow down the rate of transmission in the country of 45 million that currently has about 10,600 cases and 430 deaths; in its capital city of Buenos Aires, there are an estimated 5,200 cases and 170 deaths.

As the greater community grappled with the stay at home orders and dealt with a pandemic that has worsened an already fragile economy, the Armenians continued their activities by making adjustments. Schools shifted to remote learning as did cultural programming and religious ceremonies, but some experiences simply could not be replicated virtually.

“It’s unfortunate that the youth will not be able to travel to Armenia this summer, a trip which is very important to them,” said Sarafian. “As everywhere else, it is challenging to preserve the Armenian language in Argentina but whenever the youth go to Armenia, they return with an even stronger Armenian spirit.”

Providing an overview of the Armenian community in Buenos Aires, Sarafian said a number of them arrived during the Hamidian and Adana massacres, between 1894 and 1909. He noted that this first wave became more organized once the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) was founded in 1906 and ground was broken on influential institutions.

“Those who arrived first had a feeling something worse was coming,” said Sarafian. By 1920, Armenian Genocide survivors were arriving on boats, mostly from Cilicia, Marash, Hadjin, and Aintab, after escaping the horrific massacres. Although the majority were Turkish-speaking Armenians, the community began to flourish.

“They came without much, maybe just one bag,” said Sarafian. “But they went to the streets and they worked. They sacrificed and they looked forward, even with that pain.”

Colegio Armenio Vicente Lopez

A third wave arrived post-World War II, according to Sarafian, most of whom immigrated from Greece, Romania and surrounding countries, and whose Armenian speaking skills enhanced the foundations of the burgeoning community.

Today, Armenia Street in the Palermo neighborhood (the largest and most beloved in Buenos Aires) is filled with academic, cultural, social and religious institutions, all within walking distance, that have made a name for themselves both inside and outside of the city, such as Restaurant Armenia, which warmly welcomes locals and tourists alike. The inviting atmosphere and plethora of culture, from the traditional dishes to the Armenian folk dancing, provides a feeling of home. With the eruption of the pandemic, however, the restaurant’s usual full-house has come to an end, albeit temporarily.

“In the midst of a huge economic crisis, a social isolation order was issued and the action of millions of people literally stopped,” said owner Pablo Kendikian, who noted that only grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential businesses were permitted to remain open, with restricted hours. “The city was practically under siege with very little movement and the images and numbers we saw of those infected and dying in other parts of the world stung us.”

Restaurants in Times of COVID-19

A month after the initial lockdown orders, the government eased its restrictions towards restaurants and Kendikian requested a special permit, abiding by strict hygiene regulations, to offer their menu through delivery within a close radius.

“The government understood the dire economic situation and didn’t want to further aggravate the small and medium-sized businesses that make up the majority of the country,” said Kendikian.”Since our restaurant has a large structure of employees and services like electricity, gas and water are expensive, we decided to offer delivery service to offset our bills.”

The first Armenian restaurant in Buenos Aires, Restaurant Armenia, is favored by all ethnicities and is symbolically located on Armenia Street, which was named in honor of the significant presence of Armenians and their contributions to the city, in 1984.

Kendikian sees Restaurant Armenia as an opportunity to share the Armenian culture, drawing on traditions like the bread and salt greeting ceremony and curating a menu filled with madzunov kebab, pashá boreg, manté and ishilí keofté, among many other family favorites. On Friday and Saturday nights an Armenian folk performance is featured, and diners are encouraged to participate. Kendikian observes how fulfilling it is to see “non-Armenians dancing to the kocharí, shalajó or tamzará, led by the hand of dancers in costumes.”

 

Food from Restaurant Armenia

“Restaurant Armenia serves as ambassador for the Armenians,” said Kendikian. “It is a tribute to a country like Argentina that opened its arms to refugees fleeing their own lands and that helped them grow and support their families while preserving their traditions and their history.”

AGBU Center

The AGBU center, which is home to the AGBU Marie Manoogian Educational Institute, is the epicenter of activity, socialization and culture for the community, but has been unusually quiet during the last few months.

The seven-floor complex, replete with a swimming pool, school, theater troupe, scouts, young professional and women’s guild organizations, among many other endeavors, is on hold. The usual Friday and Saturday night dinner service, which attracts over 500 people and serves as a fundraiser for students to travel to Armenia, have been converted into meals for the needy.

“It’s a new phenomenon for us for the AGBU center to be closed, along with the school and all of our usual programming,” said Antonio Sarafian, vice chairman of AGBU Buenos Aires. Like other schools, they have shifted online and with parental help have been able to navigate the challenges and maintain a sense of normalcy.

Instead of cancelling all of their cultural programming, however, AGBU Buenos Aires decided to form the “Cultural Windows” series where communities all over the world virtually meet with Argentinian Armenians.

“When all of us connect we have a better understanding of what is going on in everyone else’s world,” said Sarafian. Their first event was on April 24 and they discussed how the pandemic affected Armenian Genocide commemorations. The series has attracted people from Spain, Armenia, France, the US, Canada and Holland, among many other nations. The hour and a half program is live streamed from the organization’s Facebook page and thousands have tuned in.

As Sarafian and the rest of the chapter members await decisions regarding the school opening and the center as a whole, they are doing their best to maintain a sense of community and normalcy during the unpredictable times. The chapter, which was established in 1911, continues to focus on the young generation, which includes third and fourth generation Armenians, so they “learn the Armenian language and culture and are proud to be Armenian.”

“We are trying to strengthen Armenia but our Diaspora needs to be strong as well,” said Sarafian. “The Diaspora and the homeland have to come together, hand in hand, so both can usher in a new dawn.”

While the pandemic dominates the headlines, the publication of the bilingual Sardarabad Weekly is still in effect, as are the activities of the Tekeyan Cultural Association of Buenos Aires.

In its 45th year of service, Sardarabad Weekly, along with the TCA, upholds its mission to support Armenia and the historical and cultural legacy of the Armenian people, according to editor Diana Der Garabedian.

“We work to awaken the sense of pride of belonging to a thousand-year-old nation and to bring our younger generations closer to our institutions,” she said. Through the Sardarabad Weekly, information about news and activities of the Diaspora and the homeland, ranging from historical to academic to artistic themes, help “preserve our Armenianness.”

The TCA particularly supports the development of Armenian artists, offering space, curating exhibitions and hosting events in Buenos Aires and other major cities in Argentina. They also organize book presentations and conferences that touch on politics, literature and medicine, that are all open to the public.

“Unfortunately, as a consequence of the pandemic, we had to suspend all face-to-face activities since March,” said Der Garabedian. But that did not prevent them from developing a portion of the projects they had planned.

Regarding the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the TCA presented the “Indelible” exhibition online, which is a collection of photographs taken by Pablo Kamalian of objects brought by Armenian refugees and immigrants when they arrived in Argentina.

“They are almost centuries-old objects, such as books, Bibles, mortars, embroidery, inkwells, and everyday utensils that our grandparents brought in their suitcases and that can be appreciated in a unique photographic exhibition, with references to which family it belongs to, when it was brought and a brief history of the object,” said Der Garabedian.

On the same day, they launched the exhibition “105 Years of Living” that encompassed the work of close to 20 artists, whose projects are inspired by the Armenian Genocide.

“We continue to develop our activities, adapting ourselves to new circumstances, since in our country mandatory preventive isolation is very strict,” said Der Garabedian. “We should not go outside unless it is absolutely necessary to make a purchase of basic necessities or go to the doctor, so all other activities are considered secondary.”

In partnership with the John F. Kennedy University in Buenos Aires, Der Garabedian oversees the conversational Armenian classes, Talk Time, led by Prof. Sose Hadjian, which have now been moved to the Zoom platform.

“Our institutions are not foreign to crisis, so we are trying to sustain all community activity with enormous human effort, working twice as long and without income,” said Der Garabedian. “The outlook is not a good one, but we must trust that we will succeed.”

Colegio Armenio Vicente Lopez

Colegio Armenio Vicente Lopez, which serves preschool through secondary grades, prides itself on providing an education for its students, aged 2 to 18, that prepares them to become active citizens in public life.

“The goal and motto of the Vicente Lopez National School is to ensure education, maintain human values, encourage independent thinking and be of service to the public,” said Karine Harutyunyan, director of education. “We strive to create ready, mature and versatile individuals.”

While Armenian language lessons began in the apartments of survivors and descendants of the Armenian Genocide, over time the Armenian Educational Foundation of Vicente Lopez was established. The founders of the school sought to create an environment that encouraged the Armenian heritage and culture and within its greater community built the St. Kevork Church, Ana and Micael Sirinian Gymnasium, and a park that includes a khatchkar brought from Armenia and named by the local government in 2019 “A Small Armenia.” All of these institutions play an integral role in the school’s daily life as activities are organized in tandem.

The bucolic atmosphere, however, has ceased for the time being as the community wrestles with the coronavirus.

“The COVID-19 pandemic came as a surprise to the world,” said Harutyunyan. “Here in Argentina, one of the first reactions of the government was to close schools in order to maintain public health.”

In response to the new challenge, the Vicente Lopez National School embarked on a new form of teaching and immediately switched to online education, which was not an easy task, according to Harutyunyan.

“The families of the students and our mutual trust helped us become successful,” said Harutyunyan, who noted that teachers, students and classmates met via Zoom, which has helped combat social isolation. The students have been able to adapt to the approach to learning in a short amount of time.

“Teachers deserve special appreciation,” said Harutyunyan. “They immediately created an education based on the requirements of distance learning and carried out the educational mission while preparing interesting lessons and virtual cultural events.”

The assistance of school psychologists was also enlisted to help with the transition.

“Every step we took was for the purpose of a quality and modern education,” said Harutyunyan. “The key to success has been the united staff, our Board of Trustees, our families and greater community as we overcome these new educational difficulties.”

Charitable organizations have ramped up their humanitarian initiatives in the face of the pandemic, including the Armenian Relief Society of South America that assists the Armenian community in the region and throughout the Diaspora and the homeland.

One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic has been the impossibility of meeting in person, according to Graciela Kevorkian, who serves as the chairperson of the Regional Executive Board, which comprises seven chapters throughout Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

“Due to the mandatory quarantine and the prohibition of meetings, we have been forced to interrupt our events and activities that were scheduled months in advance,” she said. “In every sense, we have had to adapt to the prevailing situation, taking advantage of new technologies to remain connected to one another.”

The members communicate regularly by telephone, Whatsapp and Zoom within their chapters and the chapters around South America. They’ve had their hands full restructuring activities to adhere to the current circumstances yet are still carrying out their programming and agenda, such as training members, conducting interviews with professionals, and socializing virtually through cooking and gym classes.

Nevertheless, the pandemic and the quarantine have “profoundly affected” the ARS, most significantly by disrupting the daily life of the organization’s Onnig Bodourian – Ohannés Diarbekirian Senior Living Facility in Buenos Aires that currently houses 60 men and women in its five-floor building. The ARS operates another elderly facility in San Pablo, Brazil, as well.

“By government order, visits to geriatric homes are strictly prohibited, so the relatives of the residents and those who are part of the institution cannot go and only the medical, healthcare and administrative personnel can enter,” said Kevorkian. “Our communication with them is constant and we have met all of the mandatory hygiene and safety requirements for these circumstances.”

Being part of a global structure, the ARS chapters in South America are actively participating in all initiatives promoted by the worldwide organization, including the Global Emergency Relief for COVID-19 that provides aid to communities throughout the world, including Armenia and Artsakh.

Since its founding in 1933, the ARS in South America has been involved in social assistance, education, culture, health, and empowerment of women. They provide assistance to families in need, collaborate with public hospitals, work with Armenian schools and help spread culture, particularly through their Armenian dance ensembles, “Nairi” and “Shirag” in Buenos Aires and “Sasun” in Córdoba, another Armenian-populated city in Argentina.

“We’ve joined with other organizations to provide help to those in need during the pandemic, such as helping purchase and deliver medicine and food, offering free psychological assistance over the phone or online and giving free medical consultations and electronic prescription services,” said Kevorkian.

Armenian Diocese

The Armenian Diocese of Argentina and Chile has also been extending help to families in need, coordinating with the Armenian Center of Argentina to receive and deliver clothes and food for needy families. They are also remaining vigilant in their faith and performing Divine Liturgy at the Armenian St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral.

“Due to the quarantine, which has been compulsory in our country, parishioners are not allowed to go to places of worship to pray, however we have been performing Holy Mass every Sunday behind closed doors from the San Gregorio El Illuminador Cathedral, with live transmission via Facebook,” said Archbishop Kissag Mouradian, Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church for Argentina and Chile. “We also offer special prayers for healing and share content, words of encouragement, and prayers with our faithful through social networks.”

The Cathedral is well-known in the Palermo neighborhood and stands as a symbol of the prominence of Armenians in Buenos Aires, so much so that it is a stop in the official tour program of the City of Buenos Aires.

The Armenian Center of Argentina (Centro Armenio) de Argentina binds the community together with the mission of preserving the Armenian language, culture and traditions in the country. Located adjacent to the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Cathedral, the organization has stalled its day to day tasks.

“The pandemic has affected our activities like the rest of the sectors, however we continue our work virtually,” said Alex Hadjian, who serves as the Press and Communications Director. While all of their offices are closed, the organization has collaborated in receiving and distributing clothing, food and toys and arranging shelter and housing.

“Keeping the Armenian community alive from such a distance and so many years later is a constant and challenging job,” said Hadjian, who acknowledged that their community’s greatest challenge is the preservation of the Western Armenian language. “Fortunately, however, each new generation of descendants of Armenians in Argentina keeps the Armenian identity with the same intensity, respecting customs, traditions, remembrance and the demand for justice in relation to the Armenian Genocide.”

Sergio Nahabetian, president of the Armenian Institutions of the Republic of Argentina – IARA, a coordination space for the institutions of the Armenian community in Argentina, emboldens joint activities of organizations and encourages closer contact and communication.

“This year it was impossible to carry out the central event that is organized annually on April 24th and the rally organized by the youth,” said Nahabetian. “It is not yet decided how activities will continue, since there is a situation of uncertainty in the whole country.”

The open-ended lockdown has made it impossible for organizations to realize their programming and scheduling regarding future activities. For now, the IARA is focused on assisting their fellow community members.

“Different proposals emerged from the institutions to help the elderly, collect food, donate blood or offer their spaces to the authorities,” said Nahabetian. “We work on these plans while we are all on pause and await more clarity.”

The oldest newspaper in the Armenian community in South America, Diario Armenia had not missed one single issue from the date of its inception on April 26, 1931 up until the pandemic hit and all print operations were suspended on March 18, 2020. Since its print issues have been put on hold due to the quarantine, the bilingual newspaper, which produces content in both Spanish and Armenian, has turned its focus to its digital site and Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to disseminate news of the community in Argentina and Armenia.

“We are working from home since we can’t gather in the office,” said Director of Agencia Prensa Armenia Pablo Kendikian, who notes that their editorial staff is composed of seven members, freelancers and a correspondent in Yerevan, Armenia, who currently produces weekly video reports from there. “The pandemic has seriously affected the finances of Diario Armenia and on top of the economic crisis in the country, COVID-19 has contributed to the nation’s high inflation.”

Founded by Armenian Genocide survivors who arrived as refugees in Argentina, Diario Armenia was initially published twice a week with exclusive content in the Armenian language “with great effort and without great resources.”

“Each issue was distributed house by house by volunteers,” said Kendikian. “Thanks to the contribution of many readers and thanks to a complete set of Armenian letter linotypes that arrived from Boston, the newspaper increased its frequency to become a daily that lasted for many decades.”

The newspaper was eagerly awaited by its readers since it served as the main source of local news for Armenians early on, who did not yet know the Spanish language.

“Through the newspaper, readers found out about labor laws, the country’s political and economic situation,” said Kendikian. “They also learned about what was happening in the Armenian Diaspora and in the then-Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.”

As Diario Armenia continues its reportage, the team also continues to carry out the meaningful task of digitizing each of their issues in an initiative funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Diaro Armenia has a historic place in the Armenian press as influential intellectuals “passed through the newsroom,” according to Kendikian.

“From the beginning, the newspaper tried to keep the Armenian identity, accompany the fight for the Armenian cause and spread all the activities of the different institutions of the community in the South American region.”

Although the theater is now dark seven days a week, the spirit of the Tadron Teatro has not been crushed. Founded in 1996 by artistic directors Kalusd and Herminia Jensezian, who desired to create the first Argentine-Armenian Theater Exchange, the award-winning venue has inspired a number of cultural, social and political themed plays that have been recognized by the City of Buenos Aires for its Cultural Work and the Defense of Human Rights.

In recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Tadron Teatro holds a special event on April 24 of every year that focuses on the theme of “Theater x Justice” that reflects the truth, memory and justice of society. The series has gained acclaim and received accolades for upholding human rights.

“We have been staging the Theater X Justice series, uninterrupted, for 14 years and were in full preparation for this year,” said Jensezian, who cites the loss of 665 theater-related jobs in the city, the majority of whom worked in the independent theater. “We were at the beginning of our theater season and workshops but the pandemic caused us to suspend all of our programming, which has been an expensive and tough break.”

The stress of the pandemic has created a reality ripe with anxiety and worry, feelings that Jensezian says can be channeled into art.

“We’re learning to cope with these scenes that feel as if they are lifted from science fiction and we are all the involuntary actors,” said Jensezian. “During this time we have to take the necessary actions to keep the flame of the theater burning, even if that means we work remotely and virtually to connect with our actors and students.”

The massive upheaval around the world has allowed Jensezian to look at the time of crisis through a philosophical lens, encouraging contemplation as a way to cope.

“We should reflect on the effects the pandemic will have on our minds and our bodies,” said Jensezian. “The questions we ask ourselves now will push us into new territories, allowing us to reinvent ourselves and the work we create.”

As a lifelong participant and patron of the theater, Jensezian has faith in its ability to transform during periods of tragedy and to “trust the strength of the theater that has gone through various crises and catastrophes in the thousands of years of its existence.”

“As theaters we have the energy, passion, and drive to emerge stronger from this experience and to continue doing what we love the most,” said Jensezian. “After all, the theater is the space of the dignity of man.”

 

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