Students at Oxford

Hard-Hit British Armenians Deal with Pandemic

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LONDON, ENGLAND — While no country has been immune from the devastation of the pandemic, the United Kingdom has been particularly hard hit, currently leading Europe in the highest number of COVID-19 deaths.

The tight-knit and orderly London Armenian community, estimated at 25,000, have established a number of cultural, academic and religious institutions, along with businesses and social services that enhance the capital city as a whole. They are eager to return to their work after months of being shuttered indoors and resume their full-scale operations in order to benefit their fellow community members.

The bulk of Armenians in England arrived in the 20th century during the first and second world wars. In fact, one of the earliest whistleblowers of the Armenian Genocide was British politician, diplomat and historian Viscount Bryce, who was the first to vocalize his condemnation of the massacre of the Armenians to the House of Lords in July 1915. He proceeded to co-author the Blue Book the following year, which recounted eyewitness statements and detailed a number of documentary records relating to the atrocities.

The rich heritage and the robust activities of the London Armenians community has made its mark on the UK and continues to do so as it navigates through an unprecedented lockdown while keeping its eyes on the goal of a safe reopening and reuniting of members.

Pandemic Arrives

The pandemic personally affected acclaimed violinist Levon Chilingirian, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent three weeks in the hospital last March. Following a busy month, he began to feel ill on March 13. His wife, Dr. Susan Pattie, director of the Armenian Institute, took him to the hospital where he tested negative for COVID-19 and was sent home. When she noticed his symptoms were getting worse, they returned to the hospital where Chilingirian’s results came back positive and he was admitted into the acute ward.

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“I wasn’t very aware of what was going on until I woke up and I was close to being discharged,” said Chilingirian, whose lung and heart were attacked by the virus. “Thanks to the incredible work of the doctors, I survived and they sent me home on Easter Day.”

As a result of the illness, Chilingirian has lost a lot of weight and his recovery continues two months after he was initially diagnosed. He is able to walk for longer periods of time but still has trouble playing the violin at his full capacity.

“Since I was immobile for almost a month while stuck in bed, I lost muscle in my arms and so the bottom half of my body is recovering more quickly,” said Chilingirian, who is the founder of the Chilingirian Quartet, a renowned string quartet well-known on the international scene.

As a professor and chamber music artist in residence at the Royal Academy of Music and professor of violin and chamber music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, Chilingirian has been on sick leave for an indefinite period of time.

Because of his illness and the lockdown, Chilingirian’s projects, which included giving masterclasses and performing concerts at the Manhattan School of Music and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, were postponed. He expressed disappointment in missing out on the scheduled performances and teaching opportunities but sees renewed activity on the horizon.

“I’m looking forward to everything gradually coming back to normal, but I’m sure it will be a transformed scene,” said Chilingirian, who has been awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to music. “We play chamber music so perhaps it will be easier to bring back from the performance point of view though I’m sure there will be changes, such as social distancing, among the audience.”

Levon Chilingirian

Supporting Armenians in Need

Its mission of supporting disadvantaged members of the Armenian community in the United Kingdom assumed even more meaning for The Centre for Armenian Information and Advice (CAIA) when the pandemic struck London.

Focusing on the elderly, migrants, refugees and low income families, CAIA, which was established in 1986, aims to build bridges towards equality, opportunity, cultural identity and greater inclusivity for Armenians in the UK and the wider community. It has been a lifeline for those arriving from troubled parts of the Middle East and Eurasia, who have faced discrimination because of their religious and ethnic backgrounds, according to Misak Ohanian, chief executive of CAIA (also known as Hayashen). The organization helps them overcome challenges that stand in the way of their integration into society and provides advice and support.

Despite the pandemic uprooting life in London, CAIA continues its much-needed services, although “COVID-19 has had a significantly negative effect on the people that rely on the Centre for Armenian Information and Advice.”

“CAIA provides many vulnerable people within the Armenian community the opportunity to receive advice on a range of issues relating to asylum, professional skills development, community integration, and providing a strong sense of community and friendship,” said Ohanian, who noted that children services are also offered for different age groups.

In line with government regulations on social distancing and self-isolation, the pandemic forced the cancellation of in-person programs, causing “stress, loneliness and great sadness among the people that use services provided by CAIA.”

“Although we have been able to maintain contact with the people we support through telecommunications and digital means of providing advice, we need to enhance our capacity to provide further ways to support them,” said Ohanian, who acknowledged that CAIA had to make fast changes to adjust to the lockdown, including increased outreach.

A key element of CAIA’s programming during this time have been the Emotional Wellbeing Groups and One-to-One Support Sessions, which have now moved to Google Meet video sessions and focus on managing anxiety, loss and sharing inspirational messages to keep the morale of members high.

“Our main focus during the pandemic has been to save lives, reduce mental health anxietyand ensure that we continue to support those with the fewest opportunities to gainessential support, services and advice,” said Ohanian.

Regarding an opening, CAIA is following government guidelines and sharing in conversation with other charities and non-profit organizations they collaborate and network with in London.

CAIA is also part of the Armenian Community Emergency Management Committee, which has brought together all the active Armenian organizations, including the Armenian Church, to support the most vulnerable in the community during the pandemic.

The Diocese of the Armenian Church of the United Kingdom has continued to provide a spiritual haven for its faithful through live streaming capabilities offered by the Diocese, allowing a respite from the mournful state of the world.

“The lockdown started late and the death rate has been high,” said Bishop Hovakim Manukyan, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of the United Kingdom. “Naturally, the pandemic has affected our community and we had to close our churches, but we are remaining active virtually through church services, Bible Study and activities organized by our youth group.”

Meza Food

The weekly e-newsletter also keeps church members in the loop and part of the institution’s narrative, but the Primate acknowledges that the pandemic “has impacted our church socially and financially.”

The tentative date of July 4 has been presented for when places of worship can open to the public, with restrictions in place, and the Primate looks forward to welcoming the faithful in person in London’s two churches, St. Sarkis and St. Yeghiche, as well as one in Manchester and mission parishes dotted in different communities throughout England, such as Birmingham, and Dublin, Ireland.

Another consequence of the lockdown has been the postponement of the popular Armenian Summer Festival in London, under the auspices of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of the United Kingdom, that promotes the Armenian heritage and will now take place in the Fall.

The aftermath of the pandemic, such as anxiety and mental health issues, are also of concern to the Primate, who asserted that the Diocese is taking steps towards providing solutions.

“We have kept communication open to our faithful by phone, especially to those who don’t have anyone helping them,” said Manukyan. “We don’t know if there will be a second wave, but we are doing our best to help our community here while trying to assist our homeland at the same time.”

Armenian Institute

The Armenian Institute, which ensures Armenian culture and history are accessible and offered in creative ways to the public, didn’t have much notice to shut down, according to Dr. Susan Pattie, a co-founder and director of the organization, which was established in 2001.

“The government waited so long to take action that when they did, it was sudden,” she said of the notice to close on March 16. “We had to go into our space quickly one night to pack up and start operating out of our homes.”

Pattie and her colleagues made a quick transition to operating virtually but had to cancel the remainder of their March events that included lectures and book presentations. By April, however, they were ready to begin launching their events online. The silver lining was that a large number of people began to tune into the programming from cities around the world, including Istanbul, Beirut, Munich and New York.

“We are missing out on the human touch but we don’t have a choice right now,” said Dr. Pattie of the changes, which has helped the Institute envision their future events through a different lens. “We’re thinking we will combine these technologies with our in-person events.”

The activities at the Armenian Institute have been paramount to bringing the community together in London to raise awareness of the Armenian culture while discovering the meaning of what it means to be Armenian in the 21st century in the Diaspora.

Funding from The Arts Council in England during the pandemic has helped the organization not only maintain but increase its programming through an Emergency Fund they applied for and received, as well as being awarded a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Activities that have taken place over the last couple of months include workshops on music and creative writing, Salon sessions that initiate conversation around a specific subject, such as treasured objects, language lessons, and a recent manti making class online. The schedule of programs have helped bolster the community, particularly for those who live alone and find solace in the company of others, albeit virtually.

An added benefit of the grants is helping the Armenian Institute build its outreach program. During the pandemic they have been checking in with community members while sharing in conversation and asking them about their family stories. This is part of a long-term project Pattie envisions, similar to the USC Shoah Foundation.

“As people become willing, we will start collecting migration stories about lives in London and the UK that we will post online as a resource,” she said.

Although the lockdown has eased over the last week, allowing Dr. Pattie to go into their new space in the Farringdon area of London, alongside one or two co-workers, there is no official date on when the Armenian Institute will once again be open to the public.

“There are a lot of discussions about a second peak and demonstrations concerns, so we have no idea when we will open again,” she said. “Everything is closed in London for the time being, including theaters and concert halls, so we have all been in this together.”

Armenian Community Council

A forum that ties the multitude of Armenian organizations in London together is the grassroots Armenian Community Council that consists of 15 elected members from 9 organizations who oversee various tasks throughout the year, such as the Armenian Genocide commemoration, the independence of the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh, with the “main goal of having all of our groups in one place,” according to Dr. Hratch Kouyoumjian, Vice Chair of the Armenian Community Council and former chairman of the Tekeyan Cultural Association’s London Chapter.

“London is rich with organizations but we have been in hibernation because of the pandemic,” said Dr. Kouyoumjian. “We are represented in each domain and staying active but we have stalled these last couple of months compared to how busy we usually are.”

The Armenian Community Council, founded 40 years ago, designed a proper way to commemorate the Armenian Genocide by launching a social media campaign to mark April 24, calling on community members to participate digitally in a Virtual March. In addition, they organized a remembrance service at St. Yeghiche Armenian Church and a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial khachkar.

“The Armenian Community Council is bipartisan and we work together to be helpful to the community,” said Kouyoumjian, noting their collaborations with the Diocese and the Armenian Embassy in London. The group participated in the organization of a medical webinar with the Armenian Medical Association of Great Britain, where panelists answered questions from the public about the pandemic, and have reached out to the vulnerable and needy in the community to deliver groceries, medication and provide financial and mental health support.

“There have been deaths in our community, unfortunately and our hearts go out to their families,” said Dr. Kouyoumjian. “We are kept abreast of the numbers and the basic indicators are trending downwards and we’ve seen more people in the streets wearing masks. Eventually we have to bite the bullet.”

University of Oxford

At the University of Oxford, campus life is cautiously opening back up again. The academic term was ending as the lockdown began and the Easter break gave staff and students time to prepare for online classes and examinations, according to Dr. David Zakarian, Associate Faculty Member of Oriental Studies.

“The first weeks of the term showed that the advanced planning was a success and despite some minor hiccups, the teaching process continues at the required standard,” said Zakarian. “All faculties and colleges had to make certain adjustments regarding teaching and examinations to avoid putting students and staff under unnecessary stress.”

While faculty and students are growing weary of the lockdown, that has now entered the third month, Zakarian said they try to focus on the benefits, such as having more time to do research. In the meantime, the University’s leadership is in regular contact about updates, including recent news that the library services will begin to reopen this month to allow access to material that can’t be accessed digitally (the University invested in purchasing digital access to thousands of electronic resources when the library closed).

“Everything, of course, depends on the decisions made by the government, but everyone works on a contingency plan in case this situation continues beyond September,” said Dr. Zakarian, who has been attending virtual conferences and lectures, “which is one of the positive aspects of the lockdown.”

“The Society for Armenian Studies, NAASR, the Armenian Institute in London, and the Oxford University Armenian Studies have organized a variety of online events related to various aspects of Armenian Studies, and it is wonderful to be able to join them to discuss interesting topics, and most importantly to see friends and colleagues from all over the world.”

The Armenian presence at The University of Oxford is elevated by The Oxford University Armenian Society (OUAS), which serves as a hub of culture for not only students but also Armenian families who live in the vicinity of the institution, according to Marianna Asatryan, head of Admissions Operations, Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at University of Oxford, who serves as the senior member of OUAS.

“The society is open to everyone who loves and appreciates Armenian cultures and traditions and we have a number of non-Armenian members,” said Asatryan, who notes that OUAS is an integral part of the Oxford Armenian Studies.

Throughout the year OUAS organizes social events, including brunches, pub trips and coffee mornings, as well as cultural events, such as Armenian Liturgical and folk music performances from the Oxford Armenian Choir, which Asatryan conducts. They also network and collaborate with other student societies in the UK, including the London School of Economics, King’s College London and University of Cambridge.

Since the lockdown, they have weekly online meetings to check on one another. Their final event of the year before lockdown was the Armenian food night in early March.

“Students have largely been affected by exam cancellations and online teaching arrangements in the summer term, including three of our members in the final year of their studies who have been very much impacted by all these alternative measures,” said Asatryan. “Some students had to return to Armenia or their country of residence because Oxford could no longer host them and the graduation ceremonies this summer won’t be taking place. Without a doubt, the pandemic will have a major impact on future career paths and graduate jobs.”

The Armenian Language Summer Intensive Courses are the cornerstone of the Programme of Armenian Studies, but the sessions that were scheduled to take place in Athens, Greece, have been cancelled due to the pandemic.

Founder and director Dr. Krikor Moskofian expressed regret that the program will be skipped this year.

“We first held the Summer Intensive Courses in London and then in Budapest, and Athens was to be the most convenient venue yet for these courses, both in terms of facilities and Armenian context, given the established Armenian community there, so it is a great shame that they can’t go ahead,” said Dr. Moskofian, who has taught Western Armenian language and literature in both Lebanon and the UK and is the author of two Western Armenian language textbooks.

The evening courses in London that are offered throughout the year have also been postponed and the pandemic has affected the organization’s work outside of Armenian language courses as well. The Programme for Armenian Studies has been in the midst of conducting interviews for its Memory Documentation Project (MDP), documentation of the memory of the first generation born in the Diaspora after the Armenian Genocide. They have already amassed interviews from 100 people in Beirut, Athens, Buenos Aires, London, and the U.S. and plan to focus on Jerusalem next when travel is safe and accessible to schedule the in-person recordings.

“Despite the disruption and interruptions caused by the pandemic, we have nevertheless had plenty to do, such as our transcribers and editors who have completed many hours of work on our bank of interviews,” said Moskofian, whose goal with establishing the Programme for Armenian Studies was to “cater to the needs of the Western Armenian Diaspora.”

The organization focuses on “allowing the voice of the Western Armenian Diaspora to be heard” and provides academic and cultural output, such as the Taniel Varouzhan Annual Lecture (TVAL), a collaboration with Ghent University, where prominent academics and intellectuals are invited to speak on topics related to Armenians and Armenian studies, in memory of the distinguished poet, who studied there. Moskofian ensures that resources are offered online and the content they produce is available in Western Armenian, English, French and Turkish.

“Deciding to learn Western Armenian is significant because it is a decision to place value in an endangered minority language,” said Dr. Moskofian, who earned his doctorate in Armenian literary criticism from SOAS, University of London. “Western Armenian is very much alive, despite the threats that face it, and for many thousands around the world it remains a language of everything from mundane chit-chat to high literature, from sweaty street fights to folk tales and lullabies. It is the backbone of Western Armenian culture.

Businesses Suffering

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown has hit the restaurant industry quite hard, including Meza Restaurant, which specializes in Lebanese dishes and was awarded the title of Best Cheap Eats by Time Out Magazine.

Sales have been down overall even though the restaurant has stayed open for takeout and delivery, but delivery platforms are charging high commissions, further squeezing the restaurant’s bottom line.

“Stock sourcing, such as daily fresh vegetables, meat, specialty Lebanese items, have been challenging, as some regular suppliers suffered business interruptions as a result of the pandemic,” according to the Armenian-British manager and partner of Meza, which has multiple locations throughout London.

There is no confirmed date for reopening, though the government has announced and retracted dates. No guidelines have been set forth either in terms of how to proceed with masks or perspex screens once things are up and running again, which some feel will ruin the social aspect of dining out.

“The rules of lockdown have kept changing, being relaxed almost as soon as they were tightened,” he said. “I’m not sure how much “appetite” there will be dining-in post coronavirus. Some may not be put off, but I fear things will take a while, if ever, to return to normal.”

The restrictions caused by the pandemic have altered the way entrepreneurs conduct business, particularly abroad. The Armenian British Business Chamber, a membership organization founded ten years ago with the goal of connecting Armenian and British businesses and people, promotes bilateral trade and investment between British and Armenian companies and serves as the first point of contact for any UK business interested in entering, investing, exporting or outsourcing to Armenia and any Armeniain business with similar interests in the UK, according to Shoghik Tadevosyan, assistant to the executive director.

The last business support service the organization was able to offer to a UK-based company considering investment in Armenia was in February, shortly before the eruption of the pandemic, which has “halted business travel the way we knew it.”

“We had to cancel or postpone networking and business to business matching events planned for 2020 and to adapt to the newly created reality of the pandemic,” said Tadevosyan, noting that members stay connected digitally to a greater extent now. “We regularly share with the members and larger public information on COVID-19 related regulatory changes in Armenia and the UK and disseminate information about financial support programs offered by the governments.”

The ABBC has also partnered with the Said Business School of the University of Oxford to share webinars through social media.

“While countries and governments are preparing for the gradual ease of travel restrictions we are busy preparing new formats for networking and business promotion to promote export and cooperation between Armenian and British businesses,” said Tadevosyan. “We realize that the return to old ways of doing business is unlikely and we look forward to innovative ways to promote business relations and create new networks and opportunities for Armenian and British trade and investment.”

The international food product Marlenka, based on traditional Armenian recipes, has seen an uptick in its online sales during the pandemic, which has prompted many around the world to opt for delivery over in-store shopping.

Founded by Gevorg Avetisyan and headquartered in London, the award-winning Marlenka line offers a variety of desserts.

“There is plenty of evidence that stringent social distancing measures have led to a surge in overall demand for delivery services, especially for food,” said Vince Moucha, managing director. “There has been an increase in internet traffic, partly thanks to our creative marketing strategy on social media.”

He concedes that because of the pandemic there has been a “major blow for the wholesale and export part of the business” because Marlenka supplies to independent retailers in the UK. They have nevertheless ramped up their logistical services to mitigate potential adverse impacts.

“As a globally operating company, epidemic and pandemic risk scenarios are an integral part of our Group’s continuous risk planning,” said Moucha. “We follow a holistic management process that enables our business units to ensure the best possible operations for our customers.”

Marlenka also prioritizes the safety of their employees and customers as they closely monitor and manage the coronavirus outbreak, including the establishment of a task force and coordinating with international organizations.

AGBU YP

The AGBU Young Professionals (YP) of London sprung into action when its events were cancelled, particularly the London Summer Internship program, which takes place every year and provides college-aged students opportunities to live, work and discove r London. As an alternative, AGBU & YP London launched a mentorship program to support the students who planned on participating by connecting them with a strong network of professionals in their fields and providing them with valuable workshops and one on one mentorship sessions, according to the organization’s leadership.

The members acknowledge that COVID-19 has impacted AGBU YP London since the group’s main focus is “fostering a sense of community and culture through different social charity events for Armenians in London.” Throughout the year they host up to 12 events that range from after-work meetups to art exhibitions, musical performances or global fundraisers.

In its place, the chapter hosted and promoted online events, including virtual meet-ups to maintain ties with one another on the local level, as well as internationally, by participating in YP Live, a series of weekly global virtual events that connects Armenians from all over the world through engaging and interactive events. Together they are all supporting the global fundraising campaign of AGBU to help those afflicted with COVID-19.

“We have seen a strong collaboration with YP chapters around the world who have hosted digital events to ensure community interaction and that the overall mission of YP chapters is maintained through the pandemic,” they said. “Given the breadth of digital platforms, the digitally native YPs have shown resilience to the lack of physical meetings and we are still seeing healthy engagement throughout our community.”

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