Steve Sinanian, Alex Ouzounian and Anahit Setaghaian with a family

Young Diasporans Start Artsakh Relocation Project to Aid Refugees

1912
0

YEREVAN — “A year from now, they might not remember you, or even remember your face, but they will remember for the rest of their lives that act of kindness,” says Alex Ouzounian, one of the organizers of the Artsakh Relocation Project. Ouzounian is part of a team of 8 young diasporans, all in their 20s and 30s, living in Armenia and the United States, who have started an initiative to fulfill the immediate needs of some of the many thousands of refugees who have poured into Armenia proper from Artsakh.

Ouzounian, a third-generation Armenian-American from Racine, Wis., who has been living in Armenia for about two years, temporarily left his teaching position in Yerevan to spend all his time on the Artsakh Relocation Project. In only a couple of weeks, they have already reached some 20 families, supplying them with food, groceries, cleaning supplies, clothing, and even paying for rent and utilities.

It all started before the war was even over, when Ouzounian opened his own GoFundMe page to raise money for refugees. The page, which is still active, states that the proceeds will be divided equally between three projects: the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation, through which women in rural areas of Armenia will be paid to make winter clothing that will be distributed to Artsakh families; the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) to buy essential items for Artsakh refugee families, and for Ouzounian and his small team to distribute personally to refugee families.

Steven Sinanian and Alex Ouzounian with a family

Ouzounian’s reason for taking matters into his own hands was that “politically speaking, NGOs might have to work slower,” in order to fulfill certain legal requirements. Larger NGOs cannot handle the amount of refugees entering the country. As an example, Ouzounian says, “Today we got food and clothing to four families. One of them called us and said we have nine people in the house.”

Some of these families have needs so immediate that they might otherwise starve. Team member Avetis Chekmeyan delivered food to a family taking refuge in the village of Masis, comprising a mother, grandmother, and six kids. The woman told Chekmeyan, “I’m so thankful for what you’re doing, because we haven’t eaten today.” It was 7:00 pm.

An International Diasporan Team

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Ouzounian soon realized that his project needed to expand from a simple personal GoFundMe page to a full-fledged nonprofit. He contacted a good friend whom he had met years prior in the Birthright Armenia Program, Hagop Bedrosian, of Los Angeles, a native of Damascus.

Bedrosian loved the idea, and enlisted his wife Ellen Oganesyan. Oganesyan is originally from L.A. and met her husband in Armenia. They moved back to L.A. where Oganesyan works as a lawyer. Oganesyan teamed up with a friend, Gohar Dulbandzhyan, originally from L.A. and now living in Grand Rapids, Mich., to create the back-end infrastructure of the fledgling nonprofit. The two women look for donors, take care of much of the financial side of things, maintain the social media and online presence, and find families that are in need.

Ouzounian, who credits Oganesyan and Dulbandzhyan with much of the important work, took a leave of absence from teaching in order to be the boots on the ground of the new organization. He is assisted by three other young diasporan friends now living in Armenia. Anahit Setaghaian, originally from Texas, is a psychiatrist who is training to work with soldiers that have PTSD. She has been in Armenia about 10 years. Avetis “Avo” Chekmeyan was born in Armenia but raised in Boston. He is a music producer and also plays professional basketball in Armenia, where he has been living for the past two years. Steve Sinanian, born in Limassol, Cyprus and raised in Lebanon, has an HR background and has been in Armenia for about 9 months. Together, the four take the money that has been donated, buy the food, groceries, clothing, or other supplies, and hand deliver them to the needy families.

Group Expands Operations

To expand the group from Ouzounian’s original GoFundMe page, the name “Artsakh Relocation Project” was adopted and a new website was set up by Oganesyan and Dulbandzhyan. The group is trying to be as transparent as possible. The new format enables donors to “sponsor a family.” The format allows the donor to choose how many months of giving they want to commit to, and what dollar amount per month they want to give. They can also do a one-time donation.

The team is itemizing all the expenses and showing how the money is being spent and on how many families. This information is shared with the donors.

There is also a “pen-pal” type program that is being put into place. Donors are asked whether they want to be able to keep in touch with the recipient family through cell phone apps like Viber, video chats like Zoom, or social media. (They are also asked to specify what languages they are able to speak!) According to Ouzounian, this serves a twofold purpose of keeping the project transparent as well as creating a connection between the donors and recipients to make this project one of true human connection.

Oganesyan and Dulbandzhyan have set up bank accounts, the website, sponsoring system, and “pen-pal” system, and are working on improving transparency. Ouzounian also contacted longtime friend from their days in the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA), Jonathan Pelaez, as a consultant. Pelaez, a third-generation New Jersey Dikranagerdtsi (Puerto Rican on his father’s side), and former chairman of the ACYOA Central Council, is assisting the group with his professional financial expertise as well as general organizational knowledge.

Ouzounian presented the initiative over Zoom at the ACYOA’s Annual Fall Retreat on Saturday, November 14, in order to spread the word among Armenian-American youth. He is also in the process of getting the ACYOA — and the Eastern Diocese as a whole — involved in the project; at the time I spoke to him he had a call scheduled for the following day with current ACYOA Central Council members Melissa Mardoian of Chicago and Alina Grigorian of Racine, two more longtime friends, in order to do just that. (Ouzounian himself is a former member of the ACYOA’s Central Council.)

The personal connections that make the Armenian community such a small world, especially due to the increased relationships and travel between homeland and Diaspora in the last 20 years, are propelling the project. Every member of the group might have a few people they know in Artsakh, but more importantly, can spread the word through their network of Armenian friends and acquaintances to find names and numbers of families that are in need.

Just as one example, Ouzounian shared that Yeretzgin Anna Demerjian of St. Petersburg, Fla., had been calling him with names of families and their contact information. The wife of local St. Hagop’s parish priest Fr. Hovnan Demerjian, she is a native of Armenia who met her husband, a native of Massachusetts, when he was volunteering in Armenia years ago. The couple has long been involved with the youth of the Eastern Diocese. Yeretzgin, Anna naturally has many contacts there, bridging what many years ago was a gap between Diaspora and Homeland. This is just one example; every member of the team probably has more than one contact like this who can supply them with names of families that need help, and every time the team visits a family, they also ask for names of other refugee families who can use a helping hand.

Getting to the Families in Need

Through these diasporan connections, they started with a list of 10 families; most of them within 30 minutes of Yerevan. “Once we get to them,” Ouzounian says, “we ask them if they know another family,” which they always do. Birthright Armenia has a list of families from Artsakh that have acted as host families in the past; they are using that list as well. Ouzounian’s list is up to about 50 families now, though he is making sure to screen them. They don’t give money to the families, but only buy the items and give donations in kind. It is tedious work to do the shopping and get to the families, he says, especially if they are outside the city. They typically buy things like dish soap and clothing in bulk, in the beginning. Going forward they won’t need to keep buying those supplies, but they will need to keep buying food. Also, as winter is approaching, they will need to purchase heaters, blankets, etc. They are also paying for utilities and rent. The refugees have been finding places to stay wherever they can; one family is living in a summer home in the country which has no heat. One woman even lives in an unused sauna.

Donations from abroad are coming in the form of money, and sometimes clothes. They are looking for as many people as they can to donate clothes from Armenia and abroad. They have donated about 20 pounds of clothes so far to needy families. Everyone has been very gracious, Ouzounian says. “You bring them things, and they offer to give you coffee or tea, and I always say no. I realize it’s part of the culture here to do that, but it’s also so touching how people who have literally nothing are willing to offer you the only thing they have.”

At each visit, families are given enough food and groceries for about two weeks. The team tells the family they will contact them in about a week and a half to follow up and see what else they need. Although there are a lot of other groups and people doing similar work, the team feels their role is necessary. There is a disconnect between the large nonprofits and these refugee families, Ouzounian says. The nonprofits might not know where all these families are, and families might not know that there are services offered by nonprofits to take care of these needs. The Artsakh Relocation Project fills in the gaps and is attempting to hold over as many families as they can get to, until the large nonprofits can step in and help the refugees in a larger way. Nevertheless, the project is working with an NGO in Armenia to gain official nonprofit status.

Emotional Responses

“You can see the weight of the war on their faces,” says Ouzounian, “but we can take their mind off of it for a few minutes. We can’t stay long due to health concerns around Covid, but it’s refreshing for these families to see other people, and they have a lot to say to us.”

There are also social problems the refugees face when they get to Armenia. Ouzounian says he met one older woman with a middle aged daughter and son, who felt that there are some people who discriminate against them because they are from Artsakh. When Ouzounian brought them their supplies, the woman was crying and said “It’s been difficult here and it’s just nice to know there are Armenians who still care.” She kissed Ouzounian’s hand, saying “God bless you, we’ll never forget that.”

Ouzounian says, “I wish I didn’t have to do this [that these people didn’t have to be refugees] but at the same time, we are doing our best to assist as many people as we can, and it feels great because we can take some of the worry away from them of having to think about where they are getting their next meal from.” He continues, “I know we can’t change their lives and have it go back to what it was, bring back their father, husband, or son, but we can alleviate some of the day to day problems.”

When the team members visit families, Ouzounian says “They can tell we are from Lebanon, or from the US. They say ‘It’s inspiring that diasporans are getting to us first. And care too, and are willing to help.’”

For more information, see the project website or its Instagram site.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: