Yeretzgin Arpi fitting coats for the displaced families from Artsakh

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In November 2023, Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cambridge began collecting clothing in response to the grave humanitarian crisis in Armenia. After the nine-month blockade that cut off basic necessities, people of Artsakh had to flee their homes by Azeri force for fear of their health and safety. Given the dire circumstances, families swiftly packed what they could and took to the congested, winding road out of the mountainous region, escaping towards the safety of their Armenian homeland.

Those who fled their homes funneled into regions of southern Armenia and were facing the impending dropping temperatures of winter. Upon returning from a parish pilgrimage to Armenia in October, Holy Trinity Church’s pastor Fr. Vasken Kouzouian shared with his parishioners, “In the southern part of Armenia we saw the people who had been removed from their homes. Most of them left with only the shirt on their back and the sneakers on their feet. We have to do better; we can’t let that happen. We have to take care of our people.” Taking quick action in response to the dire situation, the church community came together to organize a clothing drive, collecting warm clothing for the displaced men, women, and children of Artsakh.

Shake Derderian fitting a pair of boots for a young girl displaced from Artsakh

Through an outpouring of support from the greater Boston community, within days the collection bins overflowed with more than 2,500 bags of donations. Thanks to the help of more than 75 volunteers of all ages, the mountains of donated clothing were sorted, inventoried, boxed, and prepared for shipment to Armenia.

In late December, the 117 packed boxes containing nearly 3,500 pounds of aid arrived in Armenia. In January 2024, 94 days after announcing the desire for the Holy Trinity community to help the displaced families of Artsakh, with the full support of the parish, Holy Trinity Church’s pastor, accompanied by his wife, Yeretzgin Arpi, made the trip to Armenia to distribute the clothing.

Throughout their journey, Fr. Vasken and Yn. Arpi worked together with the Paros Foundation team, led by Peter Abajian and Shaké Derderian from the US, and local members Marina Khachatryan, Armen Simonyan, Kegham Minasyan and Yura Sargsyan, along with Houry Abajian and Boghos Derderian. The team made their way to villages around Armenia where many of the displaced families from Artsakh have settled.

Fr. Vasken and Ara Dermovsessian helping to pack the truck with the boxes of humanitarian aid to be shipped to Armenia

During their visits in the homes of the displaced families, they heard emotional stories sharing of the devastation encountered during their displacement. In the first home they visited, with quivering jaws, the families shared, “none of the few pieces of furniture you see here are ours. All we have are the clothes on our backs…we have no appropriate winter clothing…we had to leave it all behind.” In another, “one of my sons died in the gas explosion as we were leaving Artsakh…he is buried here, and I will never leave him….” In yet another, “This is my 94-year-old mother, she has been bed-bound for 15 years for spinal issues…and she had to be carried across the border when we were forced to leave…” all stories of suffering yet held an underlying of resilience to survive as Armenians. With each word from the displaced people, it was very clear why the Holy Trinity community came together to collect warm clothing, and why so many volunteers gave their time to contribute to this worthy cause.

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The team traveled nearly 7 hours to the southern-most cities and villages of Armenia to meet with some of the 400 relocated families of Artsakh living in that region. In addition to offering warm clothing, they brought words and prayers of hope to those who were feeling lost in this new place far from where they called home.

Grade 1 student Alex Mikaelian brings in his donation for the Lenten Drive.

At the local City Municipal Building of Geti Village they met with seven displaced families. It was a room full of wide-eyed and hopeful people listening to every word. During the distribution of clothes, Fr. Vasken saw a man standing in the back of the hall and asked him what size coat he usually wears. Although he was wearing a very thin spring jacket, the man responded saying “no, no, I have a coat, please give my coat to someone who doesn’t have one. I’m good…really, I’m fine” and he walked away…only to return a few moments later with a friend who had no coat.

The mayor and City Council of Kajaran invited the group to dinner to show appreciation for their efforts. While there, the mayor said to them “We swore that we won’t write the last page of the Armenian story… so everyone you see here in the hall today, including our Der Shirak, dedicated themselves to defending the borders of Syunik and all of the southern border of Armenia.”

Looking around the hall, Kouzouian recalled, “All I saw were heroes, fellow Armenians dedicated to preserving their faith, heritage and borders. The people trying on the coats looked at us as heroes, but we looked at those soldiers, young and old, and saw what it means to be a hero…”

They visited the Municipality Community Center of Kajaran and the Women’s Center in the City of Goris where they unloaded the van filled with coats, boots and other necessities that would help defend against the cold of winter. They met with the deputy mayor of Goris, Irina Yolyan, who explained the ongoing needs of the families who have decided to make Goris their new permanent home. Housing, schooling, and the need for social services, remain ongoing concerns for the mayor’s office there.

Volunteers helping sort and pack clothing at Holy Trinity Armenian Church

They visited the Armenian Church’s diocesan center in the heart of Goris and met with the Primate of the Diocese of Syunik, Hayr Magar Hakobyan. Hayr Magar explained the role of the diocese since the arrival of the displaced families. He is clearly loved by his people, and they are blessed to have someone of his dedication and personality leading them spiritually.

Further down the road, they stopped by a school that is being renovated to serve the local children including newly arrived children from Artsakh. Unfortunately, this school is located near the Nakhichevan mountains, so in addition to renovating the classrooms, an underground bunker was being added as well to protect the children from unseen snipers, a tragic reality of the times.

The group then made their way north to Gyumri, Vanadzor and Berd (800 meters from the Azeri border). They continued to distribute age and gender appropriate bags of winter clothes to the families. The hours passed by as family after family, mothers and fathers, grandparents and grandchildren came to get warm clothing for the cold months ahead, something that might make their already devastated and challenging lives just a little bit easier. One couple came seeking clothing for the 11 members of their family.

In addition to distributing winter clothes, through the generosity of donations from parishioners, Fr. Vasken and Yn. Arpi were able to purchase firewood for 10 families in Gyumri, enough to keep their homes heated for one month. Given how cold it is in northern Armenia, purchasing firewood was as important as the clothing distribution.

Upon their return Fr. Vasken and Yn. Arpi announced that the parish’s Lenten drive this year would be benefitting the purchase of firewood to heat the homes of the displaced families. Through the collective efforts of the students, parishioners and the greater Armenian community, Holy Trinity Armenian Church was able to raise more than $26,500 that will be used to heat homes which is needed through the month of May.

Holy Trinity Armenian Church remains committed to helping these displaced families through physical support and spiritual solidarity.

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