Azerbaijani-Armenians Settle in the US after Pogroms


A photo from a 2002 picnic at the Armenian Church in Nashville

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator

(This is the second and final installment of a story on the arrival and integration of Armenians from Azerbaijan in the US.)

NEW YORK — Liana Gazarian, who arrived in August 1994 in the US, stated that there probably were a maximum of around 200 Armenians in Bowling Green, Ky., which has a total population of 68,000. They arrived starting in the early 1990s, and some came as late as five or six years ago. At present, only about 150 Armenians remain. There is little for teenagers to do there, and many Armenians moved away.

It was a good place initially for immigrants, as it was not as confusing as large American cities, and there were people from the refugee settlement programs to help them. Gazarian said, “Coming to Bowling Green to me looked like heaven. I never felt isolated. I never complained. If you are alive and God saved you and did not let you get killed, you should appreciate what you have.” Interestingly, when Gazarian arrived in 1994, among the prior immigrants “they only had one lady who was a Russian speaker and knew some English, but otherwise we had to communicate with hand signals and otherwise.” It is a friendly place. Gazarian continued: “We know all our neighbors. It is like Armenia. They come to our house, we go to their houses. They take our kids with them and we take their kids.”

Employment was available, though at a much lower level than the education of the refugees, many of whom were engineers, teachers and doctors, would warrant. Gazarian said, “We had to work in the factory. There were furniture factories, and some other places, where they build motors. There were also chemical factories, for detergents and other chemical products. My husband was a civil engineer in Azerbaijan and he started working in construction. It’s hot, sometimes hotter than 100 degrees in the summer time. He started working outside and they gave him simple jobs. He started from scratch, getting minimum wage.” Gazarian was pregnant and though they were living in a government apartment, getting some food stamps and welfare assistance, it was not enough. She began to work in a day care center, while her husband, after working for the city, eventually was able to start his own business. They were able to buy their own house in 1998.

Bowling Green is about 45 minutes from Nashville, the large metropolis in the region. The Armenians have a mission parish in Franklin, a little outside of Nashville. Gazarian estimates that there are perhaps 500-600 Armenians in the Nashville area, including at least 40 families of Armenians from Azerbaijan there (an estimate shared by Fr. Tateos Abdalian). Less than one third of the Azerbaijani-Armenians in Nashville participate in the church. However, the ones that do feel particularly close to one another.

Gazarian felt that “here we are like one big hand, all five fingers together overcoming things.” There are get-togethers and parties almost every week, since with around 40 families there are frequent birthdays and other occasions. She said, “We play our music, dance and eat Armenian food.”

The Armenians were not that religious in Baku. Gazarian stated in wonderment, “I did not even know Armenia was the first country to formally accept Christianity until I came to the US. My children have taught me a lot of facts here.” The children learn at Sunday school through Nashville. Unusually, this is actually a digital, online Sunday school which started some seven months ago for younger children. It is done through Skype (an Internet video conferencing program), and so the children can see a board with prayers. It is taught in English but Armenian words are used in the prayers, so at least a little language is taught along with religion.

Despite the lack of formal religious education, some, especially in the older generations, had emotional memories of the Armenian Church. Abdalian related that once, he went to Bowling Green to visit an elderly lady who could not make the trip to Nashville, and lit the incense to start blessing her home: “The woman began crying — bawling her eyes out! When I finished, I asked the interpreter to ask what affected her so much.  She replied, ‘I had not smelled that smell since my grandmother took me to church back in Karabagh as a child.’”

The Effects of the Past

Michael Guglielmo, formerly director of social services at the Diocese, stated that a large percentage of the people who came were traumatized — “One day your neighbor is talking to you, the next day he is trying to break into your apartment. … We made referrals for a few people for counseling through Catholic Charities, but not too many.” The Diocese also sent immigrants to a physician in Belleview who was a specialist in post-traumatic stress syndrome and the trauma of those burned out of their homes because he worked as a witness for immigration cases.

Guglielmo concluded, “But most people were functional despite the trauma. They wanted work.”

Anna Baghdassarian in Los Angeles agreed that “the ones from Azerbaijan really suffered, but they were very, very strong. They accepted what happened and adjusted very well. I didn’t see people we needed to send to psychologists — unlike refugees from Iraq, for example.”

Marina Bagdasarova felt that “even though over 20 years passed, I still think there is a trauma and there always will be. I lost three cousins in Sumgait and my uncle. You will never forget them and what they did. I haven’t told anything to my daughter, but I see her reaction to any action that comes from the Turkish government or from Azerbaijan. This is in our blood, and it will be in our blood, and a few generations should pass to make that trauma less painful.”

Liana Gazarian explained that she had a miscarriage because of the stress involved immediately after the Karabagh and Baku events: “In 1988, when it all started, I was only 22 years old. There [in Azerbaijan] we stayed with our parents until we got married and we were still children. We stayed in Baku until we saw with our own eyes that they were burning people when they found out they were Armenian. I saw in Baku all the demonstrations and meetings. My dad coming home from work saw Muslims yelling, ‘kill the Armenians because this is our land.’ I was very fortunate because I did not see a lot.”

Her children know about the events too, because their parents discussed it: “I always talk about why we left Baku. The kids live comfortable American lives, but we try to explain how we lived and how many people still live that way.” Partly as a result, her daughter wants to become a lawyer and help Armenians in Armenia.

Former hierarch Archbishop Anania Arabajyan, in Azerbaijan at the time, exclaimed, “They saw injustice and felt fear and loss. I myself still have nightmares. I went to Sumgait the day after the pogroms. The city was closed, surrounded by soldiers. I felt myself as in a film where you see destroyed cities. I still remember this today, and this frightful scene. Others who experienced this directly, and were attacked, of course would have even more powerful feelings. For example, one girl came to church who was made to walk over broken glass and dance. These things are not forgotten easily.”

Nevertheless, he felt that most of the Azerbaijani-Armenians today are pragmatically attempting to deal with the present and future and not trying to be fixated on the past. Many of the communities of Azerbaijani-Armenians organize commemorations of the recent tragedies. Gazarian stated that in Nashville, they would have church services for the victims of the Baku pogrom: “Sometimes we would watch videos and people would share their thoughts.”

Bagdasarova said that the Brooklyn mission parish organizes religious services, and lectures or a small concert, followed by a reception. Usually 200-300 people are in attendance: “We actually do a Sumgait day every year in St. Vartan Cathedral, and when people read about those pogroms they still have tears in their eyes — too many memories, people and emotions.”

She felt that like any similar type of loss, “there is nothing to make it easier or better. I would never expect that Azerbaijan would recognize what they have done in Sumgait or Baku. But keeping that memory and acknowledging it loudly and remembering the people who have gone and what that government has done is probably the best thing we can do. We can work to prevent it from happening again.” The southwest corner of the cathedral has a specially designed khachkar or stone cross from Armenia dedicated to the pogrom victims donated in 2000 through the efforts of Arabajyan.

Some of those who left Azerbaijan as young children are ostensibly less affected by the violent events. Karine Abalyan, who came to Hartford with her family from Baku via Armenia, said, “My family does not talk much about it so it has not been really commemorated or discussed. My [younger] sister [born in Armenia after the family left Azerbaijan] and her friends of the same age are probably not even aware of why their families left Baku, or the details.” Her parents left after the Sumgait pogrom, but before the worst violence in Baku.

The Situation Today

The Azerbaijani Armenians had almost no money with them when they arrived in the US, but they did have some advantages. Chevian declared, “The Baku Armenians have an easier time in the US [than many from Armenia] because they grew up in a more cosmopolitan environment.” Dr. Svetlana Amirkhanian, chairwoman of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Mission Parish Council, related: “I remember that even in the time of the Soviet Union, there was a saying that being a Bakuite is already a separate nationality. Baku had a high level of culture and the people there were very educated, and thanks to oil, had international connections. I believe this continued and was transferred to their children. The Armenians who came from Soviet, we have two cultures in us — Armenian and Russian foundations of culture. We know Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. There exists a higher intellectual background among parents and grandparents. All living here [in Brooklyn] continue living in a Russian-speaking environment and continue Russian higher culture here. All learn some music or chess. Importance is paid to mathematics. They keep discipline in the house.”

Sumgait too had many highly-trained specialists with education, including engineers and doctors, so there is not that great a difference between Armenians from the different cities of Azerbaijan.

Amirkhanian points out that in many in the beginning received aid from the US government, and even today whoever is elderly or very sick receives assistance. However, the youth began to work. Many of the Azerbaijani-Armenians were well educated in the Soviet Union and when they came here, they either got their diplomas authenticated, or learned other specialties. Bagdasarova added that at first, although some received public assistance, “they did whatever jobs were available. I know a lot of people with PhD’s working in construction, car services or painting without shame just to support their families.”

Amirkhanian continued: “Their children are becoming lawyers. They live in families, so three generations share an apartment. This is economical and allows them to save money.” Many of the students who were in the Brooklyn school later attended prestigious American universities such as Harvard and other Ivy League schools.

Garen Bagdasarian added: “Of course it depends on the generation. For the young generation, it is much easier to adjust to the US. Some people found themselves; some did not. Our friends are working at Microsoft in a high position, in sports, and in business, but I know others who still have not found regular jobs. Let’s say with Rhode Island as the basis that 80 percent made it, and 20 percent did not. Some are on welfare, being sick or laid off.”

Many had to restart their lives twice. Bagdasarian told his own story: “Our wedding on September 18, 1988, was the last wedding held in the Armenian Church in Baku. I said it had to be the Armenian way and anyway we will have to leave this city soon. I was 25 years old, and my wife was 23. We came to Russia, and started doing some business as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. Nobody knew what would happen. Then finally we received approval to come to the US. We had to start over from zero in the US, without knowing the language or having a way to work. So we had to start over again every time.” He added that when he was a child he read about Vartan Mamigonian and Raffi’s novels, and learned that “Armenians always were in wars, but are survivors. I never imagined that it would happen to me, but it did. I feel that we [Baku Armenians] are strong.”

Abalyan thought that the Azerbaijani-Armenians in Connecticut are flourishing: “The majority after 20 years, 99 percent in Connecticut have bought homes and are living suburban American lives.” She feels that the situation in America at that time facilitated their success, but it might have been different if they had come now: “It is important to point out that America was a different place then. People were fascinated with the USSR and engaged with newcomers. They were more willing to reach out, and the economic environment was better. You could work your way up from factory jobs to better jobs.”

Chevian feels that as a group they have done well for themselves: “Some are doing quite well with businesses. Many have higher education. Others are in blue-collar jobs. Some are dentists or in the dental field. Some are still on assistance.” What has changed now: “Their children are fully integrated into society. They do well in school, and now are more connected with the church.”

Abdalian agrees: “Most were penniless, living in inner city tenements and all became successful in one way or another. They bought homes and businesses. None that I know of are unemployed hacks. They are all in professions, doing something, working hard, and if they have not been able to succeed in a profession, it probably was due to the language barrier or age.” Very few are still on welfare or in poverty. However, the situation apparently is a little different in the Los Angeles area (as it is for most Armenians in general).

Though the Azerbaijani-Armenians may have had less opportunity than Armenians in Soviet Armenia to learn about their heritage, Arabajyan felt that this had begun to change. During the years he was serving as Primate of the Diocese in Azerbaijan, 1981-89, the number of those who participated in some form in the church increased from 10 to as much as 30 percent. The Armenians were beginning to reconnect with the church and their cultural identity thanks in part to the changes in the Soviet Union in that period. This was one factor making it easier for them to connect with the Armenian Church in the US.

Chevian felt, “Out of a total of several thousand, I would say that 10 percent are actively involved. They come to mass, April 24 events, school celebrations, Women’s Day. Another group is occasionally involved. They might go to Times Square and a few events but are less committed. They go to  baptisms, funerals and weddings. They have a high rate of marriage to odars, unlike the Hayasdantsis, since they were not all that close to Armenian culture and identity before.”

Abalyan estimates that in the Hartford area 70 percent still attend church functions and come to picnics. Furthermore, a majority in Connecticut married Armenians, though mostly from outside the Baku community.

She feels that certain distinguishing elements from other Armenian groups are still maintained to a certain degree in the US aside from their recent experiences in Azerbaijan, and the continuing hostility to Armenians there which does not permit them to visit their former homes. For example, there are some differences in cuisine: “There is a special type of pakhlava without phyllo dough and using a thicker dough.”

Soviet influence remains: “We always had New Year’s as the big holiday. Now we celebrate both on the 25th [of December] as well as January 6, but New Year is still a strong tradition. March 8, International Women’s Day, is important.” The Russian language and culture still are influential among the older immigrants.

Garen Baghdassarian from Rhode Island sees the recent immigrants “in big cities like Los Angeles or even Philly or New York still like trying to copy the Armenian style of life in Baku, to recreate it. But it is a copy. It is not how it really was. The families doing this, through parties in restaurants, weddings, etc. have more options in Brooklyn. There are bakeries and restaurants closer to what we had there, but not in places like Rhode Island.”

There are no major efforts to keep Baku or Azerbaijani-Armenians in touch with each other in an organized fashion in the United States in a way parallel to Armenians from other places like Iran or Turkey. However, modern methods of communication and the Internet facilitate individual and family contacts. Some stay in touch with friends through the Russian-language website www.odnoklassiki.ru, which allows school classmates to find one another.

There are a few specific Internet sites for Azerbaijani- Armenians, including a Facebook site (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2212597476) called Baku Armenians, which had 117 members in August.

Amirkhanian is optimistic about their maintaining a general Armenian identity in the US: “I believe that the new generation will not forget the efforts we spent on them. Several children changed their last names. I was greatly affected. When they become 16 years, they want to have ‘yan’ as the ending of their names. They have become very patriotic and feel themselves Armenian. They do not speak Armenian very well, but compared to their parents they speak much better, and are able to understand conversations. If they hid or did not understand their identity before [as Armenians], now they understand it and are proud of it, including religion, culture and history.”

Gazarian independently confirms this with her own children’s experiences and pride in their heritage: “My children know they are different, but think that in a good way. My kids never have had any problems because of their names. All were born here so they don’t have any accent. Once a teacher asked all students their nationalities; all said American or Mexican, but my daughter said, ‘I am Armenian.’ Her teacher said, ‘You were born in America. How come you are Armenian? She answered, ‘My mom and my dad are Armenian. I cannot be American.’ The teacher said, ‘You are Armenian-American.’”

Although there is some discrimination against the Azerbajiani-Armenians among Armenians in the US and in Armenia, Bagdasarova felt “it is a little better now here, as we know each other better.” Abdalian said, “In the beginning our people in this country did not fully understand them as Armenians — shish kebab and pilaf standards. But things were different in Baku as to what it meant to be an Armenian.”

Arabajyan thinks that Azerbaijani-Armenians will probably assimilate into the broader Armenian-American spectrum, or assimilate completely as Americans. The children who came to the US as refugees have grown up and are themselves beginning to have children, so the second generation, now American-born, is already on the scene. Bagdasarova felt that after “one more generation, they will just say that my roots are from here or there — like Moush. I hope I will be mistaken, but it is hard to say.”