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Armenian Life : Immigrants, Fleeing War's Pain, Work to Preserve Culture

Second of two articles.

August 08, 1985|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

"I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race.... Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia." --William Saroyan, 1908-81

Up and down Washington Boulevard in Pasadena--along the storefronts of pastry shops, small vegetable markets and convenience stores--refugees from war and persecution have created a new home, a new Armenia.

They have come in two waves of immigration, one in the early 1970s and one that continues today, fleeing pressure to choose sides in Lebanon's civil war. Out of the madness, the destruction of Beirut, they have created a community here that straddles two worlds, embodying both a dream and a fear.

Many have been shunted from one war-torn country to the next and welcome the stability of America. They embrace its vast potential while fearing it as the only country in the world with the power to fully assimilate them.

They say they have grown accustomed to a nomadic life style, for this has been the history of Armenians, a small tribe of Christian people who remain patient in the face of remarkable vicissitudes. Yet their voices betray a certain weariness from living too long at the grace of others in adopted lands.

There is Nazareth Mankerian, who works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, in his small market on Washington Boulevard. His eldest son showed promise as a young pianist in Beirut and Nazareth brought his family to the United States so his son might realize his full potential as an artist.

"What would he be if we had stayed in Lebanon?" Nazareth asks a visitor. "A terrorist? Playing with a gun instead of a piano? His face is not the face of a terrorist."

There is Abraham Karabibergian, a jeweler by trade who opened a toy shop on Washington Boulevard two years ago. Karabibergian, 27, sees endless opportunities in America but still waits for the Armenian homeland that was lost 70 years ago when 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by Turks in a forced exile from eastern Turkey.

He believes that to fully accept the United States as his permanent home would be a betrayal of his dream. His license plate reads "HYE MNA," which means, "Stay Armenian forever."

And there is Krikor Keshishian, the proprietor of a corner pastry shop facing the same boulevard, who waits for the day when his only son will be the third generation of Keshishians to bake French pastries. The boy, 13, has told his father he wants to be a Marine instead.

Pasadena's Armenian community ranks second only to Hollywood's as the fastest-growing in the nation. There are an estimated 17,000 Armenians living in Pasadena, half of whom arrived here in the last five years, chiefly from Beirut.

Because so many of them have arrived in such a short time and cannot speak English, Pasadena has had trouble absorbing these newcomers in a tight job market. Although precise figures are not known, social workers say a growing number of immigrants are applying for public assistance. Still, county welfare rolls show only 1% of Southern California's 200,000 Armenians receiving aid.

To help ease the transition to a new life in Pasadena, Armenian community leaders lobbied hard to win passage of a law that recognizes Armenians as a protected class under Pasadena's affirmative action ordinance.

The law, which went into effect in March, is the first of its kind passed by any city and will mean that Armenians, like blacks and Latinos, are officially classified as a minority and must be recruited for city jobs and city-awarded contracts. The affirmative action ordinance is one of several recent actions taken by Pasadena to court Armenian voters, who represent a growing political force in the city.

Beyond its economic implications, the ordinance is seen as a positive force against the tendency by recent arrivals to band together and form ethnic enclaves apart from and ignorant of the larger Pasadena community.

The inclination to gather in tight-knit groups and speak Armenian in public has caused some tension between the newcomers and longtime Armenian residents of the city. Second- and third-generation Armenian-Americans, whose forebears came to the United States in the aftermath of the 1915 genocide, worry that the newcomers are creating a bad name for

Armenians.

Recent immigrants respond that Armenian-Americans have adopted American culture as their own and have forgotten what it is like to be an Armenian.

The differences between the newcomers and established Armenians are underscored by a nagging debate over Armenian terrorism and whether it advances the goals of forcing Turkey to admit that it massacred nearly two-thirds of the Armenian race from 1915-1918 and to return the ancient Armenian homeland.

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