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Plead for Release : Soviet Refugees Honor Vow to Kin Left Behind

June 18, 1987|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

It was a bittersweet moment when Karo Gasparyan of Pasadena and 25 friends gathered earlier this month to welcome the most recent arrivals in a group that five years ago vowed to stick together in its effort to leave the Soviet Union.

Together, Gasparyan and his friends, members of 12 separate families, petitioned the government, wrote letters to authorities all over the world, and once faced a squad of Soviet policemen on an airport tarmac.

Since last August, most of them have arrived in the United States, a feat that for years had seemed unlikely if not impossible.

But the welcoming celebration was dimmed by the knowledge that Gasparyan's wife, Lusik, and two children, Srbuhi, 4, and Hovannes, 2, have not been allowed to leave. No one has been able to find out why.

Still true to their pledge, the families, who have settled in Pasadena, Hollywood and North Hollywood, have begun working on a petition drive and letter-writing campaign to win the release of Gasparyan's wife and children.

"After so many trials, of course we are all very close," said Ripsik Kirametchian of North Hollywood. "Their problem is our problem."

The families have sent petitions bearing more than 1,000 signatures, gathered by their children at schools and shopping centers, to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

But Gasparyan, 35, who arrived in August with his parents and two brothers, said he realizes that the fight will be difficult because the group is pressing its case now not as Soviet citizens, but as refugees who abandoned their country.

"When I left, I told my wife to just imagine that I am going to work and will be gone for a few months," he said through an interpreter recently. "Now she is losing all hope."

The journey of the 12 families began in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, after Gasparyan's younger brother, Samvel, began noticing the same people lined up day after day applying to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

"For several months we kept running into each other," Samvel said through an interpreter. "Then one day we understood that we weren't going to succeed by ourselves. We found out if you went by yourself, you wouldn't get anywhere."

Most were strangers when they met, but after five years of sticking together, they have become like a large extended family. Their children play together and call the adults "aunt" or "uncle" when they meet.

The one thing they did have in common was that they were descendants of Armenians who were forced to flee their homeland in 1915.

At that time, Armenia, in the mountainous region southeast of the Black Sea and southwest of the Caspian Sea, had been divided between the Ottoman Empire in the west and Russia to the east.

The Turkish Armenians' fight for independence, begun in 1894, culminated in 1915 in the large-scale killing of Turkish Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. An estimated 1.5 million were killed, and another half-million fled or were deported from Turkey, said Richard Hovannisian, professor of Armenian and Near Eastern history at UCLA.

Many of the survivors ended up in the Middle East, primarily in Lebanon and Syria, and members of the 12 families still carry traces of their escape in the variety of languages they speak--Turkish, Arabic, Armenian and Russian.

Three decades later, after World War II, some families began returning to the part of Armenia that lay within the Soviet Union in a movement known as "nerkaght" or ' 'hyrenatartzoutioun," both roughly translated as "return to the homeland."

Many Soviet Armenians welcomed their returning relatives, but Kirametchian said those who came back were not happy in their homeland because they believed that the government treated them as suspicious foreigners and denied them opportunities.

"Our parents' plans were never fulfilled, and they were disillusioned," she said. "They felt they had walked into a jail."

Kirametchian said discontent with the restrictions of Soviet life drove many people, including herself, to stand in line at the emigration office day after day.

It wasn't hard to find others wanting to leave the Soviet Union, Kirametchian said. But many refused to become embroiled in an active campaign to get out.

"Many wanted to leave but didn't want to risk everything," Kirametchian said. "We 12 really decided to take all the risks. We were prepared for the worst."

The worst included the possibility of arrest. In actively pressing their case, they were subject to harassment and had to spend long hours planning how to leave.

Samvel said the group met several times a week and wrote to President Ronald Reagan, the International Red Cross, the United Nations and others, asking for help.

They went as a group to meet with Soviet officials in Yerevan, demanding to know why they could not leave, he said. Several times a year, representatives of each family would fly to Moscow to press their case.

Stripped of Citizenship

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