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County Braces for Sudden Influx of Soviet Armenians

March 08, 1988|MARK ARAX and ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writers

Already straining to serve thousands of Southeast Asian refugees, the county of Los Angeles now is bracing for the arrival this year of an estimated 10,000 emigres from Soviet Armenia.

County officials say it would be the largest single influx of an ethnic refugee group here since the resettlement of Vietnamese "boat people" in the late 1970s. Schools, social service and welfare agencies have been caught unprepared for the sudden surge in Armenian refugees, and are scrambling to find additional manpower and funds.

"We're trying to get the resources. We're really trying to do everything we can on short notice to help these people," said Melvin Kuznets, district director of the Glendale office of the county's Department of Public Social Services.

Citing severe cuts in federal refugee money, the officials say they are unable to provide immediate job and language training to the estimated 2,000 Soviet Armenians who have arrived in Los Angeles since October, and the 8,000 more who are expected.

Officials fear that a delay in these services will increase the odds that Soviet Armenians will become part of a permanent welfare class.

"If we don't get them on the right track quickly, they may be lost to us," the county's coordinator for refugee affairs, Joan Pinchuk, said. "Right now, we have no job training or ESL (English as a Second Language) slots to put Armenian refugees in."

Unlike the Southeast Asian community, whose large numbers are aided by a well-established network of private agencies serving Indochinese refugees, the Armenian community is virtually bereft of such groups.

"Every public and private agency is understaffed and it means that the Armenians are confronting delays in getting their most basic services," said Bruce Whipple, director of the local office of the International Rescue Committee, a private agency that assists refugees during their first 30 days of resettlement.

Cultural problems also have complicated the efforts. County health workers screening Soviet Armenian refugees for medical problems, for instance, have been surprised not only by their large numbers but by their fearful reaction to routine examinations. Some have refused medicine and X-rays.

"They seemed to be afraid of the radiation," said Judith Snedeker, director of the county's health screening program.

The current influx of Soviet Armenians began last August, when Soviet officials--as an apparent byproduct of Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost --began quietly approving exit visas for thousands of Armenians wanting to join relatives in America.

Last Year's Total

Last year, 3,250 Soviet Armenians were allowed to emigrate to the United States, a dramatic increase over the 246 who came in 1986. Even so, the State Department was unprepared for the 1,000 and more who began showing up with approved exit visas in hand at the American Embassy in Moscow in the past few months.

Officials say the influx is not related to recent turmoil in Soviet Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan.

"At no time . . . did the Soviets tell us they were about to approve massive numbers of Armenian exit visas," said Terry Rusch of the State Department's Bureau for Refugee Programs in Washington.

Rusch said the relaxation of emigration restrictions has been extended to Soviet Jews but not nearly to the degree as for the Armenians. Besides the 2,000 Soviet Armenians who have entered the United States so far this year, several thousand more have had their exit permits approved and are awaiting processing in Moscow by U.S. Embassy personnel, a procedure slowed by a shortage of staff.

If the present trends continue, the State Department projects that 12,000 Soviet Armenians will enter the United States by the end of the year--10,000 of them being resettled in the Los Angeles area.

Armenian community leaders say these numbers reflect only a small part of the tens of thousands wanting to join family in the United States. Eight out of 10 are expected to be resettled in the Los Angeles area alone, chiefly in Hollywood and Glendale.

'Going to Hollywood'

"'Going to Hollywood, going to Hollywood.' You hear it all the time on the streets of Yerevan," said Harry Diramarian, local chairman of the Hunchak Party, one of three Armenian political parties.

Hollywood--with its storefront Armenian restaurants and bakeries and apartments above filled with Armenian emigres--has become something of a port of entry for the Soviet refugees. In 1979 and 1980, a first wave--numbering 9,500--arrived in America, many of them eventually congregating in Hollywood.

Armenian community leaders say Hollywood continues to thrive as an Armenian enclave but as Soviet Armenians have progressed, many have moved to outlying communities such as Glendale and Burbank.

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