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County Braces for Sudden Influx of Soviet Armenians

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

The second wave of newcomers now arriving thus are joining relatives in Hollywood and Glendale. Besides Soviet Armenians, as many as 3,000 Armenians from Iran are expected to arrive in the United States this year to live with Iranian-Armenian emigre families in Glendale and nearby communities.

"The whole city's not ready for this," said Arick Gevorkian of the Glendale office of the Armenian National Committee. "Right now, we're organizing with the school district, with the churches, trying to facilitate these newcomers. But we are racing against time and we are not very ready."

Weakening of Homeland

Armenian community and church leaders regard the arrival of large numbers of Soviet Armenians with ambivalence. They argue that an exodus from Soviet Armenia weakens the only homeland the Armenians know and dilutes their claim to historic Armenian lands in Turkey that some Armenian political parties want returned.

"Every Armenian who leaves Armenia not only diminishes our collective power there, but is also risking the eventual loss of his or her national heritage and identity," says Harut Sassounian, editor of the California Courier, an Armenian-American weekly published in Glendale.

Armenian leaders, aware of the human rights implications of such a stance, stress that Soviet Armenia traditionally has had a measure of freedom not afforded other Soviet republics. They add that Soviet Armenia, like the rest of the Soviet Union, has become more open since Gorbachev took office.

"Unlike Soviet Jews, Soviet Armenians are not emigrating to their homeland. Instead, they are leaving it," Sassounian said.

County officials say their efforts to absorb Armenian newcomers is complicated by the fact that the refugees travel directly from Yerevan to Los Angeles with only a few days stopover in Rome. This makes it impossible to offer English and cultural training programs that are available to Southeast Asians in refugee camps.

Funding Cutback

In recent years, the Reagan Administration has cut back funding for programs targeting refugees. Federal grants given to counties such as Los Angeles and Fresno that are home to high concentrations of refugees have been cut by more than 50%, from $7.4 million in 1984 to $3 million today, according to county officials.

Federal funds used to screen new arrivals for communicable diseases have also been cut. In addition, county officials say, the federal government has limited the period of time it fully covers the cost of a refugee on welfare. In the past, the state and localities did not have to contribute to a refugee on welfare for the first 36 months. The time period is now 24 months.

As the number of Armenians applying for public assistance has doubled and tripled, welfare offices in Hollywood and Glendale have added nearly a dozen Armenian-speaking caseworkers and clerical staff in recent months.

Glendale schools have hired five Armenian-speaking teachers or teacher's aides in 1987 to add to a staff of eight and have plans for more.

At John Marshall Elementary School in Glendale, the Armenian population has grown by more than 100 students, forcing the school to add one mobile classroom on its campus to accommodate the newcomers.

'Fragments Program'

Two teachers and five teacher's aides speak Armenian, but school Principal Wayne Sparks said as many as 75 Armenian students are now in classrooms where no staff person speaks their primary language.

"With these kind of numbers coming in from Soviet Armenia, we're having to place them in regular classrooms, anyplace we can," Sparkes said. "It kind of fragments our program. We just can't place these youngsters where we can help them most."

Local officials are also having trouble helping the parents of these children learn English. Language classes at Glendale Community College have a waiting list of more than 800. In the absence of spaces, Armenian community groups such as the Glendale-based Armenian Relief Society and the Armenian National Committee are pressing for funds to open language classes of their own.

"The same people are being asked over and over again to open up their pockets to help," said Sarkis Ghazarian, local director of the Armenian Relief Society. "People have only so much money to give."

Ceiling Reconsidered

The sudden Armenian exodus has forced the Reagan Administration to reconsider its ceiling of 15,000 refugees allowed to enter the United States from all of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1988. The State Department and the Administration are now discussing ways of doubling the ceiling to accommodate refugees from countries such as Poland and Romania, according to federal officials.

The State Department's Rusch said it is unclear if the flow of Soviet Armenians will be affected by recent massive protests in the Soviet Armenian capitol of Yerevan that center on a historic dispute over ancient Armenian lands now located in Azerbaijan.

"The Armenian influx could slow down to a trickle or stop in the next few months," she said. "But it doesn't look that way."

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