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Grief for the Dead, Comfort for the Living : Abiding Ties Link Pasadena's Armenian Community With Soviet Quake Victims

December 18, 1988|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

As other Armenians huddled in tight, worried little groups, passing along rare nuggets of information about the situation in their earthquake-devastated homeland, the woman in the Pasadena butcher shop spoke bluntly. A few bleak words were all she needed to recount what she knew of her own family in Armenia.

"We talk to one relative in Yerevan," said Mary Bidinian in broken English, her eyes looking straight into the questioner's face. "He's alive. The others in Leninakan and Kirovakan? We have not heard. Maybe they dead."

There is a process to these things, many San Gabriel Valley Armenians suggested last week as the casualty figures mounted. If you are a member of an oppressed Soviet minority with a long history of disaster, you first find out who's alive and who's dead. Then you mourn the dead and do what you can to comfort the living.

Troubled Destiny

That's precisely what was going on last week in the region's tight-knit Armenian community, about 15,000 concentrated in Pasadena and several thousand more scattered throughout the San Gabriel Valley. They mourned an estimated 60,000 dead--blood relatives in some cases, but often just fellow members of what one leader called "the Armenian family"--and worked to succor the survivors.

The latest thunderbolt of misfortune also prompted many Armenians to probe once again, like a man running his fingers over a recently healed wound, the sense of troubled destiny out of which has come their national identity.

"Mourning is part of our lives," said Krikor Mesrobian, a Pasadena caterer who was leading fund-raising efforts at the Pasadena Armenian Center on Washington Boulevard.

Mesrobian recited the list of 20th-Century events that Armenians mourn: genocidal attacks by Turkey, despotic rule by the Soviet Union, partition of the little nation by its more powerful neighbors and, finally, doors slammed by Middle Eastern nations in the faces of Armenian refugees.

"And now this," said Mesrobian, raising his hands in an age-old gesture of bewilderment. "It's amazing. How come so much?"

Others were asking the same question, but no one waited for an answer. Most were pitching in energetically to send relief to the homeland. For example, at the Pasadena Armenian Center on Tuesday, volunteers loaded large sacks full of donated clothes and blankets into trucks as community members marched in with cash donations. There was talk of large gifts and small ones.

"The other day a couple came in with tears in their eyes," said Seta Torossian, who was manning a desk for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, one of the half dozen agencies that maintain offices in the center. "The lady said, 'I'm on welfare, and nobody in the family is working.' She gave me the money she held in her hand. 'This money goes to earthquake relief,' she said. 'We eat no meat this month.' "

According to Mesrobian, the office had raised $35,000 in the first three days.

Donation of $25

In Altadena, at the Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School, one of two Armenian schools in the region, children have set a goal of raising $5,000 among themselves. "Today I brought in all of the money from my piggy bank," said fifth-grader Sarine Avedikian, 10. She said her $25 donation was what she had saved for three years to buy Christmas presents.

"I decided to give it to Armenia so they could build houses," she said.

By Wednesday, the class of fifth-grade teacher Alice Mazmanian had raised $300.

In the heart of the Armenian business district, on Washington Boulevard between Hill and Allen avenues, merchants passed around donation boxes and talked of establishing a blood bank for earthquake victims. "A lot of people want to donate blood," said Krikor Kederian, owner of Champion Cleaners. "We want to put a blood station up somewhere, but the Red Cross said there is no demand yet."

Like many others, Kederian's face had a haunted, insomniac look last week. "We feel very bad about this, even guilty," he said earnestly. "We are very comfortable here in America, while we know people are suffering over there."

The words could have described Pasadena's Armenian community long before the earthquake brought last week's fraternal outpouring. In the past 15 years or so, Armenian refugees from the Middle East have settled in the city in large numbers and established a solid commercial base in the shops on Washington Boulevard. They have also achieved unprecedented political acceptance by the city, whose mountainous backdrop reminds many Armenians of their native Caucasus.

First, the city extended affirmative action protection to Armenians in 1985, giving them a special protective status in awarding city contracts and recruiting for city jobs. Then, in May, 1987, voters elected an Armenian, William Paparian, to the Pasadena Board of Directors.

"They've made room for us in this city," said Mesrobian. "It's something we'll never forget."

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