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For Americans in Armenian Capital, 'a Terrible Feeling of Helplessness' : Soviet Union: Yerevan is home to about 20 Armenian-Americans. The Armenian Assembly's high-tech office has become a gathering place for them.

January 21, 1990|ESTHER SCHRADER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

YEREVAN, Soviet Union — In a building of arching entryways on an ancient street here, a tiny office is equipped with computer and telephone equipment more sophisticated than most residents of this Armenian capital have ever seen.

The office belongs to the Armenian Assembly, a Washington-based Armenian-American organization, and in the last week it has become the central gathering place for Armenian-Americans here, who are using its portable satellite phone link to get word about the crisis in the Caucasus out to the United States.

There are about 20 Armenian-Americans living in this southern Soviet city, and nearly everyone has been involved in the defense effort here in the last few days.

They come to the Armenian Assembly office late at night to talk politics, to send faxes to their colleagues at home and to discuss what they can do as their old homeland becomes enmeshed in civil war.

The Americans living here are a close community--students studying Armenian at Yerevan University, physical therapists caring for the victims of 1988's devastating earthquake and anthropologists working on theses and enjoying a city that has a reputation as one of the warmest and most friendly in the Soviet Union.

Hotels in Yerevan are frequently filled with American-Armenians--entrepreneurs who have come with increasing frequency since business opportunities began to increase in the Soviet Union two years ago and leaders of Armenian organizations coordinating the rebuilding of the towns and cities demolished in the earthquake.

They come with energy and money and detailed plans for their stay here. But since last week, their plans have changed. Many say they feel they are just sitting on the sidelines as the population here marches and demonstrates and prepares for war.

"There's a terrible feeling of helplessness for any foreigner," said Louise Simone, the president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization.

"We can only arouse public opinion to what is happening in this Soviet Union. There is no union here, it's just total disintegration," she said.

In spite of that feeling of helplessness, Americans here have been far from impotent this last week. Some have manned the telephones and fax machines in the assembly office--giving interviews to American news organizations who call them on the only sure line to and from the United States.

Some have been busy at the hospitals and the airports, interviewing refugees who survived the anti-Armenian violence in Baku, the capital of neighboring Azerbaijan. Some have been handing out food and medicine from the supplies brought here for earthquake victims. And some have gotten personally involved in the nationalist struggle, meeting with opposition leaders and demonstrating in the streets.

Yerevan has long been a favorite destination for Armenians from the United States. Travel here is so frequent and so popular that several travel agencies in Los Angeles do nothing but coordinate trips to the Armenian homeland.

One U.S. airline even has flown directly from Los Angeles to Yerevan since last year, bypassing the normal route through Moscow. Armenian-Americans in the United States stay in almost constant contact with their friends in Yerevan, and the turbulent last two years here have brought the two communities even closer.

"You've got to understand what this place means to us," said Stella Grigorian, an Armenian-American from Houston who is a graduate student in anthropology at Yerevan University. "We just have this tiny country, and we've got to try to protect it."

The Armenian Assembly office opened here a few months after the earthquake of December, 1988, its mission to be a communications center for foreign aid groups helping in the reconstruction effort.

It is equipped with a $40,000 phone system, a computer, a laser printer and a copying machine. It has become something of an oasis of American technology in a place where it otherwise takes hours and frequently days to call the United States.

Since last Saturday, the office has been open nearly 24 hours a day, and through it journalists based here have sent articles to news organization in the United States.

"We're just basically here to service whoever comes in," said Matthew Der Manuelian, an attorney from Boston who is the director of the office. "We're just doing what we can to get the news out about what's happening to this place."

This week, leaders of Armenian-American organization will meet in Los Angeles to discuss what they can do to help the republic, according to Simone. Two planeloads of medical supplies and other materials are being sent by a coalition of these groups in the next few weeks for earthquake relief.

Simone said she has asked that many of those supplies be used to help the refugees streaming into Yerevan from Azerbaijan.

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