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Around the Foothills

"They ask, 'Where are we going to write Armenian? ' "

April 05, 1990|DOUG SMITH

Glendale's Armenian immigrants came forward to be counted last week.

By the hundreds, they streamed into community gathering places where assistance stations were set up for those unable to fill out the U.S. Census form.

They were mostly new arrivals from Soviet Armenia, as foreign to the ways of American government as they are to the English language. They wore Old World clothes and carried Old World worries on their faces. They looked uncertain, even slightly confused. They asked timid questions that imperceptibly escalated to voluble, hand-waving dialogues with Armenian-speaking census volunteers.

Satisfied, they wrote down intimate details about their family lives on pre-printed forms and put them in the mail to the U.S. Government.

In raw numbers, last week's turnout represented only a small fraction of the city's Armenian population, estimated to be about 35,000.

But the appearance of so many, and their evident determination to be counted, showed that weeks of preparation by the city's Complete Count Committee and the leaders of Glendale's diverse Armenian organizations had gotten through to a group of recent immigrants considered likely to be put off by the intrusive and complex questions on the census form.

"We knew there was a fear of not trusting the government, fear of a language barrier, fear of not caring enough," said Arick Gevorkian, one of two Armenians named to the Glendale Complete Count Committee appointed by past-mayor Jerold Milner to assist the Census Bureau.

Several weeks ago, the committee and several Armenian community organizations launched a publicity campaign to ease those fears.

"I printed 60,000 flyers free of charge," Gevorkian, a print-shop owner, said. "The Boy Scouts of America distributed them to the residents of Glendale."

The flyers, in six languages, addressed all Glendale's ethnic minorities with a message that the census was confidential and important, that an accurate count would bring them more federal dollars, more political representation and more local services.

"We educated the community to be part of Glendale, to work for the city, not to be strangers and foreigners any more," Gevorkian said.

The message was also printed in Armenian newspapers and broadcast on Armenian radio and television shows.

Posters went on the walls in the Armenian churches and the Armenian Relief Society, a social service agency that has thousands of newly arrived Armenians on its casework rolls.

Yet, as the census forms went out, the question of how new immigrants would take to the exercise persisted. The answer came swiftly.

On Monday, more than 100 people walked into the Armenian Relief Society on West Glenoaks Boulevard. There was no letup through the week. At 10 a.m. on Friday morning, a dozen people waited their turns in the small reception room while another half a dozen labored over the forms with helpers at a long conference table in the next room.

The process was not without snags. Some people came without their census forms, said Sona Zinzalian who was supervising the census project.

"They thought we were going to give them the envelopes," she said. Others said they thought it was junk mail and threw it out. They worried that they would be fined for the error.

The agency's staff counseled them to wait for an enumerator to come to their doors and not to worry.

The form itself distressed others who came to the agency.

"They ask, 'Where are we going to write Armenian ?' " social worker Ruben Aredisyan said. "They should have a space for ethnicity. It's a serious mistake. Armenian is an ethnicity. It is not a race. It sounds to them very insulting."

It was more an annoyance than an obstacle. Without commenting on the wisdom of the Census Bureau's wording, the Armenian news media had proposed a solution:

"Do not check 'white.' " the newspapers advised their readers. "Check 'Other' and write in Armenian."

And so they did, subordinating pride to pragmatism.

During the week, about 1,000 families worked on their forms at the Relief Society and other census stations at the headquarters of the Homenetmen scouting organization on Broadway and the basement of St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church on Central Avenue.

Dozens more came to a census event held by the city at Roosevelt Junior High School Wednesday night.

There, volunteer Seta Mazkazian fielded a really treacherous question: Nine people lived in a house, but on March 31, the day before census day, some were leaving for their own apartment. Who should they include on the form?

Lori Snyder, a supervisor from the Complete Count Committee, rendered a decision.

"Those that live there now and are going to stay there, put their names down," Snyder said. "Don't put the other people's names."

The others, she said, should wait for the enumerator in their new home. Some margin of error is inevitable. Surely, it won't be for a failure of will.

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