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He's a Lifeline for Armenia Quake Victims : Charities: Harut Sassounian has directed the airlifting of $39 million in supplies to that beleaguered nation. His work has not gone unnoticed locally.

March 25, 1993|VIKEN BERBERIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GLENDALE — Within a year after a devastating earthquake rocked Armenia in December, 1988, Harut Sassounian's tiny newspaper office on Jackson Street became the epicenter of an ambitious global relief effort to help his beleaguered country.

Sassounian, 42, organized the United Armenian Fund, coordinating relief airlifts from all over the world to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, from the cramped offices of the California Courier, the oldest independent Armenian-American weekly in the nation, with a circulation of 3,000.

The UAF is a tax-exempt coalition of six charitable and religious organizations that has helped airlift $39 million in relief supplies since its maiden flight a year after the earthquake.

"It's a massive job for one person and an assistant, but I feel very fulfilled and satisfied because I'm filling a definite need at a critical time in the history of Armenia," Sassounian, the paper's publisher, said Tuesday.

For his efforts, Sassounian will receive the Glendale Chamber of Commerce's Humanitarian of the Year award today. But next week it's back to business. He is scheduled to leave for Armenia with Cher on March 29, on a jet chartered by the organization, to visit hospitals and orphanages there and focus attention on the country's 3.5 million citizens.

"He and the UAF have helped raise a lot of money to help all those people shaken from their homes after the earthquake," chamber Vice President Aulden Schlatter said.

Sassounian has visited Armenia six times since the United Armenian Fund was founded. On his first flight, he visited two mountainous villages near earthquake-ravaged Spitak to hand out relief packages to families living in ramshackle tents. "Many of the people were embarrassed to get the supplies," he said. "They were very stoic and proud. In those conditions, we would perish in one winter."

Armenia, which is landlocked in the Caucasus, imports all its fuel. Most of its industry and schools have been shut down because of an Azerbaijani blockade, and until recently only eight of Yerevan's nearly 50 hospitals were open. Economic discord has led to the dismissal of the president's Cabinet, and the country counts on Armenians throughout the world for continued humanitarian aid.

Enter the United Armenian Fund.

It took Sassounian one day and six phone calls to form the coalition, managing to bring together competing Armenian groups. On the board sit two archbishops whose churches for decades have argued on who has authority over the same Orthodox Armenian believers. Sassounian somehow got both of them to participate in the group.

"It was a clever way of doing it," said Mary Najarian, co-founder of Medical Outreach, a Glendale nonprofit group that has used the Armenian organization's planes to airlift medical supplies to Armenia. "They said everyone had to get together, or else there wasn't going to be a UAF."

The diocese and Prelacy churches joined the fund in November, 1989. In addition, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, financier Kirk Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation, the Armenian Relief Society and the Armenian Missionary Assn. of America are board members.

All the groups contribute to the fund's operating expenses, and the Lincy Foundation pays for the chartered flights, which cost about $100,000 each. So far, there have been 53 of them.

"No other former Soviet republic has this," Sassounian said. "Turkmenistan would love somebody in some country sending planeloads of stuff every month."

Of the fund's 16 flights since October, Sassounian got the U.S. government to pay for 10 from a special humanitarian aid fund earmarked for former Soviet republics.

Last month, the government airlifted $486,983 worth of infant formula on eight DC-8 cargo planes from Amsterdam to Yerevan. Sassounian bought the milk with donations from Armenian groups in Greece and Argentina.

Early this month, two C-5A military cargo planes airlifted 12,000 kerosene heaters from South Korea to Yerevan. Armenian organizations in Canada, Florida and the United States helped pay for the portable heaters.

"He wants the biggest planes that we can get, and then the onus is left on me to find the fastest way to get it there," said Harry Klein, State Department director of humanitarian assistance. "When we gave him the configuration of the C-5A, it's amazing how all 12,000 boxes fit perfectly. Not even one cubic centimeter was wasted."

Sassounian, Syrian by birth, speaks Turkish, Armenian, Arabic, English and French. He has a master's degree in business from Pepperdine University and one in international affairs from Columbia University. He worked for Procter and Gamble as an international marketing executive in Geneva from 1978 to 1982 before returning to Los Angeles.

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