Plead for Release : Soviet Refugees Honor Vow to Kin Left Behind

Times Staff Writer

It was a bittersweet moment when Karo Gasparyan of Pasadena and 25 friends gathered earlier this month to welcome the most recent arrivals in a group that five years ago vowed to stick together in its effort to leave the Soviet Union.

Together, Gasparyan and his friends, members of 12 separate families, petitioned the government, wrote letters to authorities all over the world, and once faced a squad of Soviet policemen on an airport tarmac.

Since last August, most of them have arrived in the United States, a feat that for years had seemed unlikely if not impossible.

But the welcoming celebration was dimmed by the knowledge that Gasparyan's wife, Lusik, and two children, Srbuhi, 4, and Hovannes, 2, have not been allowed to leave. No one has been able to find out why.

Still true to their pledge, the families, who have settled in Pasadena, Hollywood and North Hollywood, have begun working on a petition drive and letter-writing campaign to win the release of Gasparyan's wife and children.

"After so many trials, of course we are all very close," said Ripsik Kirametchian of North Hollywood. "Their problem is our problem."

The families have sent petitions bearing more than 1,000 signatures, gathered by their children at schools and shopping centers, to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

But Gasparyan, 35, who arrived in August with his parents and two brothers, said he realizes that the fight will be difficult because the group is pressing its case now not as Soviet citizens, but as refugees who abandoned their country.

"When I left, I told my wife to just imagine that I am going to work and will be gone for a few months," he said through an interpreter recently. "Now she is losing all hope."

The journey of the 12 families began in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, after Gasparyan's younger brother, Samvel, began noticing the same people lined up day after day applying to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

"For several months we kept running into each other," Samvel said through an interpreter. "Then one day we understood that we weren't going to succeed by ourselves. We found out if you went by yourself, you wouldn't get anywhere."

Most were strangers when they met, but after five years of sticking together, they have become like a large extended family. Their children play together and call the adults "aunt" or "uncle" when they meet.

The one thing they did have in common was that they were descendants of Armenians who were forced to flee their homeland in 1915.

At that time, Armenia, in the mountainous region southeast of the Black Sea and southwest of the Caspian Sea, had been divided between the Ottoman Empire in the west and Russia to the east.

The Turkish Armenians' fight for independence, begun in 1894, culminated in 1915 in the large-scale killing of Turkish Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. An estimated 1.5 million were killed, and another half-million fled or were deported from Turkey, said Richard Hovannisian, professor of Armenian and Near Eastern history at UCLA.

Many of the survivors ended up in the Middle East, primarily in Lebanon and Syria, and members of the 12 families still carry traces of their escape in the variety of languages they speak--Turkish, Arabic, Armenian and Russian.

Three decades later, after World War II, some families began returning to the part of Armenia that lay within the Soviet Union in a movement known as "nerkaght" or ' 'hyrenatartzoutioun," both roughly translated as "return to the homeland."

Many Soviet Armenians welcomed their returning relatives, but Kirametchian said those who came back were not happy in their homeland because they believed that the government treated them as suspicious foreigners and denied them opportunities.

"Our parents' plans were never fulfilled, and they were disillusioned," she said. "They felt they had walked into a jail."

Kirametchian said discontent with the restrictions of Soviet life drove many people, including herself, to stand in line at the emigration office day after day.

It wasn't hard to find others wanting to leave the Soviet Union, Kirametchian said. But many refused to become embroiled in an active campaign to get out.

"Many wanted to leave but didn't want to risk everything," Kirametchian said. "We 12 really decided to take all the risks. We were prepared for the worst."

The worst included the possibility of arrest. In actively pressing their case, they were subject to harassment and had to spend long hours planning how to leave.

Samvel said the group met several times a week and wrote to President Ronald Reagan, the International Red Cross, the United Nations and others, asking for help.

They went as a group to meet with Soviet officials in Yerevan, demanding to know why they could not leave, he said. Several times a year, representatives of each family would fly to Moscow to press their case.

Stripped of Citizenship

On their third trip to Moscow, in March, 1984, 48 of them were met on the tarmac in Yerevan by 100 policemen who arrested 19 of them, according to a November, 1984, article in the Washington Post. They were released the next day and told that they would not be able to leave the country and should abandon their plans, according to the article.

But the group persisted. Last July, members of five families were stripped of their Soviet citizenship and given 10 days to leave the country, Gasparyan said.

They were led to believe that the other families would follow soon.

During the 10 days before his departure, Gasparyan said he felt both joy and concern because his wife and children did not have permission to leave with him.

"I had no suspicions," he said. "I thought it was just a bureaucratic mix-up."

Gasparyan and his brothers and parents left the country in August carrying only their clothes, a satchel of family photographs and some crystal from Armenia.

Soon after, he applied for his wife to emigrate, but in February she was told that the application had been rejected.

"She was astonished," he said. "Up until then, we thought it would only be a matter of time."

Since February, the Gasparyans have devoted most of their time to trying to bring the rest of the family to the United States. They have contacted the U. S. State Department and congressmen and senators from this area.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale) wrote a letter to the Soviet Embassy in Washington on behalf of the family, but has so far gotten only an acknowledgement that his letter was received.

Maxine Dean, Moorhead's executive secretary, said she has no idea what effect the letter will have on the Soviets.

"Sometimes we are amazed; other times we get things in the files that will never get resolved," Dean said. "We may disagree with Soviet decisions, but it is their country."

One State Department official said the department is considering placing the Gasparyans' name on an official list of separated families periodically presented to Soviet authorities.

The list, which has about 130 families, was most recently presented during Secretary of State George P. Shultz's visit to the Soviet Union in April, the official said.

Sergei Aivazian, Soviet vice consul in San Francisco, said that he was unfamiliar with the Gasparyan case but that it is a routine procedure to join separated families and the Soviet government would not normally stand in the way.

But Gasparyan said: "If it's routine, why are they still there?"

He believes that his wife and children have been detained as punishment for the trouble the 12 families caused before they left their homeland.

His younger brother, Samvel, was a leader of the movement, and Gasparyan believes that his wife and children were detained because his brother is single and had no family to retaliate against.

Samvel Gasparyan agreed: "I think they are taking revenge on me. They are punishing me through my brother's family."

Aivazian said Soviet citizens can be kept in the country if they are connected with the military or intelligence services or have been suspected of committing a crime.

But "Lusik is just a housewife; that's it," Gasparyan said. "She has never worked or been arrested."

Gasparyan, who had worked as a mechanical engineer in Soviet Armenia, said his effort to bring his wife and children to the United States has become a full-time job.

He spends his days finding translators, typing letters and meeting with others in the Armenian community. His only break is to take English classes four times a week.

He speaks to his wife two or three times a month, calling late at night at their home in Yerevan.

Gasparyan and his parents and brothers live in a modest home in north Pasadena on about $1,600 a month in welfare and Social Security benefits for his parents, he said.

Difficult Adjustment

As with other members of their extended family, the Gasparyans' adjustment has been difficult and painful at times.

No one speaks English very well, and none of them has found steady work. Gasparyan's youngest brother, Yervand, 26, who has a physics degree from a Soviet Armenian university, tried selling hot dogs in Downey but quit after two weeks because his English was not good enough. He wants to eventually attend college here.

But the Gasparyans have found a degree of comfort in the circle of friends and relatives connected with the 12 families.

To celebrate their friends' arrival, they all met at Kirametchian's home in North Hollywood for an Armenian-style barbecue of beef and eggplant.

Kirametchian said the families are already planning another get-together, this time for a demonstration at the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco on behalf of Gasparyan's wife and children.

"We want to get the 12 families together again," Karo said. "Just like in Armenia."

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