County Braces for Sudden Influx of Soviet Armenians

Times Staff Writers

Already straining to serve thousands of Southeast Asian refugees, the county of Los Angeles now is bracing for the arrival this year of an estimated 10,000 emigres from Soviet Armenia.

County officials say it would be the largest single influx of an ethnic refugee group here since the resettlement of Vietnamese “boat people” in the late 1970s. Schools, social service and welfare agencies have been caught unprepared for the sudden surge in Armenian refugees, and are scrambling to find additional manpower and funds.

“We’re trying to get the resources. We’re really trying to do everything we can on short notice to help these people,” said Melvin Kuznets, district director of the Glendale office of the county’s Department of Public Social Services.

Citing severe cuts in federal refugee money, the officials say they are unable to provide immediate job and language training to the estimated 2,000 Soviet Armenians who have arrived in Los Angeles since October, and the 8,000 more who are expected.


Officials fear that a delay in these services will increase the odds that Soviet Armenians will become part of a permanent welfare class.

“If we don’t get them on the right track quickly, they may be lost to us,” the county’s coordinator for refugee affairs, Joan Pinchuk, said. “Right now, we have no job training or ESL (English as a Second Language) slots to put Armenian refugees in.”

Unlike the Southeast Asian community, whose large numbers are aided by a well-established network of private agencies serving Indochinese refugees, the Armenian community is virtually bereft of such groups.

“Every public and private agency is understaffed and it means that the Armenians are confronting delays in getting their most basic services,” said Bruce Whipple, director of the local office of the International Rescue Committee, a private agency that assists refugees during their first 30 days of resettlement.


Cultural problems also have complicated the efforts. County health workers screening Soviet Armenian refugees for medical problems, for instance, have been surprised not only by their large numbers but by their fearful reaction to routine examinations. Some have refused medicine and X-rays.

“They seemed to be afraid of the radiation,” said Judith Snedeker, director of the county’s health screening program.

The current influx of Soviet Armenians began last August, when Soviet officials--as an apparent byproduct of Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost --began quietly approving exit visas for thousands of Armenians wanting to join relatives in America.

Last Year’s Total


Last year, 3,250 Soviet Armenians were allowed to emigrate to the United States, a dramatic increase over the 246 who came in 1986. Even so, the State Department was unprepared for the 1,000 and more who began showing up with approved exit visas in hand at the American Embassy in Moscow in the past few months.

Officials say the influx is not related to recent turmoil in Soviet Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan.

“At no time . . . did the Soviets tell us they were about to approve massive numbers of Armenian exit visas,” said Terry Rusch of the State Department’s Bureau for Refugee Programs in Washington.

Rusch said the relaxation of emigration restrictions has been extended to Soviet Jews but not nearly to the degree as for the Armenians. Besides the 2,000 Soviet Armenians who have entered the United States so far this year, several thousand more have had their exit permits approved and are awaiting processing in Moscow by U.S. Embassy personnel, a procedure slowed by a shortage of staff.


If the present trends continue, the State Department projects that 12,000 Soviet Armenians will enter the United States by the end of the year--10,000 of them being resettled in the Los Angeles area.

Armenian community leaders say these numbers reflect only a small part of the tens of thousands wanting to join family in the United States. Eight out of 10 are expected to be resettled in the Los Angeles area alone, chiefly in Hollywood and Glendale.

‘Going to Hollywood’

“‘Going to Hollywood, going to Hollywood.’ You hear it all the time on the streets of Yerevan,” said Harry Diramarian, local chairman of the Hunchak Party, one of three Armenian political parties.


Hollywood--with its storefront Armenian restaurants and bakeries and apartments above filled with Armenian emigres--has become something of a port of entry for the Soviet refugees. In 1979 and 1980, a first wave--numbering 9,500--arrived in America, many of them eventually congregating in Hollywood.

Armenian community leaders say Hollywood continues to thrive as an Armenian enclave but as Soviet Armenians have progressed, many have moved to outlying communities such as Glendale and Burbank.

The second wave of newcomers now arriving thus are joining relatives in Hollywood and Glendale. Besides Soviet Armenians, as many as 3,000 Armenians from Iran are expected to arrive in the United States this year to live with Iranian-Armenian emigre families in Glendale and nearby communities.

“The whole city’s not ready for this,” said Arick Gevorkian of the Glendale office of the Armenian National Committee. “Right now, we’re organizing with the school district, with the churches, trying to facilitate these newcomers. But we are racing against time and we are not very ready.”


Weakening of Homeland

Armenian community and church leaders regard the arrival of large numbers of Soviet Armenians with ambivalence. They argue that an exodus from Soviet Armenia weakens the only homeland the Armenians know and dilutes their claim to historic Armenian lands in Turkey that some Armenian political parties want returned.

“Every Armenian who leaves Armenia not only diminishes our collective power there, but is also risking the eventual loss of his or her national heritage and identity,” says Harut Sassounian, editor of the California Courier, an Armenian-American weekly published in Glendale.

Armenian leaders, aware of the human rights implications of such a stance, stress that Soviet Armenia traditionally has had a measure of freedom not afforded other Soviet republics. They add that Soviet Armenia, like the rest of the Soviet Union, has become more open since Gorbachev took office.


“Unlike Soviet Jews, Soviet Armenians are not emigrating to their homeland. Instead, they are leaving it,” Sassounian said.

County officials say their efforts to absorb Armenian newcomers is complicated by the fact that the refugees travel directly from Yerevan to Los Angeles with only a few days stopover in Rome. This makes it impossible to offer English and cultural training programs that are available to Southeast Asians in refugee camps.

Funding Cutback

In recent years, the Reagan Administration has cut back funding for programs targeting refugees. Federal grants given to counties such as Los Angeles and Fresno that are home to high concentrations of refugees have been cut by more than 50%, from $7.4 million in 1984 to $3 million today, according to county officials.


Federal funds used to screen new arrivals for communicable diseases have also been cut. In addition, county officials say, the federal government has limited the period of time it fully covers the cost of a refugee on welfare. In the past, the state and localities did not have to contribute to a refugee on welfare for the first 36 months. The time period is now 24 months.

As the number of Armenians applying for public assistance has doubled and tripled, welfare offices in Hollywood and Glendale have added nearly a dozen Armenian-speaking caseworkers and clerical staff in recent months.

Glendale schools have hired five Armenian-speaking teachers or teacher’s aides in 1987 to add to a staff of eight and have plans for more.

At John Marshall Elementary School in Glendale, the Armenian population has grown by more than 100 students, forcing the school to add one mobile classroom on its campus to accommodate the newcomers.


‘Fragments Program’

Two teachers and five teacher’s aides speak Armenian, but school Principal Wayne Sparks said as many as 75 Armenian students are now in classrooms where no staff person speaks their primary language.

“With these kind of numbers coming in from Soviet Armenia, we’re having to place them in regular classrooms, anyplace we can,” Sparkes said. “It kind of fragments our program. We just can’t place these youngsters where we can help them most.”

Local officials are also having trouble helping the parents of these children learn English. Language classes at Glendale Community College have a waiting list of more than 800. In the absence of spaces, Armenian community groups such as the Glendale-based Armenian Relief Society and the Armenian National Committee are pressing for funds to open language classes of their own.


“The same people are being asked over and over again to open up their pockets to help,” said Sarkis Ghazarian, local director of the Armenian Relief Society. “People have only so much money to give.”

Ceiling Reconsidered

The sudden Armenian exodus has forced the Reagan Administration to reconsider its ceiling of 15,000 refugees allowed to enter the United States from all of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1988. The State Department and the Administration are now discussing ways of doubling the ceiling to accommodate refugees from countries such as Poland and Romania, according to federal officials.

The State Department’s Rusch said it is unclear if the flow of Soviet Armenians will be affected by recent massive protests in the Soviet Armenian capitol of Yerevan that center on a historic dispute over ancient Armenian lands now located in Azerbaijan.


“The Armenian influx could slow down to a trickle or stop in the next few months,” she said. “But it doesn’t look that way.”