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Relating to Cultural Identity

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bedros Hajian speaks softly about his transgressions: the eight months he spent in jail in 1988 for a burglary conviction, his past bouts with cocaine addiction.

He was, until 10 years ago, a troubled young Armenian--one of an estimated few thousand in Southern California for whom culture shock, peer pressure and a new world of temptations have splintered their lives and left them behind bars.

“So many Armenian young men come to this country and are tempted,” Hajian said. “They get involved in drugs, they become depressed about not knowing the language well, or not having a job and being able to support their families. Many end up in prison.”

So that is where Hajian spends his work week.

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Last month, the 36-year-old Hollywood man became the nation’s first chaplain ministering full-time to Armenian inmates. He visits the ashen-faced convicts in their cells and meets with distraught family members confused by a new society with new social mores.

His beeper chirps every few minutes, heralding the call of another distraught parent or sibling worried about a young Armenian in trouble with the law.

“They need me to help them,” Hajian said as he peered at the latest set of numbers to flash across his pager.

He has ministered to about 1,000 inmates since taking up the task voluntarily two years ago, in the name of spreading the word of God. The nonprofit Armenian Social Service Center, based in Hollywood and one of only two Armenian social service organizations in the state, hired him full time.

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“As more and more Armenians have come to the country, mostly around 10 years ago, the need for Bedros has increased,” said Jack Loussararian, executive director of the Armenian Social Service Center. Armenian inmates simply feel more comfortable talking with someone who shares the same cultural background, Loussararian said.

“So many of these guys want to talk to an Armenian,” said Hajian, who was born in Lebanon 36 years ago and came to the United States 20 years ago. “It’s in the Armenian culture--they open up easier to an Armenian. And when they hear of my past problems, they feel more comfortable. They know I understand.”

An estimated 7,000 Armenian prisoners now sit behind bars in California, according to Armenian and law enforcement organizations.

Hajian acknowledges that the Armenian inmate population in the United States, where 1 million Armenians live, is growing--as is virtually every ethnic and racial group in the nation. This is especially true in Southern California, where the bulk of Armenians in the United States live, according to Census Bureau data and Armenian organizations in the region.

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But Hajian said he didn’t know whether the Armenian incarceration rate in the United States was a byproduct of culture shock or simply of Armenians becoming Americanized.

Americans, after all, are incarcerated at rates that far outpace the rest of the world. With roughly one inmate for every 163 residents, the U.S. rate, according to figures released by the Department of Justice, is six to eight times higher than rates in most other industrialized nations and exceeding the last reported rate from Russia, which ranked second.

“It’s a wonderful idea to have him doing this,” said Jeffrey Utter, a United Church of Christ clergyman and president of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council. Utter, who also ministers to inmates around the area, said a recent study by the Prison Fellowship Ministries suggests that inmates who receive religious counseling are less likely to find themselves back behind bars.

In the study, 14% of inmates who participated in religious counseling were rearrested after their release, compared with 41% of those not given the counseling.

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“And the more people who are spoken to by someone who listens, who cares, the more that will respond positively,” Utter said. “I imagine the Armenians will be comfortable opening up with [Hajian] knowing his background.”

Utter noted, however, that prisoners of all backgrounds tend to want to talk with chaplains, regardless of the cleric’s ethnicity or race. “They really just want anyone to listen, to show they care about them,” he said.

Hajian is a Protestant clergyman and many of the Armenians he ministers to are Orthodox. Chaplain and inmate need not be alike in every way for ministering to have a positive effect, Utter said. “But similarities, like his Armenian heritage, probably do help with some inmates.”

Hajian has helped Karen Oganesyan, a 23-year-old Armenian who will spend the rest of his life in state prison. Oganesyan, a former gang member from North Hollywood who is ticking off the days of a life sentence in an upstate prison for a double-murder conviction, wrote to thank Hajian.

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Although he realizes he will be in prison until he dies, Oganesyan said, Hajian’s help in bringing God into his life has helped him become a better person, even in the maximum-security circumstances of his life.

“I thank [Hajian], for he made me who I am today,” Oganesyan wrote. “I’ve dedicated a lot of time to study the Bible and grow closer and closer to my Lord.”

Hajian has also changed the life of Misak Khrenyan, 26, who is under house arrest at his Hollywood home until mid-March because of a burglary conviction last year. Khrenyan and Hajian sit close together on a couch in the living room during visits, sharing laughs and an obvious friendship.

“He has helped me,” Khrenyan said. “I am with a different view of life now. I see what is right and wrong.”

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Ministering to prisoners is an investment, Hajian concedes, with a return of perhaps 50%. “I think I really reach about half of them.”

But the fact that Armenians finally have a cleric who speaks their language and knows their problems, “is very important,” said Deputy Jim Hellmold of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the county’s jails and holding facilities.

“If he encourages them to improve themselves, it will likely thwart their criminal activity,” Hellmold said. “And that’s the goal.”


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