Armenian immigration to the Southland: Struggle, soujouk and the ‘survivor generation’


Vartouhi Tcholakian remembers hearing bombs passing over her home when the civil war started in Lebanon in 1975.

Her husband had a corner shop in a commercial area in Bourj Hammoud, a district in Beirut heavily populated by Armenians, where he made pressed sandwiches filled with lebne, strained yogurt, halva, a sweet sesame paste, and sliced soujouk, a dry spicy sausage.

But for months, no one came. People had stopped going to work. He was risking his life just to open up.

Eventually, they sold the shop to a key maker for about $3,500. At home, Tcholakian converted her laundry room into a tiny factory to make soujouk and basterma, seasoned air-dried cured beef, which the pair then sold to local markets, all the while hearing bombs dropping nearby.

They lived like that, between the targets, for two years.

As terrifying as it was to live in a war zone, what felt more daunting was the unknown: The prospect of migrating to a foreign place with a new language and culture. The fear of failure.

“We were so scared to move,” said Tcholakian, co-owner and chef of Carousel Restaurant.

In 1978, a year after coming to Hollywood, where her two brothers-in-law already lived, a bomb fell on Tcholakian’s empty home in Lebanon and left a gaping hole.

The same decision has been made by hundreds of thousands of Armenians, uprooting their families and fleeing their homes to escape persecution, war or economic hardship, all of which has created the mosaic of Armenians in America and beyond.

“The sun never sets on the Armenian diaspora,” Khachig Tololyan, professor and founder of Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, wrote in 2000, pointing to the large Armenian communities in Russia, the United States, Georgia, France, the Ukraine, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Argentina, Turkey, Canada and Australia, among others.

In Glendale, Armenians make up about a third of the population. While almost the same number of Armenians live in the city of Los Angeles as do in Glendale, Los Angeles is 20 times its size.

Meanwhile, Armenians make up more than 10% of Burbank’s population. Since 1990, the number of Armenians in Burbank has nearly quintupled, from 2,780 to 13,846, while Glendale’s has more than doubled, from 31,402 in 1990 to an estimated 72,098 in 2013, according to the most recent Census data.

When Osheen Keshishian, founder and publisher of the Armenian Observer, was a student at Glendale Community College in the 1950s, he couldn’t find 15 Armenians to form a student club. Now, Armenian students make up more than a third of the school.

While the local Armenian community has grown only in recent decades, Armenians have been finding their way to America for more than a century.

“The survivor generation”

The first recorded Armenian who arrived in the United States settled in Virginia in the early 1600s, according to Levon Marashlian, professor of history and political science at Glendale Community College. A few years later, several Armenians came to Virginia to develop the silk trade.

But they didn’t start coming to America in waves until the late 1800s, with many escaping the 1894 massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. Those immigrants arrived on the Eastern Seaboard, with many settling in factory towns, finding jobs at textile mills in New England, as well as at Ford Motor Company in Detroit.

“As several settled in one place, then others from same original community would follow them,” said Richard Hovannisian, professor emeritus at UCLA and adjunct professor of history at USC, adding that many more came after escaping the Armenian Genocide of 1915. “Genocide survivors then went to the same towns.”

They settled overwhelmingly in Worcester, Mass., which Marashlian dubbed “the first Glendale.” According to the most recent Census data, an estimated 1,263 Armenians out of more than 200,000 people still live in Worcester.

The more adventurous immigrants added several extra days to their journey to travel by train to California, where they discovered Fresno’s agricultural potential, planting vineyards and fruit orchards.

Families stuck together, and supported one another in business endeavors. Every dollar earned would go into a family kitty, which could later be tapped to buy a family farm – something no individual could have done alone, Hovannisian said.

“They’re a community that tends to work very hard and to thrive,” Hovannisian said. “Part of that is I think the family ethic…This would allow them to get on their feet more quickly.”

Hovannisian was born in Tulare, a small farming community 40 miles from Fresno, in 1932. His father was the only member of his family to survive and escape the Genocide. Somehow, as a teenager, he amassed enough money to secure a third-class ticket to make the roughly month-long journey on the open sea to Ellis Island in 1920.

“They were truly a survivor generation,” he said. “The man lost his entire family, yet when he started our family ten years later, he was the life of the party, very hospitable. That generation learned to sing and dance, even though they had lost everything.”

The Los Angeles expansion

Though they don’t tell every immigrant’s story, several waves of immigration were instrumental in building the local Armenian community.

Many early Armenian residents of Los Angeles had initially immigrated to other cities, some in other states. In the 1950s, Armenians began to leave the Middle East amidst political turmoil. For example, after the Egyptian revolution of 1952, when “it was difficult for Armenians to keep their previous prominent position in the country,” Marashlian said.

The following three waves, during which larger numbers of Armenians came to the Los Angeles area, occurred around the same time – those, like the Tcholakians, who fled the civil war in Lebanon, along with Iranian Armenians who left Iran after the revolution in 1979 and Armenians who left their homeland before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many immigrants from Iran, having been rooted there for generations well before the Armenian Genocide, immigrated with wealth, which allowed them to settle in the Glendale hills. Meanwhile, Armenians who initially settled in Hollywood moved to Glendale as they were able to afford higher costs.

The last, most recent wave of Armenian immigration occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when conditions in Armenia were deplorable.

Electricity and water would be on for just two hours a day, and even then, water was only accessible on the first three floors of apartment buildings, some of which reached 12 stories, Marashlian said.

Tenants had to walk down several flights of stairs to fill buckets with water to carry back up to use to flush their toilets or cook their dinners. Meanwhile, they’d heat their homes with portable kerosene heaters or they’d cut down trees for firewood, or burn books or furniture for heat.

After 1991, about a third of Armenia’s population left, with a vast majority settling in Russia, Marashlian said. Of those who came to the United States, most settled in Glendale.

Enclaves grew by word of mouth. Friends and family would send word back, providing newcomers with a robust support system.

Cultural institutions like Armenian schools and churches proved hugely attractive to immigrants when choosing where to settle. Seemingly insignificant things were a draw, too, like the promise of pita bread on the dinner table on Sunday nights.

When the Tcholakians arrived in Los Angeles, they stayed with family for less than two months before renting a two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, where Vartouhi raised her young son and cared for her mother-in-law, whose health was deteriorating due to Alzheimer’s disease.

For seven years, she handled roughly 200 pounds of meat a week to make soujouk and basterma – among the more pungent Armenian foods – in her living room, which required patience and a whole lot of Clorox.

Soujouk was easy – she’d grind the meat, spice it, fill it into casings, which she’d tie up and hang to dry.

Basterma, meanwhile, was a process that included soaking the meat in salt for two days, pressing it for another two days to squeeze out the blood, hanging the pieces to dry, after which she’d spice meat and hang it to dry again on the roof of their apartment complex, where inevitably, some batches would get stolen. Those that didn’t, she’d sell to her brother-in-law’s market, where her husband worked.

“We came, we worked very, very hard,” she said. “We had very bad days.”

In the early 1980s, Tcholakian’s husband noticed a demand among the growing Armenian community for parties and gatherings.

They consulted a book they’d checked out from the library that offered suggestions for business names. Among them, “Carousel.”

The Tcholakians, who have since moved to Glendale, opened Carousel Restaurant and Banquet Hall in Hollywood on Christmas Eve, their only son’s birthday, of 1984.

Fourteen years later, he opened a second restaurant location in Glendale, now considered a mainstay in the city’s restaurant scene.

That journey, echoed by the thousands who have come before and after, left a permanent stamp on Los Angeles County, enhancing its diversity with their unique flavor.


Alene Tchekmedyian,

Twitter: @atchek