Local Armenian community reacts to takeover of Kessab

The Armenian community in Glendale quickly reacted to the takeover of a majority Armenian town called Kessab by Syrian rebels in northwest Syria in late March, forcing inhabitants to flee.

A social media campaign cooked up by a Glendale youth organization featuring the hashtag #SaveKessab got the attention of thousands of Twitter and Facebook users, including celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Cher and politicians such as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank).

PHOTOS: Armenian community gathers to protest attacks in Kessab

A protest at the Turkish Embassy in Los Angeles, with buses transporting hundreds of people from a Glendale church, was planned just a few days after news of the attack spread, with more protests taking place this week at the Armenian consulate in Glendale. People at the protests have toted handmade signs reading, "#SaveKessab."

Fundraising efforts for Syrian-Armenians also kicked into high gear, with the Glendale-based Syrian Armenian Relief Fund sending about $100,000 last Friday to Kessab refugees.

While the Armenian community in Glendale has had a sharp eye on the Syrian civil war since it began about three years ago due to the large Armenian population there, the recent violence in Kessab has inflated their outrage.

Many Armenians consider the region historically part of their homeland. The forces who overran the town of about 2,000 came in through the Turkish border, an upsetting reminder of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, Glendale residents said, especially as Glendale prepares to commemorate the 99th anniversary of the genocide later this month. In addition, there have been few reports in the mainstream media of the takeover that began on March 21st, leaving family members in Glendale frustrated that the plight of their relatives are falling on deaf ears.

"This is where I spent my childhood and it hits home. My grandfather's house is being looted. My aunt's house is being looted," Lena Bozoyan, executive board chairman of the Glendale-based Armenian Relief Society Western USA, said. "We as a Christian nation, we as the believers of the free, we, a democratic people and country, are not saying a word. This is outrageous."

But as news spreads about Kessab through social media, critics fear the #SaveKessab movement is contributing to the spread of misinformation — especially false YouTube videos of mass killings — diluting long-time efforts to get the Armenian Genocide recognized worldwide.

"There is no Armenian Genocide in #Kessab," Gegham Vardanyan, a journalist for Media.am, an Armenian website focused on promoting media literacy, said in an email. "In my opinion, the negative side of the #SaveKessab campaign is that it can be harmful for the Armenian Genocide campaign in general."

Information about what's happening in Kessab from the U.S. State Deparment is sparse, but last week spokeswoman Marie Harf said during a news conference that department officials were "deeply troubled" by recent fighting and violence against the Syrian-Armenian communities.

Caspar Jivalagian, chairman of the Armenian Youth Federation Western Region USA in Glendale, which created the hashtag, said despite the backlash to the #SaveKessab campaign, his organization's goal is to spread awareness of the innocent suffering during the war.

"Maybe there is misinformation being spread, but it's not being done by our organization," he said. "There is distress in the region and the youth are not turning a blind eye."

Esther Chelebian Tognozzi, president of the Kessab Educational Assn. in Reseda said her organization is trying to tamp down rumors through community meetings. Her group is also tracking where Kessab residents are keeping refuge so family members in the Southland know their whereabouts.

From first-hand reports Tognozzi has received, about 600 Armenian families from Kessab fled to a church in Latakia, a town about 35 miles away, as rebel fighters and Islamist groups entered from the Turkish border and attacked Kessab. Fighting between invaders and Syrian government troops continues, she said.

Glendale resident Garo Ghazarian, who is also chairman of the Armenian Bar Assn., said he is traveling to the region this week. His relatives were among the dozens of elderly who stayed behind during the takeover, but when his uncle recently called the relatives' home, others answered the phone, saying in Arabic, "This is our house now." He is uncertain what has happened to his family.

Word about Ghazarian's planned journey has spread through the Armenian community and he has been receiving dozens of emails from Armenians asking him to find their relatives, too.

"The purpose of me going there is to see that individuals are safe," Ghazarian said. "I am unable to work. I'm better off going there. Even if I can do one thing, it would be one better thing than sitting here."


Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.

Arin Mikailian contributed to this report.

Follow Arin Mikailian on Twitter: @ArinMikailian.


Glendale funds $1.5 million for park renovations

Suspect pleads not guilty to hash oil, drug charges

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World