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Their Finest Hour: Responding to the Earthquake

December 7, 2018, marks 30 years since the 1988 earthquake struck Armenia. The excerpt here, from The Torch Was Passed (1998), recounts how the Armenian-American community came together in those early days to focus on alleviating the suffering in their homeland. (Click here to read the first part of this excerpt.)

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Less than a week after the earthquake, a team comprised of Diocesan primate Archbishop Manoogian, Dr. Edgar Housepian, professor of neurosurgery at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and land developer and philanthropist Kevork Hovnanian left for Armenia, to evaluate the kinds of assistance that would be most useful. They returned on December 20 and held a press conference that very afternoon, during which they reported on the conditions in Armenia, as well as the Diocese’s future plans in the country.

By January 14, three planeloads of relief supplies had been sent to Armenia by the Church in America. To facilitate the shipments, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had loaned a 30,000 square foot space at John F. Kennedy International Airport to the Diocese.

One hundred tons of relief supplies were unloaded by hand over a four-week period, by enthusiastic volunteers from the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America. Fr. Haigazoun Najarian, the acting Diocesan vicar general, accompanied the third shipment and supervised its distribution among the desperate people of the earthquake region. Along with twenty-two tons of food and medical supplies, the provisions included 686 boxes of stuffed animals, donated by the K-Mart department store chain for hospitalized children.

For the Armenians of America, these early months of the earthquake relief effort would later be seen as one of their finest hours. People from all segments of the community, including many who had never been active before, contributed in a myriad of ways to the cause. It is not within the scope of the present chronicle to document every detail of this period, except to affirm that, for a few months at least, the community showed that it could unite in a vast, cooperative undertaking.

Naturally, the Armenian Church of America played an important part in the overall enterprise. At the same time, leaders in the Church and elsewhere saw that the emergency effort pointed beyond itself, to bigger things. There was a sense in 1989 that, at long last, the time might be right for establishing a more integrated relationship with the homeland. For all its heartbreak and tragedy, the earthquake might, in the long run, represent the opening of a new era of cooperation between Armenia and her diaspora offspring.

An outline for just such a long-term effort was provided by His Holiness Vasken I, during a February 1989 visit to America. The catholicos announced that the Armenian Church and its cultural organizations could help most effectively by reconstructing part of the demolished Armenian city of Stepanavan. His Holiness asked to use the outpouring of funds and personal commitments not merely to alleviate the immediate crisis, but to improve the lives of the Armenian people into the future. Inspired by the catholicos’s vision, the Diocesan Council appointed a special committee, under the general chairmanship of Kevork Hovnanian, to plan a comprehensive strategy for helping the people of Armenia emerge from disaster into a brighter, more promising future.

This was the beginning of the Diocesan Fund for Armenia’s Recovery (DFAR) [subsequently the Fund for Armenian Relief, or FAR], and it proved to be one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of the Armenian Church of America. The centerpiece of the program was to be a housing development for Stepanavan, a city of about 30,000 people. The American Armenian Village, as it came to be known, would feature wooden construction, which was more resistant to earthquake than the stonework invariably used in Armenia.

To start the program off, a team of 26 ACYOA volunteers worked for a month during the summer of 1989 to build a complete, single-family dwelling in Stepanavan, using materials shipped entirely from the United States. The second facet of DFAR’s plan, under the direction of Dr. Edgar Housepian, involved a farsighted effort to revitalize Armenia’s medical system. A continuation of humanitarian aid comprised the third leg of the program. Jack Antreassian served as the director of the initial phase of the project, and was succeeded by Ared Bulbuljian late in 1989.

The incredible expression of public generosity elicited by the earthquake would provide the resources for this undertaking. And those resources were quite considerable: by the end of 1989, funds received by the Diocese for earthquake relief amounted to nearly eight million dollars, in addition to six million dollars collected in the form of in-kind donations, free shipping and other services.

An East Wind

Imminent war in Karabagh. The earthquake in Armenia. Coming on the heels of such a long period of prosperity and security, these grave developments appeared to many Armenian Americans as confusing and undeserved afflictions on their people. An earlier generation, perhaps, might have been reminded of the words and imagery of the Bible:

Though he may flourish as the reed plant, the east wind—the wind of the Lord—shall come, rising from the wilderness; and his fountain shall dry up, his spring shall be parched; it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing. (Hosea 13:15)

The wind of 1988, too, had come from the east, bringing destruction and heartache. But it was God’s own wind, nonetheless. It could blight, to be sure; but it could also purify, concentrating the community and, in all but the most superficial sense, uniting it.

When it finally departed, the landscape of the Church would be changed. Old names and faces would be swept away. New leaders, new priorities—a new world—would stand in their place.

Read more in The Torch Was Passed: The Centennial History of the Armenian Church in America, by Christopher H. Zakian (St. Vartan Press, 1998), available through the St. Vartan Bookstore.

Pictured above: A woman in Armenia views the grim devastation of the 1988 earthquake.

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