BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
As the 30th anniversary of 1988 earthquake of Gyumri was getting closer, a desire inside me awakened to do some research about it and meet people who were affected by it and to write.
My first interview was with survivor Samuel Armen who was born 56 days before the earthquake on October 12, 1988 in Gyumri.
I met him in December of 2017, last year, at the Abril bookstore in Glendale. He was there to promote his newly published book, Among the Brightening Bloom, which is a collection of stories written by Armenian teenagers who had participated in a writing course, which he taught.
The project was funded through the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) foundation, which does fantastic work with Armenia’s rural villages. More about the COAF foundation later in this article.
I’m not sure whether the Armenian kids are extremely brilliant (which I believe they are) or Samuel is an extraordinary teacher, or both, because from the stories I read it was hard to believe that they were written by a bunch of village kids, who hadn’t known English only three years prior.
Now let’s go back to 1991, to an orphanage for mentally retarded children in Gyumri, where three-year-old Samvel Moushegh Dalakashvilli lived as an orphan.
Across from that orphanage, there was a building where the Jewish Community Center was housed. The JCC was one of the many centers in Gyumri that was established to bring aid to the victims of the earthquake.
Samuel told me that a watershed moment presented itself, when one day a young woman, Stella Grigorian, from Houston Texas, who was working at the Jewish center came to visit the orphanage.
According to Stella, the little three-year old Samuel cajoled his way to her heart. He gripped her hand and took her on a tour of the orphanage. Stella noticed that little Samuel is not at all mentally disabled and indeed he’s only at the facility because he’s severely cross-eyed. Her visit to the orphanage became a turning point in Samuel’s life.
Stella made arrangements for the young boy to be transported to the United States to undergo a correctional eye surgery. Soon little Samuel was in New Jersey to begin the next chapter of his life.
A side note: After the earthquake, it was a common practice to place children who had been transported to the United States for medical treatment temporarily with Armenian families as foster parents, until their treatments were complete, and they were cured and well enough to return to their homes in Armenia.
That was the case with three-year-old Samuel. After his successful eye surgery, he was placed with an Armenian family, Mr. & Mrs. Saraydarians, in New Jersey.
For his fourth birthday, the Saraydarians arranged a party and they surprised him by inviting Big Bird – a character from PBS’ Sesame Street program that Samuel had come to love – from watching American TV.
At some point during the party, Big Bird lifts Samuel up and someone takes a photo of them. That picture, a young boy with a patch on his eye and a cute smile, in the arms of Big Bird gets published in the Armenian Reporter and becomes a sensation in the Armenian community of the East Coast.
He said, “the published picture made me sort of an attraction in the Armenian community of New Jersey. Families would ask to borrow me, take care of me, feed me, have me sleep over, and meet their own children.”
The Saraydarians, Samuel’s temporary foster family, wanted to find adoptive parents for him, however, they had set strict parameters for the adoptive family. Finally, Dr. Garo Armen and his wife Valerie, from Long Island, New York, could be qualified to become Samuel’s permanent parents.
Samuel was almost five when Dr. and Mrs. Armen and their eight-year-old son Zachary drove from Long Island to pick up Samuel and take him to their home.
He said, “At that tender age I thought that I would never see my foster parents, who had given me so much love. So, I sobbed all the way in the backseat of the car.” He continued, “At that point I didn’t know how fortunate and blessed I was to become part of that family—to have a caring parents and a wonderful brother, Zachary, who became like a best friend to me.”
When Samuel became a teenager, he started to wonder how he got there and who his biological parents were. He said that with the help of a family friend he found Stella’s phone number and he himself called her. Through Stella he found out about the details and the chain of events that led him from an orphanage for mentally disabled children in Gyumri to a doctor’s family in Long Island.
“Just as the earth was created with the aid of the heavenly constellations,” said Samuel, “my life’s fortunate journey to a family in United States began with Stella.” He continued,”My life has been a series of miracles, that have led me into a blessed life. My very first miracle being that I survived the Gyumri earthquake.”
Today Samuel Armen is a teacher and an author based in New York. He runs workshops on creative writing. He often travels to Armenia to conduct writing courses with village kids, through the COAF program. His second novel, Through a Just Lens is completed and is due to be published by the end of this year.
He said that he tremendously enjoys working with the Armenian kids. He thinks this is one way to give back the love and the good life with which he has been bestowed. Samuel’s adoptive parents played a significant role in shaping his life’s course and it was not just by providing him with a safe and loving home.
Let me quickly mention about Samuel’s adoptive family. By the time the Armen family met Samuel, Dr. Garo H. Armen was in his 40s and was already an outstanding biochemist who had made great strides in his profession and had developed a drug called Oncophage for treating cancer.
Another milestone in Doctor Armen’s life happened when, at the age of 50 in 2003, he founded a charity organization for Children’s of Armenia called COAF— Children of Armenia Fund.
I came to know about the COAF foundation in 2015 when I was visiting the National Gallery of Armenia at the Republic square in Yerevan.
On that day at the museum, I met groups of children being guided through the galleries. They were all neatly wearing red and blue T-shirts with COAF letters imprinted on them. I was curious to know who those kids were. Where did they come from?
Soon I leaned that they were village kids who were attending a two-week camp based outside of Yerevan in the Armavir region. On that day those 180 kids were bused to Yerevan as an educational field trip.
I was truly moved to see how well those kids behaved. Regardless of their age, they were very attentive to what the docent explained and even sometimes they answered questions.
Through the generosity of Armenians of the diaspora, there are a few other charitable organizations with the aim to reduce rural poverty in Armenia and with primarily focus on children’s education. However the COAF foundation is the forerunner and the most established in advancing education and the healthy living in Armenia’s rural communities.
Over the past 15 years, the organization has dramatically improved the quality of life for 75,000 people in 44 villages. Since its inception nearly $40 million (USD) has been raised in support of numerous infrastructure improvements and comprehensive community programs in the field of education, healthcare and social services.
To further their mission, on May 17, 2018, (this year) a state-of-the-art campus was inaugurated in the Lori region. Recently I had the opportunity to visit that educational facility, which is called the COAF Smart Center.
The single-story elongated building with a unique architectural design sits on a flat piece of land, surrounded by green pastures and rolling hills. When we arrived there, and got out off the car, my friend said, “I think, Heaven must be like this…” It really felt magical.
The Center caters to six nearby villages by providing summer enrichment programs with various activities, as well as after-school clubs during the academic year.
Although COAF is primarily focused with creating prosperity through education, that is not the only project in the works. For example, I learned that COAF is starting an agricultural project partnering with the nearby village of Debet.
As a pilot project, COAF will provide 200 raspberry plants to each family to plant in a plot adjacent to their home. They will train the villagers how to cultivate the plants and this will help to create a small income for each family with the potential of growth.
To use the Center, the kids are transported by bus from their villages to the campus. They spend a few hours there and then are returned back to their homes. Every child gets to be at the center twice a week.
To expand English language learning, COAF has partnered with the US Embassy in Yerevan and the British Council.
It’s just amazing to see how well these kids have learned to speak English. Let me quickly remind you that these are the same kids that attend the workshops that Samuel Armen conducts in Armenia. In only few years they went from not speaking English to being able to read and write well enough to have a published story.
However the most amazing story of all, is about human generosity and giving back to the community. A doctor had the impulse to create a foundation that would give thousands of children and their families the means to improve their lives in both big and small ways. And his adopted son returned to his homeland to help a new generation of children discover the joy of writing that has been such a tremendous catalyst in his own life.
Doctor Garo Armen has paved the path to future progress in Armenia and it’s such a tremendous inspiration for all. And maybe it all started with the most devastating earthquake of 1988.