There was a group today of eight young ladies from Artsakh who started singing while chopping vegetables and wrapping bread. After all they have been through, they have more optimism about the future than one would imagine.
Laura L. Constantine
Last September, with the news reports and photos of terrorized Armenian evacuees stuck in gridlock for as many as 48 hours on the road out of Artsakh, the reality of a looming crisis of historic proportions became clear. Over 100,000 evacuees would be descending on the Republic of Armenia in unprecedented numbers in a matter of a few days.
AGBU wasted no time to gear up for the monumental challenge at hand, given its deep experience on the frontlines of humanitarian relief, especially those of more recent memory—from the Syrian Armenian refugee crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, the explosion at the Port of Beirut, the 2020 Artsakh War, and now the exodus of the Armenians from Artsakh.
According to AGBU Central Board Member Ani Manoukian, this latest human catastrophe is in a league all its own. “We could only imagine in what condition we would find these forcibly displaced people of every age and backstory crossing the border by the tens of thousands. We knew they had somehow endured Azerbaijan’s merciless nine-month economic blockade of Artsakh, leaving them severely malnourished, exhausted, and overwhelmed with anxiety and emotion. Then the ordeal of those last days, hiding from Azeri military attacks in crowded basements, and finally, making the excruciating decision to abandon the only life and home they knew and flee to Armenia,” she explained.
An AHA Moment
Manoukian went on to say that the first order of business would be to give these overwhelmed evacuees a tangible sign that the worst was over and they could begin to feel safe and embraced by the care and kindness of fellow Armenians. “What better way to communicate that sentiment than by offering them a warm meal made with locally-sourced fresh ingredients that is both nutritious and delicious. That’s when I knew exactly who to call to make it happen,” Manoukian added.
Within two days, Lebanese Armenian restaurateur, humanitarian, and AGBU program alumna Aline Kamakian was in Yerevan, anticipating the imminent arrival of a select team from World Central Kitchen (WCK), a global relief organization that she aligned with in 2020 in the aftermath of the Beirut Blast, with the collaboration of AGBU Lebanon. That was when she first met renowned chef José Andrés, founder of WCK. The kindred spirits clicked and Andrés mentored Kamakian on the complexities and efficiencies of mass meal distribution.
“This time, I knew that the operation ahead of us was going to be far more challenging than in Beirut,” noted Kamakian. “I explained to José what was at stake and he immediately agreed to send in the professionals at WCK to partner with AGBU. The very next day, we were ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
As the first wave of evacuees crossed the border to southern Armenia, WCK cooks, meal prep workers, AGBU Armenia staff and global volunteers were already stationed in the Armenian border town of Goris to welcome the weary travelers with ample servings of comfort foods and drinks, and sincere respect and dignity thrown into the mix. Many of the local restaurants opened their kitchens and supplies to WCK or helped prepare hearty and wholesome meals themselves. This is part of the WCK model for feeding the needy in local disaster zones.
The warm meals were the first sign of comfort and hope for these besieged victims of history. Kamakian described the conditions as very fluid, depending on how many evacuees were arriving at one time and where they were headed. Many of them arrived disheveled and disoriented with just one suitcase in their possession, due to the maddening exodus from the living hell to which Azerbaijan had subjected them.
She was also quick to point out: “If they couldn’t find us, we would find out where they were staying for the night and deliver the meals to them.” In the first few days, a handful of AGBU volunteers and Kamakian would make the rounds to various addresses where the evacuees were sheltering, some at local hotels, others at the private residences of friends or relatives, those rushed to emergency rooms in the local hospital, and a few sheltering in the basement of houses opened to them by compassionate locals.
Juan Jimenez is part of the WCK team as manager of community outreach. He is from Columbia and Honduras and has seen his share of crisis and chaos. “World Central Kitchen wants to be in every place where a hot meal can make a difference. After days of conflict, people were arriving from big cities and small towns and all around Armenia to access a meal. That’s why we are here. To make a change with a hot meal,” he stated.
“So we are working with teams of locals that have experience and understand what the beneficiaries like to eat. Some of our chefs are also Armenian, so we’re making sure the food is delicious and it’s served with a smile. We are getting great feedback,” Jimenez noted.
He also clarified that the WCK model is not possible without local collaboration. “Having this relationship with AGBU gives us access to many local resources, like facilities, chefs, and volunteers, and especially people who love what they are doing. Getting access, recommendations, and information from AGBU is a game changer, because it gives us deeper insight into the culture.”
Good Food Travels Fast
One month and over 150,000 meals later and Manoukian and Kamakian took pause to reflect on all that the AGBU and WCK partnership had accomplished literally from scratch.
An average of 10,000-13,000 warm meals a day have been served to evacuated families and individuals, especially those in greatest need who do not have the benefit of relatives and connections in Armenia. “Those who are completely on their own should not fall through the cracks,” noted Kamakian.
Manoukian agreed. “Throughout this undertaking, our amazing staff has been keeping updated records of our outreach efforts.”
Inessa Margaryan, AGBU Director of Humanitarian Projects and Volunteer Engagement (Armenia) explained, “Our footprint has expanded from two meal hubs in the first few days to meal prep and distribution centers in multiple locations across seven regions. And that can change from day to day, as many evacuees are still on the move, looking for a place to call home.”
Margaryan also noted that with the expertise of WCK and the agility of AGBU, food boxes are now also offered to certain families, given that many local Armenians have opened their homes to people from Artsakh. In that instance, large boxes containing a monthly supply of cooking ingredients including some fresh produce and utensils for at-home preparation are hand-delivered or available for pick up. AGBU volunteers will continue to distribute these packages as needs arise.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is that a warm meal and a genuine smile go a very long way to begin the healing process after so much tragedy and loss. The importance of making these newcomers feel welcomed, respected, and supported is visibly evident. “It has been a true blessing to work with the WCK team who show us each day that there are good people in the world, and who are true allies in in our efforts to provide care and compassion. This entire operation has been a testament to how Diaspora and homeland can seamlessly mobilize networks and know-how,” asserted Manoukian.
The Value of Volunteers
When Shant Petrossian heard that WCK was working with AGBU on the ground in Yerevan, he booked his flight from L.A. to join the team. He took time out from his kitchen duties to express how impressed he was with the entire operation. “Aline Kamakian who brought the two organizations together is a hero. And AGBU makes the logistics so much easier because of its know-how in the humanitarian space and its longtime presence in the country. It’s a perfect combination.”
He admits that he didn’t realize how much time, effort, and planning actually go into this kind of work. “We start as early as 6:00 a.m. prepping the packaging, including the utensils and the breads. By this time, the chefs are working in the kitchen while we are prepping the ingredients—the meats, the vegetables, the side dishes, even garnishes—whatever is on that day’s menu. Then we deliver meals to beneficiaries staying 25-30 minutes away, so that the food stays warm. And once the food is out, we start all over to prep for the next day. It’s a non-stop operation.”
Petrossian is also inspired by his fellow volunteers from around the world. “We have volunteers from as far as Argentina, France, Mexico, and the U.S. Many are from Artsakh. Getting to know them is an honor. They are willing to share their stories. Some spoke about people who were stuck in cars for over a day and died during the evacuation. They are heartbroken but they keep going. Their spirit isn’t broken. There was a group today of eight young ladies from Artsakh who started singing while chopping vegetables and wrapping bread. After all they have been through, they have more optimism about the future than one would imagine.”
From Nourishment to Medical Care
Thanks to the steadfast support of donors over many years, AGBU has been able to offer transformative programs in both Armenia and Artsakh. This is in addition to the many AGBU resources, partners, and connections within the country and around the world. These programs have serendipitously turned out to be quite adaptable to meet the special needs of the Artsakh community.
“We are actively working with our inventory of diversified programs in Armenia to pivot operations as necessary to address as many individuals as possible,” said AGBU Armenia President Vasken Yacoubian. “Our experience in welcoming and integrating other displaced Armenian communities from Syria and Lebanon give us a rare insight into what is needed the most and how to deliver.”
This is why AGBU is quickly scaling up the AGBU Claudia Nazarian Polyclinic which has been in operation since the height of the Syrian Armenian refugee crisis in the mid-2000s. The facility was initially set up to exclusively serve the needs of a new wave of Armenians from Syria, under the care of Syrian Armenian doctors and nurses, offering a sense of community, critical language, as well as culture familiarity for displaced Armenians. The clinic will now scale up current services full-time, including an OBGYN, Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist and ophthalmologist to take on new patients from Artsakh.
Armenians of Artsakh need consistency in their primary care. This is why, by mid-October, the polyclinic had hired a well-qualified pediatrician from Stepanakert and an attending nurse to give the patients that same sense of connection. In addition, a mental health expert was also brought in to help these traumatized and heartbroken families through a very difficult period of adjustment.
Upon joining the staff, Dr. Margarita Hasratyan expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to continue to practice medicine and treat many of the patients she knew back in Artsakh. “It is very important that this community is comfortable talking about their health and emotional states to someone who understands what they have experienced and is one of them. This way, they will be motivated to be proactive about their health, especially after the long periods of stress, malnourishment, and lack of medicine.”
The polyclinic, located conveniently in Yerevan and next to the main AGBUx WCK food distribution center, is slated to welcome as many as 4,000 patients in the coming year.
Training for Employment
AGBU has already helped newcomers secure employment with AGBU Armenia, such as overseeing volunteers, fielding questions and concerns among the beneficiaries, and relaunching AGBU programs that they managed in Artsakh. At the same time, WCK has hired evacuees with the requisite skill set to join the team as paid staffers for as long as the crisis is ongoing. However, the larger investment in human capital has launched in partnership with Hub Artsakh. Together with AGBU, this program will build on the highly successful Learn to Earn Artsakh Program (AGBU LEAP) as well as AGBU signature programs Women Entrepreneurs (WE) and Women Coders. These job enhancement offerings will be bridged to the global AGBU global network of industry experts and Young Professionals in Yerevan to lead job training and skill building as well as internships and employment matching.
“We know from experience that the mind-body connection is key to healing, longevity, and ultimate success—keeping physically healthy through nutrition and medical care; feeling emotionally supported through community, and finding personal value and meaning in daily work and employment,” noted Yacoubian. “We are ready to help with everything from adult education to English-language coaching, business mentoring, and beyond.”
Artsakh Armenians will be welcome, on a regular basis, to work with qualified staff and volunteers to tailor their trainings based on their backgrounds. “We must find a way to ensure that the Artsakh community builds a bright future in Armenia,” said Manoukian, who is keenly aware of all the complexities of orchestrating multiple programs to fit the needs of a community in transition. “With so many tried and true programs and services already in place, AGBU is very well positioned to help the Artsakh community regain its footing and ultimately thrive. It won’t happen overnight, but AGBU is prepared to go the distance.”
This article was featured in the 2023 release of AGBU Impact Magazine. For more information on the AGBU Global Relief Fund, click here.