Meline Elian had never driven in Armenia before the onset of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. The 52-year-old mother from Granada Hills had traveled to her homeland several times as a tourist and for business ventures designed to stimulate the country’s economy. The mountainous landscape had deterred her from navigating the winding roads herself, prompting her to rely on experienced drivers, such as her newly close friend, Armenia native and tour bus driver Vruyr Khachatryan. Shortly after Azerbaijan launched a military operation in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Artsakh (internationally known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Region or NKR) on September 27, Elian found herself behind the wheel of a van, closely following Khachatryan into total darkness through zigzagging forest trails, inching closer to a war zone. She was on a mission to pick up Internationally Displaced People (IDPs) and bring them to safety.
The war in the region has caused over 60 percent of Armenian civilians, or roughly 90,000 people, to flee their homes. Early on, reports of daily shelling of capital city Stepanakert, along with Turkey’s involvement in support of Azerbaijan, prompted an immediate response from the diasporan community. Unwilling to entertain the thought of another 1915 Genocide, which the Turkish government denies to this day, Armenians from all around the world made plans to join the front lines and provide their compatriots with humanitarian aid.
Elian, however, was already in Armenia when the conflict began, providing locals with economic assistance as she had for years, ever since her first visit in 2006, when she started a nonprofit in Artsakh/NKR called the Shushi Karabakh Fund. The money raised supported several projects, including Armenia Fund’s 2009 mission to rebuild Shushi (internationally known as Shusha after the Soviet government established Artsakh/NKR as an Armenian-majority autonomous oblast of the Azerbaijan S.S.R. in 1923). Although her nonprofit was suspended in 2019 following a period of inactivity, she had never stopped giving to local families out of pocket. “I had already made contacts with a few people and I went to help them out,” says Elian, recalling the decision that led her to travel to Armenia during a pandemic. “I had prayed during COVID: ‘Lord give me a task. Whatever it is, I will do it.’”
Faith plays an important role in Elian’s life and serves as her greatest motivation. “I’m very religious. I walk with God and whatever I do, I pray and I’m with him in spirit for each step.” Her prayers were answered when an opportunity arose to book a charter flight to Armenia in August. She was able to travel to the capital city of Yerevan and continue her philanthropic work, not knowing a greater plan would soon unfold.
Skirmishes had broken out along Armenia and Azerbaijan’s border in July. Before war broke out, Elian and Khachatryan had been visiting scenic locations in Armenia, both sightseeing and contributing to various charities and businesses. The two met last year through her parents, who had booked him as their tour guide. They immediately connected thanks to their mutual love of children. When the fighting began, they united with the third member of their group, psychologist Gayane Petrosyan, who works with children from troubled homes. Elian wanted to do more. “This donation thing is not enough for me,” she remembers telling the two of them. She had escaped the 1978 Iranian Revolution when she was 11 years old and experienced the war as a flashback to her past. “I wanted to help. I wasn’t going to run from my fears.”
The group’s initial instinct was to create a center for IDPs that would provide counseling services to children dealing with the horrors of sudden homelessness and war. They chose an undisclosed location, which had temporarily closed due to COVID-19, as their base. Elian and Khachatryan had visited the location in the resort town of Dilijan a few weeks prior. It was quiet, secluded, and full of soothing natural wildlife.
It was raining as they began collecting provisions to head north. Before leaving, Khachatryan received a phone call informing him that several families consisting of women and children had left their homes in Artsakh/NKR as the combat had intensified. By then, there had already been reports of cluster munitions being fired in the area. In that moment, the two decided they would each drive a van and pick up the evacuees in order to get them out of harm’s way. A follow-up phone call shortened their trip. The IDPs had crossed into Armenia and made it to Lake Sevan at the border. When it was time to pick them up, Elian and Khachatryan turned off their headlights and drove to their location, where Petrosyan was waiting for them as well. The first group that greeted them included a pregnant mother with her two young sons. All were dirty and frightened.
“I just put down a blanket, took [out] my phone, and started to play Tom and Jerry,” says Elian. “They needed a distraction. They were frozen. They came out with their torn shoes. They didn’t even pick up passports, nothing.”
They arrived in Dilijan and got to work. Every day they made sure the IDPs had three square meals and psychological assistance. Almost all of the families had sent soldiers off to war. “We wrote everything down: their names, their original home [addresses], where they came from,” Elian says. “Each night we would meet in a room for one, two, three hours till three in the morning, sometimes four.” Petrosyan would type everything up and send it to Tavush’s regional government so that they could begin making the IDPs’ paperwork. Ministry workers from Yerevan received word of their camp and sent over packages of food and clothing in the middle of the night. All those involved took precautions to make sure their exact location was kept a secret.
“We were in the middle of the forest. If they wanted to come, we could be stranded. We didn’t have one weapon with us,” Elian cofesses.
Every night, the group worked to resolve new problems—a pregnant woman would feel sick, a grandmother would fall and need medical assistance, a wounded soldier would be reunited with his family at the camp. Elian, Khachatryan, and Petrosyan took turns venturing out to buy shoes and thicker sweaters to help the IDPs withstand the coming winter. Meetings were held in municipality buildings to try to place them with new families in Armenia. “It was very fast,” Elian says. Once a group was taken to a new home, the three of them would check in on the adopting families and provide them with extra supplies, maintaining communication and even arranging for the children to enroll in school.
Amid the turmoil, there were happy moments of shared community bonding among the children at the camp. “The kids, the interaction, the love would change their faces,” recalls Elian, who knows them all by name. “A little bit of singing would change [everything]. We did a play one night: Little Red Riding Hood.”
As of the writing of this article, the trio’s grassroots organizing have helped save over 800 IDPs from Artsakh/NKR. After the war ended on November 10, most of the IDPs from Stepanakert were able to return to the capital and have since begun the process of rebuilding their homes. Uncertainty continues to plague the Armenian residents of both Artsakh/NKR and Armenia proper in part due to confusion regarding new border agreements, with lines dividing provinces and even running right through residents’ properties. Additionally, many Armenian families are still waiting to recover the bodies of their loved ones.
The war may be over, but Elian is always looking to the future. Currently, she is buying and sending materials to Armenia and Artsakh/NKR in order to help locals make and sell shirts and jackets. Many of these same articles of clothing are being bought by locals in Los Angeles and donated right back to those in need. While Petrosyan and Khachatryan continue to manage the camp and raise funds in Dilijan, Elian’s outreach has continued to inspire giving here in L.A. The nonprofit organization Bridging the Borders and the Canoga Park private school AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian were both able to donate thousands of dollars to displaced families. Bridging the Borders members Susán Aksu Movsesian and Araik Sinanian hand-delivered goods to the displace people during the holiday season, while Elian and AGBU third grade teacher Houry Khechoumian co-created Artsakh’s Nvehr, a sponsorship program connecting families around the world with Armenian families affected by the war.
According to Elian, the more hands-on, the better. “Every day is a new game. As we speak, the people are already booking flights to go. To help. They’re not waiting for something to happen.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Follow us on Facebook.