Angelenos Have Been Working in Armenia on Humanitarian Relief for Nagorno-Karabakh

As tensions flare in the region, locals are heading to Armenia to help—and prepare for a long recovery ahead

Three weeks into his trip to Armenia, Suren Magakian woke up to messages from Los Angeles asking if he was OK. The enclave known to Armenians as Artsakh and to the international community as Nagorno-Karabakh had been attacked, an event that threatened to reignite the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that had come to a ceasefire in 1994.

“To be honest, it freaked me out from the beginning,” Magakian says on a video call. But, his fear quickly turned to motivation. A day after the September 27 attack, he turned to his friends back home, asking if they could send money that he could use to purchase humanitarian supplies for those in need. Magakian thought he might receive $1,000. He reached that goal in an hour and, in the subsequent weeks, far surpassed it as the conflict has escalated, the death toll climbed, and tens of thousands of people were displaced. With the donations, Magakian and a team of friends have secured much-needed items like generators and food and have traveled hours to deliver them.

Two days after the attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, Harout Papyan left for a previously planned trip to Armenia. Given the current situation, he and his fiancée decided that they would fundraise amongst family and friends. People sent contributions to Papyan’s fiancée, who transferred the money to him. With help from his relatives in Armenia and their friends, Papayan purchased hygiene products, non-perishable food, and other items to deliver to displaced families.

In Yerevan, Papyan would check Instagram and see posts from protests in Los Angeles. “I did want to be a part of it, but I was happy that I was back home, back in Yerevan, doing what I was doing,” he says. Now back in Los Angeles, he continues to work remotely with the team in Armenia.

“Everything is needed in this circumstance because towns and villages are ruined.” —Ambassador Armen Baibourtian

Since the onset of the current conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, diasporan Armenians have mobilized through fundraisers, social media campaigns, and protests. For some Angelenos, though, the best ways to help have involved physically being in Armenia.

“As the war began happening, it became really hard for me to not be here, or to be so far away,” says Natalie Kamajian on a video call from Yerevan. When she arrived in Armenia in early October, she brought items like warm clothing and gear for journalists that had been collected by people in the diaspora. “We came with about seven suitcases in addition to our own things,” she says.

Kamajian has been thinking about the DIY relief efforts that have come as a response to the war. The Armenian diaspora, she says, has been “really practicing mutual aid, really practicing real, grassroots organizing without state control or any sort of upper organization.” And that kind of action is important given the growing humanitarian crisis.

“The humanitarian needs are pretty much all-encompassing,” says Ambassador Armen Baibourtian, Consul General of Armenia in Los Angeles. “Everything is needed in this circumstance because villages—towns and villages—are ruined.” Armenia itself doesn’t have official numbers on how many people from Nagorno-Karabakh have relocated to the country, he says. Previously, it’s been reported that about half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population has been displaced. The needs are great but, Baibourtian says, the priority right now is on medical assistance in a time when war is compounded by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

For medical professionals, relief efforts have included procuring medical supplies, taking part in telehealth projects and, in some cases, traveling to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. “There is already a long list of volunteers that is growing day by day,” says Dr. Shant Shekherdimian, an associate professor of surgery at UCLA who is involved with Armenian American Medical Society and other groups working on healthcare assistance.

“As health care providers, this is instinctual for us to rise any such challenge, whether there is a humanitarian crisis in our home country or anywhere else,” he says. “That’s just what we do all day, every day.”

Some are also preparing for the long-term effects of the war. HALO Trust, the global land mine clearance organization, has done significant work in Nagorno-Karabakh for years following the 1990s wars. Amasia Zargarian, who grew up in Glendale, spent two years working in the region before moving to the nonprofit’s Washington D.C. office. “What we are seeing now, of course, is a new kind of threat,” he says by phone from Yerevan. “We’re seeing lots of contamination from explosive items inside of cities and other major population centers of Karabakh. We’re seeing cluster munitions and rockets and artillery shells and different kinds of explosive items that are actually in the cities, in residential areas.”

Right now, they’re educating people about this threat, but, ultimately, there will be a need to clear neighborhoods of weapons that have yet to explode. Zargarian says that they’re seeing an uptick in interest in their work not just from diasporan Armenians, but from the general international community. Should people maintain this interest, that can benefit the relief work that’s to come as well. “As soon as it is safe to do so, there’s going to be a lot of work to do and I think a lot of people are going to be able to put their skills to use when the time comes, I’m not just talking about our work,” says Zargarian.

Magakian says that he doesn’t know when he’ll be returning to Los Angeles. “Even when the war is done, our work is still not going to be done,” he says. That’s part of the message he wants to share with people in his hometown: “This energy needs to stay up, even after the war, because there’s a lot of damage done.”

Before that can happen, there’s a more pressing need. “All of us are very ready, very eager, very willing to contribute to these efforts and will do so for as long as necessary, but the main thing that all of us want is for this to stop, for there to not be a need for anyone to be in this situation,” says Shekherdimian of the diasporan medical community’s sentiments. “I think that the first thing that all of us would ask for is for everybody from the highest of diplomatic officials to all of us as ordinary citizens to do our part to try to put an end to this.”

RELATED: Why L.A.’s Armenian Community Wants You to Pay Attention to the Situation in Nagorno-Karabakh

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