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06 11 28 - Armenians together in spirit and electrons
A Glendale telethon unites the globally dispersed community to help the homeland.
By James Ricci, Times Staff Writer
LATimes- November 24, 2006 (A.M.- USA)

For 12 hours on Thursday, the world's Armenians — from the 3 million in the Republic of Armenia to the 1.4 million in the United States and maybe even the eight in Vietnam — held each other in an electronic embrace, defying a thousand years of being geographically scattered by the forces of history.

The occasion was the ninth annual Armenia Fund telethon, whose tentacles, reaching out from a studio in Glendale, spread throughout the world via live television and Web casting, gathering pledges from all corners.

"This is an incredible network of people that comes alive for a 12-hour period, all over the world," said a harried fund chairwoman Maria Mehranian, who served as sometime on-air hostess and full-time overseer of the hundreds of volunteers, honored guests, Armenian entertainers and security guards at Glendale Studios. "There are people who might never meet, who might not even like each other if they did meet, but it's so much fun to create this vehicle of unity. We have wanted unity for 11 centuries."

The fund, which is based in Glendale and has chapters in a score of countries, raises money from the world's approximately 10 million Armenians — which includes, according to the website, eight in Vietnam — to build roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure in the Armenian Republic.

In the 15 years of its existence, it has raised $160 million. Thursday's telethon, which ran from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and had a goal of $13.5 million in pledges, ultimately added $13.6 million. About 92% of funds pledged are ultimately collected, fund officials said. The telethon was broadcast locally on KSCI-TV Channel 18.

Inside the studio complex was a scene of controlled chaos, as furrow-browed officials in business suits hurried about, murmuring into walkie-talkies, marshaling on-air guests around four stages. Security guards were ubiquitous — not, Mehranian said, because of fear of crime, but to maintain order in case the studio was besieged by eager donors from Glendale's heavily Armenian citizenry, hoping to cop a little airtime.

In an upstairs office, a young man named Greg Boyrazian strove to control the traffic in live television feeds coming in from distant locales. "OK, Boston's gonna come on live," he said into his headset. "It's now. Boston is live. This is crazy…. We still have Boston, Armenia, Paris."

On the main production floor early Thursday afternoon, scores of young people clad in special T-shirts staffed the phone banks, fielding calls from around the world. Their shirts read: "I [image of a pomegranate with a heart inside] Armenia."

"It's a very Armenian fruit," Mehranian explained. "Very symbolic of life, of survival."

"One thousand dollars from New York," one phone staffer shouted, prompting a chorus of yelps and hand-clapping. On a large monitor with a red background, the total pledges edged upward with each round of ringing telephones. $2,693,644 … $2,893,644….

On the air, Hacop Baghdasarian, proprietor of the International Grill at the Glendale Galleria and a man who'd pledged more than $100,000 in previous telethons, announced to wild applause that he was pledging $30,000 to a hospital in war-torn Hadrut in Armenia's satellite republic Nagorno Karabakh.

$3,193,654 … $3,232,704….

The international hookup raised the question of fielding calls in numerous languages.

Not a problem, Mehranian said. "The average Armenian speaks three or four languages. It's the curse of not having had a country." For her part, Mehranian speaks English, Armenian, French and Farsi, "and a bit of Spanish."

Tamar Artin, a 19-year-old biology major at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and a phone bank supervisor, said language was not nearly so much a problem as one might think. "We mostly get English or Armenian," she said, "but we get lots of international calls, so it's really important to have an ear for what language a person is speaking. We know in advance which of our people speaks what language, and we can direct the caller to them — sometimes it's Russian, very rarely Arabic and sometimes Farsi."

The Armenia Fund's concentration on infrastructure is aimed at helping the Armenian economy — already growing at a rate of 14% a year, according to fund officials — grow even faster.

The Armenian diaspora in the wealthy countries is an enormous asset to the young republic, "a jewel," Mehranian said. The Republic of Armenia became an independent state after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The work of the fund aside, Armenians in the diaspora remit about half a billion dollars a year to family members in Armenia, said Sarkis Kotanjian, executive director of the fund.

Armenian Americans, he said, not only provide funds but establish goals for improved quality.

"Take, for example, a backward, Soviet-era hospital," he said. "We want it to become an American hospital, with all the modern standards. We don't want to just put on a coat of paint but to train the doctors and reconstruct the way the hospital works so that it makes sense."

For those driving the telethon, which is held on Thanksgiving partly because people are off from work and school and also to give thanks for the existence of an Armenian homeland, the effort clearly was about more than raising money or raising standards. Raising the sense of worldwide Armenian identity was also part of the program.

Narbeh Issagholian, a 24-year-old computer consultant, spent the day rushing back and forth making sure the telethon's 50 computers were behaving.

He said giving up the Thanksgiving holiday to work the telethon flowed naturally from "what my parents have taught me and what I learned in Armenian schools about our culture and history. I want to do what I can to pass it on to future generations and make sure it doesn't die.

"This ties you in to the entire Armenian community in the world today."


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