Sending Holiday Cheer to Low-Income Armenians in New York City

This holiday season is a good time to consider how to help low income Armenians in our community.

Back in October, I attended the New York City Armenian Town Hall meeting. At the meeting, the group decided to try and create a list of all the Armenians in New York City and survey them of their needs and opinions. I wondered how they were they going to find all the Armenians not belonging to any organizations or those who don’t use computers or social media. It’s a real challenge trying to connect with all segments of the Armenian community, especially those who are low-income or, worse yet, homeless.

At the end of the meeting, one of the engineers told me he didn’t realize there were homeless Armenians in New York City. Sadly, this does not surprise me. The homeless population in America is often an invisible community. Homeless Armenian-Americans are doubly so, for who thinks of homeless or low-income Armenians in the United States when there are so many impoverished in our homeland with seemingly fewer opportunities? And how can we know how many Armenians in the U.S. are in need when it is so embarrassing for them to ask for help?

In a world where so many have so much, we can and should always think about how to share.

To illustrate my point, I explained about a time I met two homeless Armenian men in Manhattan. Both were reeling from divorces and were very depressed. I contacted local Armenian churches to help them find a place to stay, but I was told they do not provide social services. I asked the churches if they could email their congregation to see if anyone wanted to help, but they wouldn’t even do that. So finally, I called Catholic Relief, which did help these men find shelter.

In a world where so many have so much, we can and should always think about how to share. After the luncheon of the 2015 Armenian Genocide conference at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City, I watched despairingly as workers dumped an entire long table of perfectly good food into big, black garbage bags. The workers told me they were not allowed to take the food home. I was infuriated with the waste. This problem, like homelessness itself, was invisible to the event coordinators, who probably worked hard to plan the conference, but had not considered making arrangements to donate extra food to homeless shelters, or at least, give it to the many participants of the conference who couldn’t afford the $100 luncheon.

I noticed a similar issue at the 1918 Armenian Conference at Columbia University. Again, there was an entire table of leftovers from a $50 luncheon. I asked if there was a sliding scale (variable prices based on income) for low-income seniors and was told no. This time, I took a picture of the wasted food as proof of the problem.

An entire table of leftovers at the luncheon for the 1918 Armenia conference at Columbia University

Ironically, both of these conferences were focused on the period of Armenian history when many Armenians were hungry and even starving. Unfortunately, in an expensive city like New York, there are still hungry Armenians. There are also low-income Armenians who cannot afford to go to expensive Armenian concerts, dances, plays, galas, just to name a few. Even $20 to hear choir can be a lot for a struggling mother with a lot of bills to pay. In our community, you’d be surprised at how many low-income families can’t afford $30 tickets for the Armenian Independence Day celebration.

Yes, it can be expensive to put on events, but we have to keep thinking about creating situations in which people don’t have to feel left out based on their economic disposition. Too many churches have dwindling congregations, yet high maintenance costs. We have to find ways to make our cultural events more accessible, because that’s what it’s really about. This community is small, so those who are discouraged by the economic and social barriers leave.

The definition of nurturing is the ability to contribute to the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of yourself and others. How nurturing are Armenian organizations that include only those who are able to pay $125 for an event? What kind of community does that cultivate?

Recently, on a bus ride after an Armenian church gathering, where many were off to an expensive event, I met Hripsime, Varbara and Haik. They were all devout Christians, but none could afford to attend the event. Hripsime in particular was upset. How were she and others like her supposed to feel welcome in a community where so many events are closed to them? How many Armenian churches and organizations create lists of those in need and try to find them sponsors or put them on a list for unused tickets or volunteer systems not based on who-knows-who? How many keep tabs on who is too proud or embarrassed to ask for help and make sure they are included? Are churches doing email blasts to their congregations to ask if anyone knows of jobs and housing or can sponsor someone to an expensive event? If the answer to these questions is no, our community is failing us in a very big way.

How can we create a built-in, scaled price system that acknowledges income disparities so that we can have a community that embraces our diversity—rich or poor, conservative or liberal—while sharing a table  and ideas at an event? Is it possible to create a system that acknowledges income disparities so no one has to ask for a reduced price if they need it? In the ten years I have been suggesting this, I have never seen it implemented. If anybody has seen this happen, please let me know.

I was fortunate to be in Artsakh in the nineties before privatization and capitalism. There were no gentrification or high rents, so it was not costly to hold events. Now in the U.S., a profit-driven and advertising culture where many big corporations are making it more difficult for low-income people to survive, we can look at the ways different communities and individuals retain spiritual integrity in spite of the consumerism.

In the African-American community, there is Kwanzaa where people gift handmade presents and share potluck food while observing the principles of Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self- determination), Ujimaa (Collective Work & Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

Some communities in Japan are creating new forms of currency to replace the yen. Some are abstract, like rabu (love) or dan dans (“thank yous”). Others are less so. In one town, people work for “peanuts,” which are a famous, local product. Like all new ideas, there is trial and error, but already this system has seen signs of improvement. Some elderly women who cleaned up flower beds were paid in the new currency. These efforts bring people together.

At a Tahino gathering I attended, elders were respected and served first, but no one was excluded for financial reasons. They had what they called a needs-matching network, where for instance, a sick elder who needed a massage would exchange the service for language lessons.

There are also those resisting the movement in more satirical ways. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, for example, is a radical performance community based in New York City, which protests manic holiday over-consumerism. He produced a video “What would Jesus buy?” During the Christmas season, where there are increased suicides and stressed out parents, he asks, “Why does a child need twenty toys?” He has a choir that performs in front of places like Starbucks to draw attention to the displacement of small local businesses, union busting and exploitation of coffee farmers.

What does it say about our community when someone who has devoted their entire life to helping the Armenian Cause without pay cannot afford to attend most of its events? High-priced events without sliding scales alienate those seeking an inclusive and accessible environment; this leads to a diminishing community and encourages assimilation. Perhaps the best way to strengthen our local Armenian community, so that it reaches its fullest potential, is by maintaining what we already have: our indigenous tradition of hospitality.

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Anoush Ter Taulian

Anoush Ter Taulian is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley. In 1992, she decided to relocate to Artsakh where she volunteered in the liberation struggle alongside Monte Melkonian. She has depicted the Armenian struggle for freedom in poetry, paintings, videos, and radio. A lifelong activist speaking in schools, churches, and at anti-racism conferences, Anoush continues to bring up current attacks on Artsakh at indigenous, women's, and political conferences.
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20 Comments

  1. Dear Anoush Her Taulian,

    Your article is so full of common sense love and caring! Thank you.

    We are performing on Sundays afternoons in New York City, Dec 9, 16 and 23, at 2 PM at the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette, in a cabaret there called “Joe’s Pub”. Would you like to come?

    My phone is 646 299 3019.

    Billy Talen “Rev”

    • During the 1915 Armenian Genocide Armenians were herded into their churches and burned alive, their melted flesh pouring out onto the cobblestones. Priests heads were impaled on sticks. Some Armenian women nailed to crosses or impaled on metal crosses they were forced to sit on. I myself have seen how the Azeris turned Armenian churches in Artsakh into warehouses and stables, so for those Armenians who want to hold church sacred, this American way of commercializing on everythng including churches is hard. Yes there is the problem of exploitation of Christmas, over materialism and loss of true spirituality, but also think about what Armenians have sacrificed for their church? How we can make Armenian chuches in the US more accountable to the poor and all segments of our diverse community? Will they care about your satire performances on how corporations like Walmart exploit workers and displace small businesses? Is there a connection to dwindling congregations that are moving because of high rents and fewer economic opportunity? I hope you can include the concept of sliding scales in your performances. I hope Armenian churches and organizations can embrace sliding scales to include all incomes at their events.

  2. Really appreciated this article, it feels there is a lot of deep taboos in the Armenian community in expressing it’s current direr components, and yet no challenge in doing so when it’s in a historical perspective.

  3. I have often asked myself why organizations such as the Children of Armenia Fund have these very swank affairs at very highly priced restaurants in NYC to raise funds for very poor children in Armenia. I wonder how much of the presumably thousands of dollars collected in such affairs winds up going to the poor in Armenia rather than the purveyors of the food. After you deduct the cost of advertising, postage, food, flowers, taxes and other costs, does even 10% of the funds raised to eat at Cipriani’s go to true charity? Wouldn’t it be better to have no fancy banquet and just send all of the money to the children even if only a mush smaller amount is raised from donors ?

  4. Thank you Anoush for your sincere concerns. Please excuse my ignorance, I didn’t know we have “Armenian” homeless, what a shame “amot” to us, amot to our Churches who collect donations to support every cause but to support the needy, especially the Armenians. I always had my concerns about our churches and prelacies use their big deep pockets, assets and properties for if not helping the community?
    I am proud of you and of our youth who feel and want to do what they can to help our community.
    “Abris”

    • Yes the Armenian community also needs to figure out a make a matching needs component. Jobs and housing are very difficult in expensive New York. Many Armenians need help but are discouraged by the current situation. The first step is stating our needs.I myself need a sponsor to help with all the supplements I need to deal with the heavy metals and PTSD I have as a war veteran. So many right here are being iverlooked.

  5. Anoush youre a pride & joy of Armenian community.but you are a conscious & consedered observing proud human being .your work is appreciated by many people that you touch with your articles .bravo to your parents & to you too.keep writing anoush i know your writings are unique & very special to us all.again bravo for a women like you anoush getses.

    • During the 1915 Armenian Genocide Armenians were herded into their churches and burned alive, their melted flesh pouring out onto the cobblestones. Priests heads were impaled on sticks. Some Armenian women nailed to crosses or impaled on metal crosses they were forced to sit on. I myself have seen how the Azeris turned Armenian churches in Artsakh into warehouses and stables, so for those Armenians who want to hold church sacred, this American way of commercializing on everythng including churches is hard. Yes there is the problem of exploitation of Christmas, over materialism and loss of true spirituality, but also think about what Armenians have sacrificed for their church? So many churches worldwide have become very buerocratic with few women in their hierarchies. How we can make Armenian chuches in the US more accountable to the poor and all segments of our diverse community? Will they care about your satire performances on how corporations like Walmart exploit workers and displace small businesses? Is there a connection to dwindling congregations that are moving because of high rents and fewer economic opportunity? I hope you can include the concept of sliding scales in your performances because if people felt they had more supportive spaces where everyone was valued maybe they would need less material things. I hope Armenian churches and organizations can embrace sliding scales to include all incomes at their events. Could Jesus afford their high price events? What us the true purpose of the Armenian church?

    • Thank you for responding Nazareth. Armenians appreciating each othe and small acts of kindness are important in our money money world.

  6. I am half Armenian… my very young father and his parents fled Armenia very early in the 20th century (~1910). I am proud of my heritage, but I would love to see more homeland-made merchandise and Armenian businesses based in Armenia accessible to us here in the US. Purchasing through a third party such as Amazon – and using Amazon Smile could donate a small amount of each purchase to an Armenian-based charity… if we knew of any. If these options are already available – the information isn’t known. Perhaps more knowledge should be shared.

  7. I have not lived in NY City but I lived for a few years in Los Angeles. What Anoush Ter Toulian raises is very much the situation there as well.

    Speaking of Lebanon, at one time, Armenian social functions were held in halls and the day’s event was staged and attendance was free or for a token admission. Nowadays there is no function that does take place seated around a lavishly served table in the reception rooms of upscale hotels. Armenian organizations should “scale down” their social functions and hold them as it was held, in halls, with a token affordable admission. I bet their “bottom line” will be no less as most of the admission fee nowadays is used towards the food, rent and what not.

    Incidentally Anoush, I purchased one of your videos when you gave a presentation at St. Vartanants Apostolic Church, in Ridgefield, NJ, way, way back.

    • Thank you Garabed. At what point did the Armenian community become like this and how to we get back to simple gatherings where everyone can come? I couldn’t afford the $150 church banquet last week and my friend on low social security had to sacrifice to go. What does it take to have these churches and organizations do things in a less expensive way? I have met Armenians from Lebanon with admirable poltical perspectives.

    • I totally agree with you, Garabed. The fact of using luxury venues to hold various Armenian events is marginalising a great number of Armenians. Can’t we show a bit of humbleness? Do we need to imitate extremely rich Hollywood actresses and actors? What for? To impress whom? I stopped attending Armenian events for this very reason. Stay simple and affordable.

  8. There is eugenics going on in the Armenian community and the eugenicists are the Armenians themselves, lots of times extended family members, charitable organizations and the entire community themselves! Lets not even talk about leaders.
    Unless Armenians get out of their criminal mindset and abusive behavior, nothing will change. And the criminality towards each other and the abuse has been part of the culture for generations.
    Don’t give me the genocide story- just look at yourselves, if you still have the capacity left to do that and figure out who is the charlatan and the enemy? And I hope you get out of your conspiratorial games of abuse, no scruples, criminality, gossip and endless excessive greed!
    Good luck!

    • The truth hurts, Alice. Instead of looking in the mirror to evaluate ourselves, we blame the others. Soon our churches and schools will be sold to strangers because of our greed and shortsightedness.

  9. Brava Anoush!
    You have opened a very important discourse that is long overdue in our communities, and it is time it was looked at very very seriously. This exclusionist approach is detrimental to us Armenians who need every little faction of our community, society and nation, and cannot afford to follow the exclusionist Republican model of alienation that is rampant in our society today.
    We need to have a model based on compassion and inclusion to achieve our best potential as a nation.
    Good job and count me in!

    • Nora Jan I really liked your idea if a Lace Revolution, empowering women to forge a more compassonate, inclusive community where everyone is valued. Our people died for our religon and churches that are now inaccessible to many when they have high priced events. Is this contributing to a cultural erasure? Thanks for your Socially Relevant film festival. Anoush

  10. Dear Alice, Please don’t lump all Armenians like this. Our community also has many kind, compassionate Armenians who are helping each other and working hard against corruption and abusive behavior. Yes many Armenians have been hurt by our elitist, sexist community but look at what conditions allow backstabbing and non caring. Anoush

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