The Lost Kids of Armenian America, Part 1
This is the first in a series of articles addressing the problems facing Armenian-Americans in Southern California.
“Every Armenian girl I know is a slut, a whore or she wants to kill herself,” a 19-year-old Armenian boy tells me in the parking lot of a Glendale motel late on a Friday night. “It’s really sad. I wish I could do something to help,” he says as the smoke wafts from his mouth. It’s an unusually chilly fifty degrees out, and he stands there almost chain-smoking under the multilayered lights of this little big city we call Glendale. As we talk, fixed-up cars race (quite literally) by. What am I saying back to him? I’m encouraging him to pursue his education. He dropped out of high school and now he’s jumping from one scam to another, trying to get paid–to make money. My case manager, Saro, and I both agree that this is one engaging young man with a unique gift for talking to people and what seems to be a caring soul.
I tell him to go get that GED and then go to college. Saro says, “You should be doing my job.”
The young man is surprised. “But you need a high school diploma or a GED to do your job, huh?” he asks. “No,” I say, “you need a college degree, but if you had one, I’d hire you.”
My name is Ara Arzumanian. I am the director of AGBU’s Generation Next Mentorship Program.
Saro Ayvazian is a case manager in the program — also an employee of the AGBU. What, you might ask, are we doing in the parking lot of a Glendale motel around midnight on a Saturday?
The answer is: our job. A 13-year-old girl had run away from home — again. Her mother called us, and we jumped into action. We were able to track her to this motel. Finding her was the easy part. The tricky part was going in to get her.
Nearly every day, someone asks me what the number-one problem facing our Armenian youth in Southern California is, and every time I have trouble answering that question. The problems are many. The root causes are complex. The solutions are elusive. The community is, for the most part, in a deep state of denial. Those that are not in denial are transfixed by the scope of the problem.
Recently I was asked by my superiors at AGBU to prepare a one-page summary on Generation Next’s progress over the last year — a seemingly simple task that ended up shocking even me. One portion of that report listed the various issues we have assisted youth with over the last year. My case managers and I sat down and started writing up a list off the top of our heads. When I looked at the final list and thought about the fact that we only have 90 kids in our program and we are only talking about 12 months of activity, even I — whos deal with this stuff every day — was somewhat jarred to see all those issues lined up next to each other. Here is that list:
- Theft / Robbery
- Criminality / Incarceration / Probation
- Family dysfunction
- Sexual promiscuity
- Difficulty paying rent
- Suicidal ideation
- Risky online behaviors
- School expulsion
- Dating older men / sexual assault
- Mental health
- Drug use
- School dropout
- Body issues / self-image
- Self- injury / cutting
- Drug sales
- Alcohol use
For those in the know, this raises another question: How do you find out about these things? You see, as Armenians, we have some particular characteristics that make serving our population particularly difficult. The word I’m thinking is khaytarak (roughly translated as disgrace or dishonor). Speaking in generalizations, it is part of our national makeup to hide our problems — a kind of death-before-dishonor mentality. No one wants to talk about their family issues. Parents are nearly expert at concealing the issues that they and their children are facing.
So if you know how to look, and do it diligently, you can see the symptoms (e.g. those listed above). But you really have to know what you’re doing to uncover the root causes. All of this secrecy results in a relatively peaceful and benign impression.
When you drive through Glendale, it’s not like driving through a ghetto. You won’t see with your naked eye evidence of all the social ills plaguing the place. You need to dig in. You need to get in deep and see what’s going on. That’s where we come in. A good place to start is the parks.
Glendale has tons of mini parks. The City of Glendale is working hard at raising its green space-to-people ratio. So, to do this, they build tiny parks in neighborhoods throughout the city. On any given day, if you head to one of these mini parks, you will find a group of Armenian boys (trying desperately to be men) gambling and smoking cigarettes (and maybe weed).
“Look! Look at what I got.” A boy shows off his wares. A productive day of shoplifting has produced a couple of Coach wallets. He brags about how he was able to remove the ink-filled anti-theft devices without setting them off. His friends demand the secret of his technique. He beams at their admiration. He’ll have no problem selling those bags in our materialistic community, where the right purse or the right car says more about who you are than your grades or whether or not you have a high school diploma.
These mini parks raise the city’s green-space ratio, but they do little to bring together community (that’s what parks are supposed to do.) Some parks, with their abundant and comfortable seating, are the exclusive domain of Armenian senior citizens.
Our grandmas and grandpas don’t present our kids with much of a positive role model, however. They sit there for hours, smoking, gambling and gossiping. Armenian teenagers ask them for a papyrus (cigarette) and usually get a lecture, followed sometimes by a cigarette.
Other parks with their colorful playgrounds attract mothers with small children. Most all of the parks are places where teenagers find trouble. The thing about teenagers is that you can’t provide environmental factors which will make them do positive things on their own. You can’t build a playground for them. Even a gym, a teen center or a skate-park isn’t enough. You need programming — that is to say, you need to hire staff which can create relationships with kids.
Teenagers are in between adulthood and childhood. So you can’t speak to them like children. But, of course, you can’t treat them like adults either. As a community, we must understand two things: the first is that all teenagers want to improve their lives and do what is good for themselves; the second is that it is the natural inclination of teenagers not to do that on their own. They require adult guidance in their lives. If they do not find positive, relevant adult guidance, they will surely find negative yet relevant adult guidance. The City, however, doesn’t believe in programming for teenagers. They just build a park and work at ways to prevent graffiti. They look at how they can make the park safe and well-lit. We, on the other hand, use the parks in ways that the City had not intended.
Pull up. Get out of the car. Walk through a cloud of smoke into a group of teenagers you don’t know. They look at you suspiciously. The more wounded ones among them accost you with a hardened stare meant to intimidate you. If you’re doing your job right, one or two of them will have already heard of or met you. Introduce yourself. Talk to them. Make friends. Remember their names. Find out who is on probation, who has tickets, who has court dates coming up, what schools they go to, who has home-schooling, who bought a diploma, who doesn’t have a social security number, whose dad is being deported, who just got arrested, who just got out, who has a brother that’s still in. You ask: “Who’s looking for a job?” Everyone answers, “Me!” Get phone numbers. Try not to catch a contact high. Have a few laughs. Come back to the office.
That’s how you do youth outreach. That’s part of Saro’s job description. My job description? Make Saro’s job possible.
Back at the office, the phone rings. Luiza Baloyan, our other case manager, answers. “It’s Taniel. He got picked up last night for selling weed. He’s in Juvi [Juvenile Hall].”
“He’s in Juvi?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s a probation violation.”
“Tell him Talar’s older brother is in there too. They know each other. He’s gonna need all the help he can get.”
When Luiza gets off the phone with Taniel, she calls his parents. What happened? What do they know? Which court are they appearing in, 270 or 271? Are they taking a private lawyer or a public defender? What time should we meet them there?
So now it’s Tuesday and I’m sitting in the offices of Homeboy Industries with one of the young men that I met at the motel Friday night, helping him try to find work. Is this part of my job? Not really. He’s not in our program, but he is in our community. He is one of our Armenian kids — well, I suppose kid is a loose term; you see, he’s 20 years old. A question may arise in your mind: ‘What was a 20-year-old doing in a motel room on a Friday night with a 13-year-old girl?’ That’s a good question, but let me pose a better one: ‘What was a 23-year-old man doing there?’ In all, there were six guys in that room and three girls. The ages ranged from 13 to 23. They were Beirutsi, Hayastantsi, Parskahye etc. There was alcohol and cigarettes, and maybe drugs–I’m not sure.
What exactly happened at that motel? We had tracked the 13-year-old runaway there, but finding her was the easy part. What’s next? We go in. Of course there’s a lot to think about. You have to have done this before. You need to be fully aware of your surroundings. You need to be respectful, confident, sincere and without trepidation. We walk into the crowd of boys hanging out on the catwalk outside the room. I shake each hand on the way in — it’s a cultural understanding that you need to have. It’s a respect for people, without which you endanger everyone involved. We knock on the door, it opens up and she’s standing across the room. I say hello to the 23-year-old standing at the doorway trying hard to stare me down. I say hello to the two 18-year-olds waiting to see what’s going to happen. I look past them to our girl and I say, “Come here.” As she does, a drunk 20-year-old sitting at a card table in front of the TV bursts out of his seat, yelling, “Ara! Ara!” He rushes at me with his arms raised and brings them down around my neck, giving me a warm hug.
I know this kid from years ago when I was doing outreach at Palmer Park. He was one of the ones who got away. I ask him how his brother is doing. He tells me that he’s slated to get out in January. “That makes about six years, doesn’t it?” I ask. He nods sullenly. As I stand over the threshold of the room talking to him and learning the names of the other boys there–finding out their stories — I nudge our girl out onto the catwalk where Saro stands at my side. I give Saro a nod, and he understands immediately. He and the girl walk downstairs into the parking lot. I stay up here and get to know every kid in the place. As I’m talking, I text Saro: “Leave with her, if you can.” At one point I ask, “Who’s looking for a job?” and everyone answers, “Me!” The conversation goes on for a long time. I have to keep all six boys and both girls engaged with me long enough for Saro and our girl to leave without interruption. I get a couple of phone numbers, hand out some business cards and just talk. After a few minutes I get Saro’s response: “We’ve left.” I nonchalantly slip the phone back into my pocket and keep talking. Within a few minutes I start making my exit. On my way, I give one of the boys a ride home — a bright 17-year-old with an infectiously happy personality who’s getting ready to graduate from high school. If I hadn’t given him a ride, one of his drunk friends would have. Ultimately we got our girl home that night, but who says home is a safe place?
This girl’s story is not at an end — it’s just the beginning. We have made a commitment to her, and she has made a commitment to AGBU. We plan to be with her for a long time to come. This is just one child. There are other children out there who need our (the community’s) direct involvement in their lives — there are thousands of them. The community’s response to this need, however, is lackadaisical and lackluster. From what I can tell, the community’s response consists of denial, absence, silence and dereliction of responsibilities. There’s a lot going on in our community that only a tiny group of people know about. I’m going to try to give you a look into that world. This is your first step. I hope you’ll join in the weeks to come …