Continuing its long history for humanitarian relief wherever Armenians are imperiled, AGBU has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a massive effort to stem the growing food insecurities among the most vulnerable Armenians around the globe, including those who have suddenly found themselves facing financial hardships due to the crisis.
Based on its most recent experience in providing material aid to war weary Syrian Armenian refugees both in and out of the combat zone, the organization understands the intricacies and the challenges of easing burdens of those whose lives have been turned upside down and are struggling to adjust to overwhelming uncertainty.
“This virus has impacted both lives and livelihoods at once, which is why AGBU has committed to take a multi-faceted approach to relief, addressing both physical, material and emotional needs of our fellow Armenians. But, of course, this starts with the most fundamental of all, putting food on the table,” explained AGBU President Berge Setrakian.
Delivering sustenance and peace of mind
From the Middle East, Armenia and Australia to North and South America, AGBU is working both at the strategic level and among local chapters, to ensure that individuals and families are receiving the nourishing food and other vital necessities to remain strong and resilient during these difficult times.
The AGBU food package distribution program began in Lebanon, due to the evisceration of its economy earlier in the year. As Armenians began to experience restrictions on cash access and faced unemployment or business shortfalls, AGBU Lebanon took action, establishing a process for addressing the growing food shortages efficiently and equitably. Gerard Tufenkjian, the president of AGBU Lebanon, recounted, “We had a head start in ascertaining the priorities and needs of the people, and figuring out the logistics down to what types of contents to include in each aid package, from nourishing staples, cleaning and hygiene supplies. Many of our recipients who never thought they would need such assistance were grateful for the extra help.”
Chapters organize for action
As coronavirus outbreaks and lockdowns spread across the world, AGBU chapters took their cues from the Lebanon experience, with modifications such as which segments of society to prioritize. For example, AGBU Montreal reached out first to the elderly and Syrian Armenian refugees starting with delivery of 200 boxes for Easter, which has since grown to 500 boxes per delivery. Toronto recently announced a similar program, committing to 500 boxes to start to assist a similar demographic, partnering with a packing and distribution company for maximum efficiency and coverage.
In the meantime, the AGBU LA Cares program in Los Angeles widened its reach to anyone in need in their community. The first day of operations saw 100 boxes reserved in mere hours and the requests have continued to mount. The local team has committed to start with at least 1000 packages. Yervant Demirdjian, AGBU Central Board member and initiator of the program, stated: “We care more than ever about our extended family during these extraordinary times. As Armenians and Los Angeleans, we feel even closer as a community.”
For AGBU Latakia and Kamishli chapters in Syria, disinfecting supplies were in high demand and volunteers ensured their delivery in droves. Recently, the AGBU District Committee of Syria made plans to cover the cost of meals and medications for needy Armenians in key cities across the country, starting in July through the end of 2020.
Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia, AGBU invited struggling community members and anyone else they knew in need to sign up for food distribution. In Montevideo, Uruguay, AGBU joined a coalition of Armenian organizations in food distribution efforts, which added a personal touch to include homemade dishes prepared by local volunteers.
“We are immensely proud of how our communities have gone above and beyond to ensure that their fellow Armenians and neighbors aren’t facing food insecurity. In some cases, these relief packages have been a true lifeline for families,” commented Anita Anserian, who is in close contact with AGBU’s global chapters in her role as managing director of the AGBU Central Office.
AGBU Armenia Initiatives
While the leadership of Armenia and its Ministry of Health has legislated many life-saving and safety-net measures for all sectors of its citizenry, Vasken Yacoubian, AGBU Central Board member and president of AGBU Armenia, explains how the organization is filling gaps with initiatives of its own.
“Our food package distribution program is putting seniors and poverty-level families first, because COVID-19 puts them in the greatest jeopardy health-wise.” Working with the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, AGBU Armenia had in the first month distributed food boxes to some 900 senior citizens that frequent the church-managed soup kitchens or senior dining centers in Yerevan, Etchmiadzin and Vanadzor. The contents are meant to last a month, including essential foods and hygiene products. The effort is intended to continue for as long as the adverse impacts of the pandemic last.
Among the seniors, Azaduhi Hovhannisyan, 84, is a widow and pensioner who has been a regular at the local soup kitchen since 2010. With the disruption to this routine due to the virus outbreak, Hovhannisyan’s reliance was at stake. “Thanks to these AGBU food boxes, I don’t have to worry about having nourishing food on the table. I know the kitchen is still there for me, and they will even deliver to my doorstep if need be,” she explained.
Another vulnerable group is none other than Armenia’s health workers who, like their counterparts across continents, are putting their lives on the line to save coronavirus patients. To help ensure their safety, AGBU added $50,000 to the more than half a million dollars raised by Armenia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs to purchase much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and other vital medical supplies from outside sources. “We contacted the Ministry of Health to see how we could use our extensive network to identify credible suppliers, and then help the government secure their shipment,” Yacoubian added.
A donor and volunteer-driven endeavor
As the public health crisis persists around the world, AGBU will remain on the front lines, finding ways to fill gaps that governments cannot, identifying the most vulnerable in communities, and finding best-practice solutions to mitigate not only the spread of the virus but also the inevitable personal and societal challenges that lie ahead.
To donate to the newly launched AGBU Global Humanitarian Emergency Relief Fund, please donate online at www.agbugiving.org/reliefefforts.
Video (English): https://youtu.be/LVlocL976qw
Video (French): https://youtu.be/y8oWBRU2Q5c
Video (Armenian): https://youtu.be/27_3WIGS4fM
The Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) is the world’s largest non-profit organization devoted to upholding the Armenian heritage through educational, cultural and humanitarian programs. Each year, AGBU is committed to making a difference in the lives of 500,000 people across Armenia, Artsakh and the Armenian diaspora. Since 1906, AGBU has remained true to one overarching goal: to create a foundation for the prosperity of all Armenians. To learn more visit www.agbu.org.