How Mormon neighbors helped Utah Armenians heal the scars of 2 genocides a century apart

Dr. Mike Ghouse   September 10, 2016   Comments Off on How Mormon neighbors helped Utah Armenians heal the scars of 2 genocides a century apart

Roaring through gears, a large truck lumbered up an on-ramp on to I-15 in Orem, Utah, late Friday afternoon and headed south, packed with boxes for beleaguered refugees halfway around the world.

The truck’s driver was fully aware that the reason for his trip was rooted in two genocides —one that is 100 years old and the other as current as today’s headlines — as well as his own arranged marriage and a fateful soccer game between the British and American embassies on the island of Cyprus.

The boxes in the back of his truck were full of winter coats, blankets and baby clothes that will be indispensable by the time they complete their long ocean voyage to Armenia as fall begins to turn to bitter winter, months after they were collected, sorted and packed by an interesting mixture of neighboring Mormons, Orthodox and evangelical Armenians, Lutherans, dentists and Boy Scouts in three Utah counties.

“Those clothes really will be desperately needed,” said Garine Bekearian, the driver’s wife and an Orem grandmother whose visit to a friend — an LDS bishop — mobilized multiple communities in ways that still marvel her.

“Every once in a while, you feel there’s not good left in the world,” she said. “This proved there is.”

When their first shipment arrives in Armenia next month, it will be a symbol of grassroots, interfaith synergy along the Wasatch Front, an example of doors opened by calls for charitable support for refugees made in the spring by Mormon leaders and by real acts of charity by neighbors.

“When we heard the call to help the refugees made by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Bekearian said, “we thought, ‘We can do this.’

Elder Kearon’s talk

Bekearian was born in Lebanon to refugees who escaped the slaughter of 1 million people in the Armenian Genocide a century ago. Her older brothers and sisters were born in Syria.

For the past year, she and one of her brothers, Ohannes Megerdichian of Sandy, Utah, felt blessed to be Americans. They watched with sadness as a new scourge swept across their family’s homeland 6,500 miles away. Armenians whose families had fled to Syria as refugees 100 years ago to escape one genocide now were fleeing back to Armenia to escape ISIS. They were refugees once more.

“ISIS is killing the Christians,” Bekearian said. “ISIS began to kill them, so Armenians fled to Armenia. The refugees became refugees in their own motherland. It’s a very sad story.”

Bekearian and Megerdichian wanted to help, but what could they do?

Everything changed when their Mormon friends rushed to tell them about a talk given at LDS general conference in which a church leader urged Latter-day Saints to reach out to help refugees. Elder Patrick Kearon of the Seventy asked church members to join “this great humanitarian endeavor.” Sister Linda K. Burton, president of the faith’s general Relief Society presidency, also gave a talk and announced a new initiative to help refugees called, “I Was a Stranger.”

Bekearian and Megerdichian immediately saw an opportunity to heal old scars. The next question was how to make a difference on a scale that matched their desire to help.

“I can’t believe how huge it’s become,” Bekearian said. “What Elder Kearon said rang a bell here in Orem. My brother felt the same in Sandy. There aren’t many Armenians in Utah. When we learned what Elder Kearon had said, we thought, ‘We can work with our neighbors here in Utah, the Mormons.’ It has been a wonderful experience. It has been a lot of physical work, and it has been a lot of emotional work.”

Good friends

Like most Mormons, Bishop Jamey Skousen was struck by the talks, but he didn’t know what his Orem congregation, the Timpview First Ward, could do. A few days later, the new bishop was working in his backyard when Bekearian stopped by to visit.

“I’m an Armenian Orthodox,” she said, “but I am close to our LDS neighbors.” In fact, she used to teach Armenian at the LDS Church’s Missionary Training Center in Provo.

She had a folder with copies of the two talks. Bekearian told Skousen the talks gave her the idea to aks him for help collecting blankets, diapers, bars of soap, feminine hygiene pads, wheel chairs and crutches for Armenian refugees in Armenia.

“I told her it was meant to be,” Skousen said. “Here I’ve been praying for opportunities, and she shows up at my door with a great one.”

He got started the next day, a Sunday. Orem Utah Timpview Stake President Darin Oviatt let him share Bekearian’s vision with the rest of the bishops in the stake. All the wards pitched in. When Skousen’s ward held its annual girls’ camp auction and combined it with a refugee fundraiser, it dwarfed the typical proceeds of $600 to $700; the ward raised $3,700.

Each of the congregations held a collection drive. Soon, trucks were arriving at Bekearian’s home, where she lives with her husband, Harout, also known as Art. He immigrated to the United States in 1969, but wanted to marry an Armenian. Their parents arranged their marriage. This summer, they celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary.

Word spread to other wards, like one in Mapleton and another in Salt Lake City led by an Armenian Mormon, Bishop Judd Shirinian.

“People came out of the woods to help,” Bekearian said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I still haven’t found words to explain what a great feeling that was.”

Skousen and Bekearian estimates the worth of the donations and goods at $35,000 to $40,000.

“People all over Utah County collected or donated more than 24,000 pounds of coats, soap, blankets, diapers, hygiene items, wheel chairs, walkers and more,” Skousen said.

The outpouring literally overhwhelmed the Bekearians. Their garage overflowed. Up in Sandy, Megerdichian faced the same issue.

Cyprus, soccer and Ricks

He had tapped into a different but equally giving pipeline with roots to his youth.

While Megerdichian still was a young refugee himself, he was in Cyprus preparing to study in the Soviet Union when someone asked him to join a soccer match between the staffs of the U.S. and British embassies. A Mormon working for the American embassy learned of Megerdichian plans, didn’t care for them and asked if he wouldn’t rather study in the United States. Megerdichian said yes. The man helped him apply to Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), then helped pay for his schooling.

“I couldn’t even pronounce Idaho,” Megerdichian said.

He went on to study at BYU in Provo, then worked for 34 years as a rep for Proctor & Gamble. In those days, Utah dentists regularly asked him to donate Crest and Oral B supplies that they could take to Third World countries.

He said Sister Burton and Elder Kearon inspired his big idea, to have his dentist friends return his favor. He drafted a letter and hand-delivered it to a dozen dental offices from Salt Lake City to Logan. The likeable, gregarious Megerdichian summarized the letter like this: “When you needed help, I helped. Now I need your help.”

The response floored him. His first visit was to Rand Mattson, a Mormon dentist in Roy, Utah. Mattson said he might not help with donations, but he wrote a check to the Armenian Lighthouse Charitable Foundation.

“That was the first encouragement I had that people would rally to this cause,” Megerdichian said. “I knew then I was on something that would be worth the effort of our families. That gave me a lot more vigor in pursuing help.”

Some of the dentists posted the letter on Facebook, generating additional response. Brett Moyes, an LDS dentist in Ogden, Utah, was instrumental in fostering donations.

“Man, this snowballed like you cannot believe,” Megerdichian said. “At first I thought I could take a few boxes, put them in my SUV and drive to California to ship them by boat to Armenia.”

As the donations grew, Megerdichian started to think he’d need to take his pickup.

“Finally, we took a huge U-Haul,” he said, “and we still had enough supplies to take another U-Haul.”

The goods could sail for free with a shipment arranged by the Armenian Lighthouse Charitable Foundation. That would save thousands of dollars. Getting the wheelchairs, crutches and other donations out of garages and onto trucks seemed insurmountable.

Many hands

It took a village.

Megerdichian asked for permission to use the gym at the Grace Lutheran Church and School in Sandy, then drove trailer after trailer full of bags from his and his sister’s garage to the gym. Three dozen youth and young adults from the Ararat Evangelical Armenian Church in Salt Lake City helped sort, box, label and pack boxes. Megerdichian estimated the job would take two hours.

It took nine-and-a-half. He found himself repeatedly calling Tina Hughes, an administrative assistant at the church and school, to apologize and asking for more time.

“He apologized over and over for being so late,” Hughes said, “yet he was the first one here and the last to leave.”

In mid-May, Art Bekearian drove the first truck to California.

Still there was more to sort and pack. Emily Merrill learned about the need in an LDS Relief Society meeting in the Fruit Heights First Ward in Kaysville, Utah.

“It tugged at my heartstrings,” she said, “and I just thought we had to do something. These are people who were persecuted for being Christians and fled for their lives. They disappeared in the night and took what they could carry.”

Her 13-year-old son Ben Merrill organized an Eagle Scout project and brought 30 friends and family from Davis County to Sandy, where LDS Bishop Steve Edwards of the Pinehurst Ward hosted the project at the Sandy Utah East Stake Center. On June 18, Merrill’s project packaged about 80 boxes of clothing and blankets in 163 man-hours of service.

“That was a godsend, really,” Megerdichian said, “because we really needed the help.”

The project had additional meaning for the Merrills. Ben’s great-great-great grandfather, George Aposhian, joined the LDS Church in Armenia in 1896, and soon fled to avoid persecution. The family considers his story of how he arrived in Utah to one of devout faith and many miracles.

On Aug. 2, a second Eagle project, this one by Matthew Broadhead, 17, packaged more boxes. Art Bekearian left with about 170 boxes packaged by the two Eagle projects on a truck on Friday. His brother-in-law, Megerdichian, met the truck on Saturday in Signal Hill, California, where it was unloaded at the Armenian Lighthouse Charitable Foundation’s warehouse.

Fish in water

“We are survivors of genocide,” Garine Bekearian said. “I cannot let us lose our heritage.”

She raised her children in Utah, where she has lived for 43 years, but they speak fluent Armenian. Now she teaches it every Saturday to her grandchildren and others.

“Coming to Utah without being a member of the LDS Church, it can be really hard to blend in,” Bekearian said. “Now we blend in, we’re a part of the community.”

Still, she said, “We’re always a minority. But we learned that you can be accepted if you want to be accepted. Just reach out and give them a chance.”

She did that, and she said it was worth it.

“This was life-changing. Sometimes I think I’m the fish out of water. Maybe I’m not the fish out of water. Maybe I’m in the water with them.

“No matter how much I say thank you, I’ll never, ever repay what has happened. It says a lot about humanity, and it says a lot about the Mormons in Utah.”

The first boat with the fruits of the charitable work of this unexpected coalition of Utah Armenians, Mormons, dentists and Boy Scouts will arrive in Armenia later this month. Ohannes Megerdichian — his name means John the Baptist in Armenian — will be there with his wife, Houri, to meet the shipment and distribute it to refugees.

It will be the couple’s first visit to their families’ homeland.


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