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Armenians in US Rally To Aid Ancestral Home

Relief work quickens as Armenian crisis hits home; word of urgent need for baby formula draws help

AS an Armenian American living thousands of miles from the crisis gripping her ancestral homeland, Elaine Kasparian has few illusions about how many cold and undernourished Armenian infants she can feed.

"We never intended to take care of the entire needs of Armenia," says the mother of three who directs the Armenian Children's Milk Fund from the document-strewn dining room table of her home in Belmont, Mass.

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But that doesn't mean Mrs. Kasparian and about 85 volunteers aren't trying. This year the grass-roots group, which was organized in 1989 to ship infant formula to help 200 Armenian babies after the December 1988 earthquake, has a goal of buying and airlifting 180 tons of formula to feed 5,000 infants. That is 10 times more than last year, she says, yet only enough to feed a quarter of those that need it.

Kasparian is not alone. Armenian Americans involved with relief efforts say they have seen contributions double and triple.

Relief activities have quickened in Armenian communities around the nation, from Los Angeles and Orange counties to Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Boston, according to Manoog Young, chairman of the Boston-based National Association of Armenian Studies and Research. He counts roughly 1 million Armenian Americans.

An international outpouring followed the 1988 quake. Since then, however, land-locked Armenia has been cut off by a combination of Azerbaijan's five-year economic blockade, which has been tacitly supported by Turkey to the west, and by civil war in Georgia to the north, which has cut transportation lines into Armenia. US Armenians have followed each stage of their homeland's struggle, but for other Americans, news from Bosnia and Somalia has overshadowed Armenia's problems.

Still, word of the continuing blockade of the country's 3.5 million people is hitting home in the US.

"I know several families that are spending more money out of their own pockets, spending their own time collecting food and clothing," says Anaiss Kazazian, a Medford, Mass., Armenian American. "For the earthquake there was worldwide help, but this time many don't realize what's going on.... But people here know their relatives are starving."

"It's a very critical point in this little country's history," says Carolann Najarian, a doctor from Watertown, Mass., who holds the post of eastern regional representative of the Armenian Ministry of Health. The level of deprivation is "comparable now to what is going on in Bosnia. Six months ago I would not have said that."

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Comparisons between Armenia and Bosnia are particularly apt when it comes to the logistics of getting relief supplies through. Harut Sassounian, executive director of the United Armenian Fund (UAF), coordinates the six largest US Armenian relief funds and the one or more relief flights per month.

Last year Mr. Sassounian's network flew $11 million worth of food, medicine, and machinery to Yerevan. But in the past five months his organization has shipped $10 million in supplies, double the previous year's rate. The response to the fuel cutoff filled a cargo plane with 40 tons of goods that arrived in Yerevan last week.

Operation Winter Rescue, a large effort organized by the US State Department, aims to ship more than 2,000 tons of relief supplies in a single load to Armenia, on a rail line through Georgia. A State Department official says US relief efforts have accelerated, including a plan to ship 15,000 tons of fuel through Georgia.

Still, the most urgent need of late has been for infant formula, because malnourished mothers have not been able to breast-feed, says Dr. Najarian, who returned from Armenia in November. She says the country's birthrate has dropped sharply while its infant mortality rate has jumped.

Back in Belmont, Mass., such news is an added spur to Kasparian, who says members of her group - some of whom do not politically support Armenia's president - have set aside political differences.

"People have held out in the past because they didn't know which group to get involved with," she says. "But with 17,000 to 20,000 babies at risk, we just have to say, `This is how many we can feed and this is what we're going to do.' "

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