Members of the Armenian community at USC are expressing frustration over what they say is the university’s failure to respond to the needs of students with ties to Armenia and the conflict zone of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azniv Libaryan, a second-year master’s student in medical gerontology, sent a letter to President Carol Folt on Sept. 30 explaining the intense ramifications of the conflict and asking the university to acknowledge the stress she said this places on Armenian students.
“I was taught by my professors at USC that we are the voice of our generation and should always use our knowledge to fight for what we believe in, to help others and be the voice for those who can’t advocate for themselves,” Libaryan wrote. “So where are my Trojan Family officials while my people are being directly targeted?”
The historic conflict between the two countries sparked again after a cross-border shooting on Sept. 27 in Nagorno-Karabakh -- also called Artsakh -- a region between Azerbaijan and Armenia that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) gave to the former in the 1920s despite the majority Armenian population.
Syuzanna Petrosyan, associate director at the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, said Armenians in the region don’t believe they can live safely under the government of Azerbaijan, fearing ethnic cleansing.
“For Azerbaijan this is a territorial war,” Petrosyan said, “for Armenians this is about life and death.”
After the fall of the USSR, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh supported a separatist movement that aimed to grant Karabakh independence from Azerbaijan and instead unify with Armenia. This led to a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1988 to 1994 that ended in a ceasefire as Azerbaijan sought to suppress the movement.
Conflict between the nations began again on Sept. 27 and has not ceased since, with civilians and independent analysts saying the current conflict has reached an intensity they haven’t seen since the 1990s.
“Presently, Azerbaijan is committing war crimes by directly targeting civilian areas and infrastructure,” Armen Baibourtian, consul-general of Armenia in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “...despite all the calls of the international community to end the hostilities, [Azerbaijan] is attempting to expand the geography of its hostilities to the republic of Armenia.”
Azerbaijan’s government officials have placed the blame on Armenia. “Last week, Armenia started a new war of aggression and occupation against Azerbaijan, targeting primarily our civilian structures like kindergarten schools, hospital homes for disabled people, etc.,” Nasimi Aghayev, consul general at Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, said in a video response.
Amnesty International has called for an end to the use of cluster bombs, which Baibourtian said were employed by Azerbaijan. Aghayev said Armenia initiated the cluster bombing in densely populated cities of Azerbaijan.
Libaryan said dealing with the uneasiness of possibly losing loved ones in Nagorno-Karabakh, on top of the stress of midterms, presents Armenian students with intense mental health concerns. In the pre-med group Libaryan participates in, she said she heard accounts of fellow students' family members fighting on the front lines.
“There are students who are directly affected going through this. So please send out those resources,” said Libaryan, addressing USC. “I’m not even asking for your recognition. I’m just asking for the students to have an opportunity to get help because you don’t know what this is going to lead to.”
Libaryan said fellow USC students expressed shock at what they saw as USC’s lack of response to the conflict and asked how they could educate themselves on the issue.
“I tried my best to educate. Many others I know are trying to educate,” said Libaryan. “Our student body has been on top of it. I would not want to call anyone at USC besides the officials.”
Shant Hambarchian, a senior studying business administration, agreed with Libaryan and asked for acknowledgement from USC as the students work through the uncertain time.
“It’s an issue of social rights and human rights,” Hambarchian said. “USC has a sizable Armenian population that has been around for decades, has only grown in numbers and has contributed to USC both economically and financially in a disproportionate amount.”
Gegham Mughnetsyan, Chitjian researcher archivist at the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, challenged USC for not addressing the conflict because of the “sizable” Armenian history at the university and in Los Angeles, which is home to the largest Armenian community outside of the Republic of Armenia.
Mughnetsyan understood the university cannot take a side in the conflict, but wants USC to acknowledge the conflict and make it easier to find information about it for students who want to learn more.
“I know it’s a very delicate matter. Universities should be neutral spaces where all different opinions could be heard,” said Mughnetsyan. “But as with everything else, if there are these initiatives happening, universities could do the least as pointed out to them.”
Shushan Karapetian, the deputy director at the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, said what is happening between Armenia and Azerbaijan extends beyond the two nations.
“What’s happening in the war right now between Armenia and Azerbaijan impacts everyone,” said Karapetian. “This is an issue of human rights. This is an issue of self-determination. This is an issue of a vile violation of democratic principles.”
Karapetian said that the constant concern for family members in Armenia has further exhausted those already dealing with the everyday stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think everyone was overwhelmed with dealing with days and the pandemic. And this has just now all of a sudden thrown us a new curveball,” said Karapetian. “I think I’m getting texts from friends saying ‘I’m worried about my mental health. I’m just crumbling. It’s too much to handle.’ I think that aspect of it has been very tough for all of us.”
“USC stands with the international community in respecting the human rights of everyone in the region and calling for a peaceful and lasting resolution to this conflict,” said USC President Carol Folt in a Twitter post dated Oct. 12. In addition, resources to help students and people affected by the conflicted were also listed.
Los Angeles is home to the second largest population of Armenians living outside of the Republic of Armenia, with a little less than half of the US Armenian population living in the city. One million Armenians currently live in Southern California, according to the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.
The population of Armenians swelled in the late 1980s when the USSR began approving exit visas for Armenians wanting to emigrate to the United States. In 1988 alone, the Los Angeles Times estimated that 10,000 immigrants came to Los Angeles from Soviet Armenia, the largest influx of ethnic refugees in Los Angeles since the Vietnamese “boat people” of the 1970s.
On Oct. 3, hundreds of peaceful protestors blocked portions of both the 101 and 170 highways in Hollywood in support of Armenia. On Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Congressman Adam Schiff both stood in solidarity with their Armenian residents.
“L.A. is proud to be home to the largest Armenian diaspora. We stand with the people of Armenia,” said Garcetti in a Twitter post. “I urge our leaders in Washington to conduct the sustained and rigorous diplomacy necessary to bring peace to the Artsakh region.”
In a press conference at Los Angeles City Hall on Oct. 5, Rep. Adam Schiff condemned the actions of Azerbaijan. “Cease the hostility or there will be consequences,” he said “It is long past time that we stopped providing military support to Azerbaijan.”
Schiff, along with a bipartisan group of 48 other members of the House of Representatives, wrote a letter of concern to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regarding the situation. The letter called on Azerbaijan to end the killing of civilians, demanded the implementation of ceasefire monitoring equipment and told Erdogan to back Turkey out of the conflict.
Annenberg Media reached out to the Turkish Trojans Association, the Turkish Graduate Students Association at USC and none of which responded to requests for an interview by the time of publication.
Story updated Oct. 12: This story was updated to include a quote from Armen Baibourtian, the consul-general of Armenia in Los Angeles and Syuzanna Petrosyan, associate director at the USC Institute of Armenian Studies. Annenberg Media has also deleted multiple quotes attributed to Nasimi Aghayev, consul general at Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, as they contained information we could not verify. We also included the correct spellings of Gegham Mughnetsyan and Shant Hambarchian.