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1988 Armenia Earthquake Survivor Returns for AmeriCares 25th

  • May 22, 2007
 1988 Earthquake survivor Arman Ghazaryan, middle, AmeriCares Eurasian Program Manager Jim O’Brien, left and Stamford businessman George Leylegian, right

When Arman Ghazaryan walked off the plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday, May 5, the 26-year-old was tired from the long trip from his home in Armenia.  He was also confused, since he did not speak English and could not understand the customs forms he was supposed to fill out.  It wasn’t until he remembered the piece of paper in his pocket describing that he had traveled to New York to attend an event where the 41st President of the United States George H. W. Bush would be speaking, that the customs officials shuffled him to the front of the line.

The event was the AmeriCares 25th Anniversary Gala on May 10 in New York City.  Ghazaryan, a victim of the devastating 1988 Armenian earthquake that leveled his hometown of Spitak, had been airlifted to the United States by AmeriCares for a damaged leg and a crushed skull.  Now, eighteen years later, AmeriCares brought Ghazaryan back to New York to attend the gala and reunite with the various people who helped him recover.

“To see him again is beautiful, just beautiful,” said George Leylegian, a retired businessman in Stamford, CT, who had been instrumental in helping AmeriCares bring Ghazaryan and the other victims to the United States for medical treatment and making sure they were well taken care of outside of their medical needs.  “We’ve been blessed.”  The two had not seen each other since Ghazaryan returned to Armenia eighteen years ago.

Looking Back
President George H.W. Bush, an old friend of AmeriCares founder Bob Macauley, was toasting his good friend for the remarkable work Macauley had done to save millions of lives in the quarter century since AmeriCares was created.  Bush had just been elected president when the 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck Ghazaryan’s village and sent two of his family members to Armenia with AmeriCares to provide assistance to the victims.  The quake had left 25,000 people dead and 500,000 others homeless.

 Arman saved from the 1988 Armenian Earthquake
 Arman in 1988, with his grandfather

Ghazaryan, who was 8 years old at the time, had been in school and was trapped underneath the rubble of the building that collapsed on top of him.  He was one of only two dozen children at school who survived that day while hundreds of others perished.  AmeriCares was the first humanitarian organization to respond to the Armenian earthquake and airlifted $13 million worth of critical medicines and medical supplies to the people affected by that disaster.  In an additional airlift, AmeriCares flew more than a dozen earthquake victims with severe injuries from Armenia to the United States for treatment they could not get in their own country.  Ghazaryan was one of those patients.  He was treated at New York’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. 

Reuniting with Old Friends
“He was so wild!  No one could handle him.  That’s why they called us,” said Gagik Dilakian, who along with his brother Hovik, helped translate for the Armenians being treated in New York, visiting the patients frequently to provide comfort and entertainment.  According to the brothers, Ghazaryan used to race around the hospital in his wheelchair like a “speed demon.”  Ghazaryan’s leg was so damaged that he could not walk when he arrived in New York in early 1989.  With the therapy he received which was arranged for by AmeriCares, he walked off the plane when he returned to Armenia two months later.  And, while today he complains that his leg still aches every so often, when he was reunited with the Dilakian brothers, his gait showed no sign of a limp.  The last time the Dilakians saw Ghazaryan was a year after he returned to Armenia when the brothers paid him a visit in Spitak.  The affection between them all was not lost despite the long gap in contact.  The three laughed and reminisced over a homemade Armenian meal as if they had never lost touch.

AmeriCares in Armenia Today
“The earthquake was both a defining moment for AmeriCares and the first international challenge faced by then president-elect Bush,” explained AmeriCares Eurasian Program Manager Jim O’Brien.  “Ghazaryan is truly representative of what we have been able to achieve and what we hope to achieve in the future – showing the compassion of the American people in response to emergency needs for natural disasters or ongoing crises around the world.”  

AmeriCares has been delivering medicines and medical supplies to the people of Armenia ever since the earthquake, providing more then $67 million in aid in that time.

Ghazaryan returned to Spitak after his week in New York, where he and his family still live.