School Expansion Is One More Milestone in Proud Progress of Little Armenia

George Ramos
Los Angeles Times

Education: A vibrant East Hollywood community embraces an institution where its ancient culture and language are taught.

On narrow Alexandria Avenue in East Hollywood, the soul of Los Angeles' Little Armenia community is expanding.

Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School is building a new gym and library for its cramped campus, where more than 830 students take classes in Armenian and English.

Ordinarily, construction work would trigger complaints on such a crowded street lined with apartment buildings. But the mostly Armenian-speaking neighbors see the noise and dust of the $2.3-million project as positive. The K-12 school, they stress, helps to keep their community's language, history and culture alive even as some of their population assimilates and moves to the suburbs. And, they add, the school is an anchor of the ethnic enclave officially designated as Little Armenia in October 2000 by the city of Los Angeles.

Since the 1960s, the district has been a port of entry for thousands of Armenian immigrants, with the school and the affiliated St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church across the street serving as comforting symbols in a strange new land.

"No doubt about it, this school is very important to us," said Gary Khanjian, a real estate agent in Little Armenia, an area bounded by Hollywood Boulevard on the north, Santa Monica Boulevard on the south, the Hollywood Freeway on the west and Vermont Avenue on the east.

The city's recognition of Little Armenia last year was considered a milestone of pride in the district noted for its Armenian restaurants, bakeries, delicacy shops and social clubs. All told, an estimated half million Armenians live in Greater Los Angeles, with Glendale having the largest local concentration. But East Hollywood, where an estimated 30,000 Armenians reside, remains a vibrant and sentimental community.

"We should have some recognition," said Garbis Kuerjikian, the owner of an auto repair shop on Hollywood Boulevard, who came from the Soviet Union to Little Armenia 27 years ago.

No small part of that pride is connected to Pilibos School, which draws students from as far away as Pacific Palisades and Santa Clarita.

"It takes me 45 minutes to get here in the morning, but it's worth it," said senior Haik Hacopian, who commutes to East Hollywood from Tujunga.

"This is like a second home for me. A lot of us have been here for 14 years," said senior Hermine Barseghian, 17, of nearby Los Feliz, who has attended since preschool. She and other students say it is important to study the community's heritage.

The painful history of Armenians in the 20th century, especially the deaths of more than a million during forced marches and massacres under the Ottoman Turks in World War I and shortly afterward, is very much alive at Pilibos School.

And its aftermath is not confined to history books. The school's principal faces continuing legal problems stemming from his minor involvement in a 1982 plot to blow up the office of a Turkish consul in the U.S. He is fighting to keep his U.S. citizenship even as he oversees the current expansion.

Wealthy Couple Gave Seed Money

Established in Alexandria Avenue's neighborhood of worn apartment houses and single-family homes in 1969, the school was later named for Alex and Rose Pilibos, who made a fortune in produce distribution. They contributed $150,000 as seed money for the first permanent building, which in 1972 replaced bungalows and makeshift trailers. But the school soon outgrew that structure, and a four-story classroom building was constructed in 1983.

The school, governed by the western prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, has no permanent library and has to rent nearby gyms for school events and games. The campus has just a small concrete-surfaced playground for games and physical education classes.

Administrators decided to build a 12,000-square-foot gym and a 3,000-square-foot library on the school's only grassy area. The additions, expected to be completed by May, were made possible by a five-year fund-raising campaign.

School officials estimate that 65% of graduates go on to college. The school has gained a reputation for academic excellence, having won awards at local "science bowls" and academic decathlons. According to the school, SAT scores among seniors since 1998 have averaged about 1,300, well above the national average.

The college preparatory courses are in English, and courses in Armenian culture, history, literature and religion are taught in Armenian.

"I see it as an advantage," said senior Mary Ashdjian, 17. "We have culture. We have history. And we learn in both languages."

Grigor Boyrazyan, also a senior, added, "The kids are prepared when they leave here."

Doctors, lawyers, teachers and successful corporate types are among the school's graduates. But for now, Pilibos' most famous recent graduates are the members of the local heavy metal band System of a Down. The band has become a passionate cult favorite with its Armenian-influenced lyrics. In one song, "P.L.U.C.K.," which stands for "Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers," the band attacks Turkey's campaigns against Armenians in the early 20th century.

The students like the band, but campus administrators are not so sure.

"I don't understand their music," said one. "I guess I'm too old."

In its 2,500-year history, Armenia has been invaded and oppressed by numerous neighbors, including Greeks, Arabs, Huns, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the old Soviet Union. As Christians, Armenians were distrusted by Muslim Turkish authorities, who apparently feared that Armenians would overthrow them.

Between 1915 and 1920, about 1.5 million Armenians died under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish republic, which succeeded the Ottoman Empire in 1923, has long denied that Turks committed genocide.

At Pilibos School, the legacy of such history is a personal topic for Viken Yacoubian, 39, who as principal for the last eight years has overseen a doubling in enrollment and a rise in academic achievements.

Yacoubian came to the United States with his mother and brother at age 11 from war-torn Lebanon in 1976. In November 1982, he and four others of Armenian descent were arrested by federal authorities on suspicion of conspiring to transport explosives to blow up the office of the honorary Turkish consul general in Philadelphia. The attack never took place, and no one was hurt as a result of the plot.

In a Los Angeles bench trial before U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer, Yacoubian was convicted. That was the start of nearly a decade of legal wrangling, with several appeals to the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Eventually, Yacoubian was sentenced to and served two years in a federal prison. His conviction was later expunged, because he had been sentenced under a federal youth corrections act since he was younger than 21 at the time of his arrest.

Considered a Hero in His Community

Pfaelzer, who was impressed with Yacoubian's rehabilitation, conferred U.S. citizenship on him last year. Although his role was not as extensive as those of the other defendants in the case, U.S. authorities say Yacoubian's involvement was a serious offense and want to overturn the judge's granting him U.S. citizenship and possibly deport him to Lebanon.

The federal government is also appealing the judge's 1998 sealing order that prevents public access to the records of Yacoubian's case.

In Little Armenia, not surprisingly, he is considered a hero. Residents and local activists see him as a role model who has worked hard to turn his life around.

Many in the area, including state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who represented East Hollywood when she was on the Los Angeles City Council, urged the judge to extend U.S. citizenship to Yacoubian because of his work at Pilibos and his counseling of troubled youths to shun violence.

Officials of leading Armenian organizations do not hesitate to defend him.

"Pilibos Armenian School is a shining example of this community's resolve to advance and provide . . . and Viken Yacoubian's role in ensuring that Pilibos advances academically is a testament to his character and abilities as a leader in this community," said Alex Sardar, executive director of the Western region in the United States for the Armenian National Committee.

For the most part, Yacoubian, a PhD candidate in counseling psychology at USC, prefers to talk about the school rather than his past. During a recent interview, he acknowledged his involvement in the plot and said such activity was not uncommon for some who want Turkey to admit its role in the genocide and to pay reparations. But he does not support that kind of revenge anymore.

"I've been transformed," he said. "Violence is not the answer."

Citing the judge's sealing order, federal authorities and others familiar with the case declined to comment on it.

At present, Yacoubian is more preoccupied with the school's day-to-day operation and its expansion.

Enrollment at Pilibos isn't restricted to Armenians. In recent years, the two children of the school's Spanish teacher, Magdalena Gutierrez, have attended classes there.

Daughter Alexandra, 17, a senior, of Hawthorne, said, "It's a little weird when you hear all the Armenian names and then there's Gutierrez."

Her mother, who was born in the Mexican state of Durango, was unhappy with the public schools her daughter and son Xavier were attending in the San Gabriel Valley. When she took a job teaching biology and later Spanish at Pilibos five years ago, she wondered if the Armenian school might be better suited for her two children, who are fluent in English and Spanish.

School officials agreed to admit the two so long as they took Armenian classes too.

Third Language's Added Benefit

Xavier readily accepted the challenge, telling his mother, "Can you imagine if I can learn a third language?"

Alexandra had a tougher time adjusting, but decided to stay, concluding, "I'm going to stay because [Pilibos students] are like the Mexicans I'm used to."

In addition to helping prepare the two for college, the daughter said Pilibos has provided a rare bonus for her and her brother, who graduated last year.

"We speak in Armenian when we don't want our mother to know what we're talking about," she said.

Copyright (c) 2001 Los Angeles Times

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