BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
After an hour and a few underground line changes I arrived at the Acton Town subway station. I was going to meet Misak Ohanian, the CEO and the founder of CAIA (Center for Armenian Information and Advice).
While I was still in Glendale, before my trip to London, I had already exchanged emails with him. We had arranged to meet at the Center also known as Hayashen, on the first Friday after my arrival in London. The center is open for members on Fridays and Mondays.
The London Underground, also known as the “Tube,” seemed to me more complicated than the Paris metro. However, the Tube has many attendants who are readily available to direct riders to their destination.
I stepped off the subway at Acton Town station, and showed the address I had in my hand to an attendant who was standing at the exit. With a courteous manner, he directed me to a map on the wall and showed me how to get there. It was a short five-minute walk. It was drizzling – a typical misty London weather.
I found the Hayashen building without any difficulty. I was right on time to have lunch with members. Misak introduced me to some of them. Most were Armenian senior citizens originally from other counties. I also met a Persian man. The center is open to everyone.
There were about two dozen men and women. Some were playing backgammon, some were playing cards and some were at the pool table. The atmosphere was cheerful. Our lunch menu was meatballs with pasta and salad.
I chatted with a few people. Vartan Avanessian was from Iran. He had lost his eye sight due to glaucoma. He had been a teacher in the city of Rasht in Iran, and brought his family to London after the Iranian Revolution. He was happy that every Friday and Monday he could come to the center and meet friends.
When I spoke with Clara Garapetian I realized that we had one degree of separation. She was from Tabriz, Iran, and she had lived on the same cul-de-sac where my husband’s aunt lived. Her story was similar to Vartan’s. She and her husband moved to London after the Islamic Revolution, joining their kids who were already there to study.
Then I met 35-year-old Sos Grigorian. He was walking on crutches because he had Cerebral Palsy. His family had moved to London from Yerevan when he was 14 in 1994. He told me that he and his family are so grateful to Misak and to the center because when they came to London, they didn’t know their way around. Misak gave them guidance and helped them to settle and get help from the government.
After lunch, the members celebrated two birthdays. They brought in two cakes, one for digin Azadouhi and another for digin Siran. They sang Armenian and English versions of Happy birthday, twice for each of the birthdays. After lunch and the birthday celebrations, it was time for bingo. The members settled in to play, while Misak gave me a tour of the Hayashen
The CAIA is a registered Charity in England. The principal focus of the center is to provide welfare and to give advice on immigration, housing and employment, so new immigrants can easily integrate into British society. Besides the elderly program, they also provide free day care twice a week for toddlers.
Misak and his family are from Cyprus. He with his parents moved to London when he was 11 years old, in 1967. The idea of starting a center came naturally, after he married and had a son. He and his wife felt that they needed an Armenian Nursery for their child. So they started a nursery in 1986 which it turned into what it is today –A Center for Armenian Information and Advice.
The Center has a good strategical location. It is in Acton Town, a borough of Ealing, where about 800 Armenian families live. It is a three story building. The hall that they use for gatherings and elderly lunch is in the first floor. The middle floor is the administrative offices and the top floor is occupied by a reference Library which has a very impressive collection of old Armenian papers since 1895.
Hayashen besides having part-time child-care and a senior citizen club, it also has a youth club, and offers health outreach programs. Often professionals are Invited to give nutritional or cultural workshops.
Today the Center boasts 400 paid members. The membership fee is £15 a year. Most of the expenses are subsidized by Ealing City Council and other fundraisings they have during the year.
To say I was impressed about Misak Ohanain and what he has accomplished, it won’t be enough. Hayashen is truly a beacon of hope for the Armenian community of London.