Refugees’ late son lives on in portrait

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)
July 19, 2004 Monday Final Edition


By Mike Fish Staff writer

Grigoriy and Yelena Bagiryan celebrated their daughter Marya’s fifth
birthday Saturday with gifts and a taste of cake.

But the Bagiryans, refugees from Russia who have lived in Syracuse
almost a year, also received a special gift of their own, one that
gave them a taste of what it feels like to live in a community where
they are loved and welcome.

Susan Naef, chair of the Social Justice Committee of St. Mary’s
Church in Hamilton, one of three churches that have taken the
Bagiryan family under their wings, presented Grigoriy and Yelena with
a portrait of their son, Nerses, who was 18 months old when he died
in an accident in their Moscow home in October 2002.

The portrait, done free by artist Rosita Dickson, of Hamilton, now
supplements their only photo of Nerses, one that’s about the size of
a quarter and fits in a refrigerator magnet in their kitchen on Park

“I am very thankful,” Yelena said in Russian through an interpreter,
Alex Sukhorukov.

The Bagiryan family, which includes six children and Grigoriy’s
mother, Vartush, came to Syracuse in September. The family is
sponsored by three churches: St. Mary’s in Hamilton, Our Lady of
Lourdes in Syracuse and St. Joan of Arc in Morrisville.

With considerable help from Catholic Charities and others, the
support group has provided furnishings, bicycles for the children, a
washer and dryer, a computer, a sewing machine, many Christmas gifts,
lots of food supplies and dinners, and help with the monthly rent,
when needed.

And St. Mary’s parishioners recently decided to cover the $5,000
travel bill the family still owes the U.S. government, Naef said. The
church so far has paid about four monthly installments of about $100
against that bill, she said.

Nerses died when he stuck his hand in an electrical outlet, and his
parents were able to visit his grave every day in Moscow. But in
Syracuse, their only reminder – until Saturday – was the tiny photo
on the kitchen fridge.

The family several months ago asked Naef for a few favors, including
a portrait of their late son.

Dickson, who is well-known for her pastel portraits, saw a photocopy
of the boy’s snapshot and volunteered to do his portrait.

“Rosita saw the snapshot copy and cried,” Naef said. “She did it from
the heart.”

Lauri Tomberlin, who owns a frame shop in Hamilton next door to
Dickson’s store, agreed to frame the portrait at no cost.

Grigoriy was from Azerbaijan, and when the Soviet empire crumbled and
Azerbaijan regained its independence, Armenian Christians like him
were no longer welcome there, Naef said. The family was forced to go
to Moscow, but because of their ethnic background, they were treated
poorly there, too, and sought refuge in the United States.

Speaking through the interpreter, Yelena said the family is happy to
be out of Moscow, where they were treated like third-class citizens
and lived in a neighborhood full of criminals. Her children, she
said, “may have a future here.”

In Russia, their children’s future looked bleak.

Yelena told one story describing the contrast between life in Moscow
and life in Syracuse.

In Russia, authorities thought their son, Armen, was mentally ill and
treated him that way.

When the family moved to Syracuse, doctors quickly discovered there
was hardly anything wrong. Armen, now 7, simply had a hearing
problem. He now has a hearing aid, and everything is fine.

“He acts so much better here,” his mother said.