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07/13/2021

By NAD Sona Manuelian

Covid-19 could not prevent us this year from traveling to Armenia with a volunteer build team. We were determined to assist a family, the Poghosyans, to fulfill their dreams of having a decent home to live in.

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Detroit Knights Send $1.6 Million Worth of Medical Supplies to Armenia

by Harry Kezelian from The Armenian Mirror Spectator

DETROIT — The Nareg-Shavarshan Lodge #6 of the Knights of Vartan celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2018. Over the past century, between the Detroit lodges of the Knights and Daughters of Vartan, about 2 million in aid has been sent to Armenia and Armenians, beginning with the survivors of the Genocide at the time of the organization’s founding.

This past year, the lodge nearly doubled that amount by sending over $1.6 million worth of medical supplies to Armenia.

The supplies were sourced through Metro Detroit-based organization World Medical Relief, and the transportation of three large shipping containers over the period of eight months was directed by Nareg-Shavarshan Lodge Commander Kazar Terterian working together with Peter Abajian of the Paros Foundation, Greg Baise, a lodge member who is also on the board of World Medical Relief, and a small circle of Knights. Due to the inherent risks of shipping supplies through Turkish waters into the Black Sea in order to aid Armenia, particularly in the middle of the 44-day war, the operation was kept secret and not even the broader Detroit lodge membership was made aware of what was going on.

Genesis of the Project

World Medical Relief is a Detroit-based charity focused on getting needed medical supplies to developing countries. The organization is the 9th largest of its kind in the United States and has a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator. Instead, the organization relies heavily on volunteers from the Metro Detroit community to run its day-to-day operations. In fact, World Medical Relief for many years has been a very popular venue for individuals, organizations, and religious congregations to find a way to give back to the community.

Medical goods are sourced from doctors, patients, and especially hospitals. The materials are either leftovers from hospitals where it is more economically efficient to buy new supplies or are used supplies that are not considered up to code under US regulations but are still usable for all intents and purposes and could save lives in developing countries. The sorting of the goods into different categories to then be shipped is a rate-limiting factor for the organization’s operations, which can be moved along in a major way by the simple act of volunteers coming in groups to help sort supplies. This is the reason that the organization, since its days of operating out of a Downtown Detroit warehouse, has been so popular for groups looking to do community service.

World Medical Relief started as the initiative of a Detroit woman in the 1950s simply packing up bandages and mailing them through the postal system to war-torn Korea. It grew under the guidance of its founder, who felt she was doing “God’s Work,” until it became the vast operation it is today.

A deep devotion of faith underlies the organization’s mission and most of those in charge are people of strong religious convictions, yet the organization is non-denominational and not even explicitly Christian. The goal is simply to help others, which group leaders indeed believe is “doing God’s work.” Favored as a supplier by local missionary groups, World Medical Relief will help any organization donate medical supplies to those in need anywhere in the world and Armenia certainly fit into their mission statement.

In the early 2010s, the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) chapter of St. John’s Armenian Church in Detroit discovered World Medical Relief through an internet search and the organization’s relationship with the Armenian community was born with an initial trip to help sort goods as a way for the ACYOA to engage in community service. In those days, the organization was still housed in its old building in downtown Detroit. A few other trips by St. John’s auxiliary organizations followed, but it was really in 2017 when World Medical Relief purchased a new facility in Detroit’s northern suburb of Southfield, where St. John’s is also located close by, that the relationship really blossomed. The church’s various subsidiary organizations found World Medical Relief to be a simple and effective way to give back. Church member Greg Baise, who is also a member of the Knights of Vartan, recalled World Medical Relief from his days as a practicing pharmacist, when he would often drop off excess supplies to the old Detroit location. He became a member of the organization’s board of directors and not long after this, when the Covid pandemic began, he wanted to find a way to help his ancestral homeland of Armenia through his new role by shipping medical supplies to Armenia.

Unloading Container #2 In Armenia

Baise approached St. John’s assistant pastor, Fr. Armash Baghdasarian, who suggested that the two approach the Knights of Vartan with the idea, of which Fr. Baghdasarian has been a long-time member and which Baise had recently joined. Knights of Vartan Nareg-Shavarshan lodge Commander Kazar Terterian was excited by the prospect and worked hard to bring the project to fruition. Terterian, however, suggested that the project be done secretly due to the danger of shipments being intercepted by Turkish forces.

Navigating International Shipping

Terterian was now tasked with filling out paperwork for the shipments, which was a challenge as the forms are geared toward World Medical Relief’s primary clients, missionaries who have specific medical objectives and will be travelling with the goods. To fill out the medical related portions of the forms, Terterian pulled in long-time Knight and physician, Dr. Gary Zamanigian, to assist him. In order to learn more about the process of shipping goods to Armenia and distributing them once they are in the country, Terterian reached out to Knight and Metro Detroit native Peter Abajian, director of the Paros Foundation, a charitable group in California.

The project was kept secret by all individuals concerned. They also worked closely with Dr. George Sampson, director of World Medical Relief.

Terterian and the small group of Knights helped Sampson to understand Armenia’s needs and World Medical Relief put together the containers for shipment. Meanwhile, the project also had to be signed off by Armenia’s Minister of Health and other officials. The receiving end of the project was assisted by Abajian and the desire at the time was for the shipment to go to one of Armenia’s poorest regions, Tavush, on the Azerbaijani border.

Container #3 Unloaded in Armenia

The initial project began in June 2020 and the concern was the Covid pandemic, therefore personal protective equipment (PPE) was a major component of the shipment, along with cardiac equipment, dialysis machines and other items that are in need in poorer regions.

Former Commander of the Detroit Lodge, Howard Atesian and his wife, Cathy, were benefactors of the first shipping container, which included $502,920 worth of medical supplies. The shipping cost was approximately $17,000 which was also donated by the Atesians.

The shipment left Detroit for New York by rail on September 14 to catch an ocean liner. Crossing the Atlantic, it entered the Mediterranean and navigated the Dardanelles and Bosporus into the Black Sea. However, due to the war that had broken out between Armenia/Artsakh and Azerbaijan, the Georgian authorities held up the shipment at the Black Sea port of Poti, extorting another $1,200 out of the Atesians to store the shipping container temporarily, which, of course, he willingly gave. Regardless, the Georgians’ cynical siding with Turkey in the conflict did not go unnoticed and was evident in many other similar events during the war when aid to Armenia was delayed. Finally, the shipment arrived on November 26, American Thanksgiving Day.

The second shipment was being put together as war was raging and Terterian requested that the supplies be geared more toward wound care. The second shipment was funded jointly by Herman and Arek Hintiryan and the Cultural Society of Armenians from Istanbul (CSAI). In an unprecedented move, Terterian asked the chairman of the CSAI, Vahe Akaraz, if there was any way he could secure the donation without informing his membership or even his executive board of the plans. The Detroit Bolsetsis, knowing the war was going on, and trusting Terterian and the Knights, with whom they have a long relationship in the tight-knit Detroit community, agreed to the large donation without knowing precisely what it was going toward. The donation from the Hintiryans and the CSAI amounted to $583,560 worth of medical supplies, placed in a second shipping container that departed on November 4 and arrived on January 31.

This time Terterian specifically requested prosthetics to be included in the shipment as he knew there would be a need for such items to help severely wounded warriors as well as civilians. The benefactor this time was St. John’s Armenian Church and the shipping container held $543,680 worth of medical supplies, broken down into 5,400 pounds of disposable “supplies” (including PPE) and 10,984 pounds of permanent “equipment” (including prosthetics, hospital beds, etc. etc.) The other containers had similar contents. This final shipment left port on December 4 and arrived on February 11.

In the case of all the shipments, Terterian wrote letters to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Armen Sarkissian as well as the Minister of Health to inform them of the donations that were arriving. Also in the case of all shipments, Terterian did not inform his lodge members nor the public until the shipment was safely in Armenia.

In total, the 3 containers amounted to $1,630,160 worth of medical supplies, which the Nareg-Shavarshan Lodge members fervently hope will be of great aid to the people of Armenia, in continuing the noble goals of the founders of the Knights of Vartan, which the Detroit lodge has upheld for over a century.