Mike and Rosalie Tcholakian were enjoying morning coffee on Aug. 4, but the notifications that kept their phones buzzing soon halted the couple’s daily routine.
Checking the devices’ screens, they saw the shaky cellphone footage of smoke rising from a warehouse near the port of a faraway metropolis — the images at first speckled by what looked like fireworks — and then a sudden, overwhelming blast whose soundwave was captured only as distortion. The scene was so jarring that it captured the attention of a world that had spent most of the year singularly captivated by a pandemic.
However, the Tcholakians did not have the privilege of simply waiting for news to trickle out. For hours, Mike Tcholakian fruitlessly used WhatsApp — a signature mobile app for any expatriate — to try to rouse anyone from his childhood home of Beirut. An uncle eventually accepted one of his calls, though he was unable to speak.
“At least he finally picked up,” Rosalie Tcholakian said, as if reliving the release of tension from that moment.
The explosion, caused by a fire that ignited more than 2,700 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, will go down as one of history’s largest non-nuclear blasts: at the equivalent of 1.2 kilotons of TNT, the explosion was heard as far away as Cyprus. Windows nearly a dozen kilometers from the epicenter were shattered, and residents would have seen a crater that was 141 feet deep had the sea not filled it in. It killed at least 181 and displaced another 300,000.
The aforementioned uncle lives “blocks away” from there.
“He got away, very luckily,” Mike Tcholakian recalled, seated at Carousel, his Glendale restaurant. “He was in the restroom, further away from the bedroom and his living room, which are all glass windows to the balcony, which was demolished.”
The blast also ripped the front door of the man’s condo from its hinges and rocketed it onto the uncle’s wife; she survived. A cousin who lives 6 kilometers away said his windows all were shattered.
The Tcholakians are among many members of the Lebanese-Armenian diaspora, many families of which have settled in Glendale and Hollywood alongside other Armenians. About 156,000 of Lebanon’s people are of Armenian descent, a number that largely grew from fleeing survivors of the Armenian genocide carried out by the then-Ottoman Empire. The Holy See of Cilicia, a major branch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is based in Antelias, Lebanon.
“That’s like the Vatican City for part of the Armenian church,” remarked City Councilman Ara Najarian in an interview.
Najarian was raised in Cleveland, but his father is Lebanese-Armenian and attended medical school at the American University of Beirut; his mother, a Syrian-Armenian, studied nursing at that same school. The longtime official successfully lobbied at last week’s council meeting to emblazon City Hall with the red, white and green of Lebanon’s flag.
“Many of the residents of our city have ties to Beirut, if not having been born there, and have family there,” Najarian said last week. “Likewise, almost every time a member of parliament from Beirut travels to the Los Angeles area, invariably they make a stop in the Phoenicia Restaurant, whether it’s someone from the political party hosting it or just members of the expatriates of Lebanon.”
As one of those Lebanese-Armenian expats, Phoenicia owner Ara Kalfayan has likewise maintained his connections to his home country. He visits family every year in Beirut — or he did, when the coronavirus wasn’t raging throughout the globe — and his daughter, whom he raised here in Glendale, has lived in the capital city for two years.
“She said she felt like it was an earthquake,” Kalfayan explained. “She lives on the sixth floor of her building, and she had her windows open, so she didn’t get hurt [from debris]. But when she looked down on the street, it was full of glass.”
The destruction adds insult to injury in a nation rocked already by the pandemic, which exacerbated the long-simmering economic issues that have ravaged the value of Lebanon’s currency, the pound. All this is in addition to a generally ineffective government that can barely provide electricity or running water for more than an hour each day, from a government structure stitched together on sectarian lines after the nation’s 1975-1990 civil war.
Writing for Foreign Affairs, Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid described Lebanon as “arguably the world’s most successful failed state” in 2018.
“There’s a lot of depression, and [the explosion] augmented the depression,” said George Saikali, head of the YMCA of Glendale, who emigrated from Lebanon in 1981. “They feel depressed, sad and hopeless. My cousin was describing to me, they said if it was not the summertime when they could go into the country, everyone would be on, like, tranquilizers or Prozac or something.”
Kalfayan said the pain of the recent tragedy often transcends physical wounds, likely a result of the recent history of strife.
“I have friends my age, when I called them, they didn’t get hurt but they were crying,” he said.
Saikali, who comes from an Arab Maronite Christian family, left Lebanon well into its bitter civil war — “It was horrifying,” he said, recalling having to live in small air raid shelters for a time. Mike Tcholakian was 10 when his family fled the war in 1977 — he remembered how his father began selling soujuk and basterma from home after snipers impeded him from going to work at his grocery; Rosalie Tcholakian was 3 when her family left the war behind. Kalfayan moved to San Francisco to attend college in 1971, but stayed here and waited tables after the war began.
That so much ammonium nitrate, a well-known chemical for explosives, lay unattended for years in that port warehouse has illustrated the government’s continuing dysfunction from that war, observers have said.
“What we saw in Lebanon is the byproduct of a system that needs to change, and the civilians are suffering greatly because of that,” Saikali said.
Not forgetting their homes, these local expats, among others, are finding ways to give back. The Tcholakians are setting aside 25% of their proceeds, to be donated to a relief organization. The Los Angeles Beirut Sister Cities Board of Directors — which includes Kalfayan and Saikali — has raised more than $30,000 for relief work.
“We cannot just take the businesses we have for granted,” said Mike Tcholakian, whose restaurant also has a Hollywood location. “We have to give back. You have to think about why God has given you this success.”
The L.A. Cedars Rotary Club, so named for Lebanon’s cedar trees, has funded the donation of meals to Beirut families. The Armenian Youth Federation’s Glendale Roupen chapter is hosting a carwash at the Glendale Youth Center from 1-4 p.m. Sunday at 211 W. Chestnut St., where the $20 donations will benefit HyeAid Lebanon.
“I’m thankful there are a lot of people worldwide who are caring about the Lebanese people nowadays,” Saikali, who lives in Burbank, said.
Tcholakian said he felt, after the decades of hardship, the Lebanese people would find the wherewithal to emerge from this tragedy.
“I think they’ll pass the test,” he said. “They never fold. They’ll get their strength, persevere and survive.”