Taking Refuge

Picture: CC BY 3.0, Irada (Disclaimer: This photo is not of Liyah's recipe.)

From Caviar to Sliced Bread: An Armenian Christian Escapes Soviet Azerbaijan

January, 1, 2016

Overnight, it seemed like we became 'them.' Friends started to treat us differently. We couldn't play outside or speak our native tongue. I couldn't even tell people my real Armenian name.

Liyah Babayan was an Armenian Christian growing up in Soviet Azerbaijan. As a young child, she remembers having friends from all backgrounds - Muslim, Jewish, Russian, German, Ukrainian. Her family lived in an international city where people from around the world came to work and study. Liyah was raised to not see differences between people. "We just knew we had our traditions and they had theirs," she said.

But in 1989, when Liyah was seven years old, ethnic violence targeting Armenians broke out in Azerbaijan and anarchy ensued, a harbinger of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Like so many others, Liyah's aunt, who worked for the Soviet military, was attacked. Liyah explained:

Addresses were provided to the violent mobs and Armenians young and old were attacked, raped, mutilated, and killed.

"So many Armenian families have this same story," Liyah told me. But, while many Armenians thought conditions would improve, Liyah's father believed otherwise.

My father had a gut feeling. He put my brother and myself on a bus leaving to Armenia. We didn't have a chaperone. He just made a call to someone to look for us at the big bus station on the other side.

Shortly after, Liyah's mother and father met them in Armenia. But as the situation in Azerbaijan continued to worsen, her parents feared losing all their assets back home. So her family returned to Azerbaijan and attempted to sell their home. They packed their belongings, realizing that their departure would be permanent. At this point, "things got really bad, really fast," said Liyah. Muslims could lose their lives if caught helping Christians. But this is exactly what a friend of Liyah's father did when he facilitated the family's escape from Azerbaijan.

"I've never been taught to hate, especially knowing that the people who helped us escape were Muslims," explained Liyah.

Of course, her freedom from hostility didn't make being a refugee any easier. Her family spent three and a half years in Armenia before receiving asylum in America. "We were homeless the whole time - we lived in a school utility closet."

Just prior to her family's arrival in Armenia in 1989, the country had suffered from a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. Between economic and political collapse, the earthquake, and the influx of refugees from neighboring Azerbaijan, Armenia struggled to provide for the population. "You could be a billionaire, but there'd be nothing to buy. The stores were empty."

This was quite a change for Liyah, who had grown up in a relatively well-off family. "For us, caviar was never a luxury. We'd eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner - by the spoonful," said Liyah. "We had foods that I still can't purchase in the United States because they're extremely expensive," she added.

Liyah's rollercoaster ride continued when the family obtained permission to resettle in America.

In my head, I thought all the women had big hair and blue eyes and wore sequins - because that's what we saw in Western movies. And I thought that everyone in America lives by the Empire State building in New York or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Flying into New York City, the actual scene was even more overwhelming than big hair and sequins. No one in Liyah's family spoke English and, back then, people didn't have smart phones to translate for them. On top of that, Liyah was confused as to why these Americans kept "showing their teeth."

I remember wondering why Americans show each other their teeth. I thought it was so wild and primitive. That's considered rude in our culture. But, later I understood that that's a form of being friendly...I wasn't used to smiling. Children of war are surrounded by so much pain and terror. So I remember my first effort to smile actually felt awkward. It didn't feel natural to me.

Shortly after the family's arrival in New York City, they were relocated to Idaho by their sponsoring agency, College of Southern Idaho (CSI Refugee Program), which brought a whole new set of emotions for Liyah. "Idaho was a culture shock," said Liyah, citing the lack of diversity. "We felt like the most exotic people...it was very lonely and depressing."

Tired of being treated like an "other," Liyah made sure to pronounce each new English word without an accent, the way an American would speak. But, she was still isolated. Liyah didn't know it at the time, but fourth grade would become a turning point for her.

I got in a fight with a boy who told me to go back to my country and I punched him in the face and he cried. My teacher talked to me about it and tried to make me understand why what I did was wrong. I couldn’t go out for recess for a week, but I think she was really wise because she started to teach me about Anne Frank. I thought this is interesting because she was like me. I remember wondering 'Do other people know about this girl?' And my teacher gave me a little notebook so I could write down my thoughts. I was so proud of it because it was like a luxury to me - my parents couldn't afford a notebook. And I've kept that journal since fourth grade.

Years later, at age seventeen, Liyah decided she would publish her journal. Currently, Liminal, a refugee memoir is in the editing process, scheduled for release in early 2016.

Professionally, Liyah is an entrepreneur. At age twenty-two, she opened "Ooh La La!" in Twin Falls, Idaho, her adopted community. The boutique, which specializes in art, jewelry, fashion, and vintage items, has been deemed "Idaho's most adorable and affordable boutique."

The mother of two, Liyah is also an advocate for women and refugees, a Parks and Recreation Commissioner, and a member of the school board for Twin Falls. She has come full circle, now serving in the very district that educated her and taught her English. In honor of her achivements, Liyah was named one of Idaho's 50 Women of the Year in 2015 by Idaho's Business Review and has been featured in the New York Times for her advocacy.

Today, Liyah is proud to share her grandmother Lusya's Stuffed Vegetables Dolma with us. Food has always played a defining role in Liyah's story - from eating caviar as a child in Azerbaijan to the dearth of food available in Armenia to this favorite memory following her arrival in the United States:

When we came to the United States, I remember going to the grocery. And the doors opened automatically. The shelves were stocked. There were so many types of bread and it was even sliced! It felt like heaven.

Liyah Babayan.

Stuffed Vegetables Dolma

Stuffed Vegetables Dolma
  • 1 1/2 lbs. ground lamb
  • 1/2 cup rice or bulgur, or a combination
  • 1/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup Armenian or Italian parsley, chopped
  • 8 oz. crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
  • Cayenne pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon basil
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 cup water or 1 can chicken or beef broth, enough to cover the vegetables
  • Vegetables (choose from the following): bell peppers, eggplant, zuchini squash, tomatoes, potatoes, onions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 ° F.
  2. Choose your vegetables (bell peppers, eggplant, zuchini squash, tomatoes, potatoes, or onions). Scoop out the vegetables to create an opening for the filling of about 1 1/2 - 2 inches in diameter and about 2-3 inches deep.
  3. Brown the meat and cook the rice/bulgur according to the instructions on the package, but make sure it remains firm for stuffing.
  4. Combine the ground lamb, rice/bulgur, chopped pepper and onion, parsley, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, basil, black pepper, and salt to make the filling mixture.
  5. Salt the vegetables to taste. Then fill the scooped out vegetables with the filling mixture and place upright in a large covered casserole. The scooped out portions of the vegetables can be grated or processed and added to the broth to make it thicker, or can be used in another dish, such as a vegetable soup base.
  6. Pour the crushed tomatoes/sauce and the broth or cup of water over the stuffed vegetables. Cover and cook in the oven for 1 - 1 1/2 hours. (The stuffed veggies can also be cooked on the stove for the same outcome.)
  7. Try this dish with a dollop of Mahdzoon (yogurt) over the stuffed vegetables.