Only days after arriving from Armenia, 9-year-old Karen Kocharian stood behind the grocery store cash register, his bandaged right hand, maimed in an earthquake, tucked in his jacket pocket. With his good hand he tried to help make change in unfamiliar dollars and cents.
The boy, waiting to be treated for injuries he suffered when the quake last December shook down the walls of his school, smiled at everyone who entered George and Annadid Ohanian's store.The couple, immigrants from the Soviet Union themselves, are sponsoring Karen and his father in this country. "I've never had a chance to do anything for my homeland," George Ohanian explained. "This is my chance."
Soviet officials have estimated that 25,000 people were killed by the quake.
"Three of my friends die," said Karen, a broad-faced boy with dark hair, who is among 37 Armenian children flown to the United States for treatment of crushed or amputated limbs at 10 American hospitals.
He and his father, Sarkis, expect to live with the Ohanians for three months or so as he goes through the transplant of a toe to replace a lost finger and through the therapy that will follow.
As he waits to enter Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, he's alert to the ways of his temporary home, watching, listening, every now and then lifting the camera around his neck, a gift from the Ohanians' 22-year-old son, John, to take a photograph to show when he returns home.
"He's likes when the children come in," Mrs. Ohanian says. "He can't believe that they have their own money and are allowed to buy whatever they want. He says back home he can only buy what his parents want."
Karen was in his favorite class - math - in a second-floor classroom when the quake hit at 11:41 a.m. on Dec. 7. He said the initial rumblings sounded "like a wolf howling." The teacher quickly ushered the children into the hallway, and Karen was near the stairwell when the major quake hit.
He says he remembers his teacher saying, "Don't be afraid. Everything will be all right" and the building's walls and floors "feeling like waves" just before the building collapsed.
Karen's grandfather and uncle were nearby and helped dig children out of the rubble. Of the 18 children in Karen's class, 11 died or were never located.
Karen was unconscious. When he awoke four hours later, doctors had removed his left eye - it had been damaged by a metal guardrail - and amputated what was left of the fingers on his right hand.
Karen was not told his fingers were gone until a week later, his father said. "I could not bring myself to tell him what happened."
The children brought to the United States for treatment were chosen by a team of eight doctors who toured Armenia for Project Hope, a non-profit charitable organization providing medical care and health education. Another 15 Armenian children are being treated at hospitals in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Missouri under the sponsorship of AmeriCares, a Connecticut-based relief society.
By transplanting one of Karen's toes to his injured hand, doctors hope to give him an opposable thumb.
Sarkis Kocharian said he accompanied Karen because his wife, Mairam, was needed back home to take care of their other son, 4-year-old Vahee.
He described their life in Armenia. While he and his wife are on a waiting list for a government-issued apartment, Mairam and the kids have been living with her parents, he with his parents.
The 34-year-old, with specks of gray in his dark hair, tries to help out as much as possible in the store. A former weightlifter, he carries boxes and ice for the Ohanians to stock the shelves.
At home, Kocharian works as an auto mechanic, a trade Karen wants to follow. The boy has been fascinated with the Ohanians' family cars, among the first things he photographed.
"He likes the computerized dashboard in my daughter's Trans Am," Mrs. Ohanian said. "He sits in the car and points at the instruments, "What's that mean? What's this mean?"
"When I go back home, I will build my own car," Karen said. "I never want to ride in our car again."
Back home, he plays soccer and enjoys chess. "Karen is (an) average chess player," Kocharian said. "His brother is very good."
Here, he likes music videos and electronic toys, just like a typical American boy. As for American food, he likes corned beef on rye. But Philadelphia steak sandwiches, no thanks.
He's fascinated by shopping malls and likes to go to the bank and post office with Mrs. Ohanian. Although shy when surrounded by a lot of people, he asks a stream of questions when he is alone with her, she said.
"He's very curious about everything," she said. "It's like an adventure to him."
It's an adventure, too, for his hosts.
George Ohanian was born in Russia, but was forced to leave the country at the beginning of World War II. He lived in West Germany and France before coming to Philadelphia in the 1950s. Mrs. Ohanian, born in Armenia, was raised in Egypt, where she met her future husband, who was on vacation. Neither has returned to the Soviet Union.
An outside wall of their store, called Armenian Touch, is painted with a mural of Mount Ararat, calling it the heart of Armenia. The couple said they opened their home in the suburb of Westtown to help Armenia's children.
"Armenia has suffered for a long time, and I'd like to think we can fix these kids up and send them back and help everyone over there," Ohanian said.
"These are Armenia's future."