Through personal relationships, local clubs, national organizations like the AGBU and their favorite dishes, they engaged with their identity.
Sylvia A. Tufenkjian-Mirabella and older sister, Louise Tufenkjian Barkhuff were the only children of Harry and Vahida Tufenkjian, who emigrated from Aintab, Turkey to the United States. They met and married in New York City in the 1920’s, later settling in Poughkeepsie, NY. Growing up first generation Americans of modest means, the Tufenkjian sisters negotiated their identities with grace, facing a number of challenges as members of one of the few immigrant families in their small city. Though the pressures to assimilate could have pushed them away from their heritage, Sylvia and Louise remained connected to the Armenian community throughout their lives. “Through personal relationships, local clubs, national organizations like the AGBU and their favorite dishes, they engaged with their identity,” Louise’s son Stephen Barkhuff recalls. “They were always comfortable with who they were.”
After high school, Sylvia pursued her interest in healthcare, first obtaining a Registered Nurse degree from Mount Sinai and, later, a Ph.D. in Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology. “Sylvia had a passion for self-actualization—she was constantly setting new intellectual, spiritual, and physical goals for herself,” Barkhuff recalls about his aunt. “After her passing, I would find handwritten notes in her office, pocketbook, car, and kitchen, reminding her of things she wanted to work on and achieve.”
She would stay in California for the rest of her life, working as a clinical psychologist. She specialized in Jungian psychotherapy. While working in central California, Sylvia met John F. Mirabella. They married in 1977. John was born in San Francisco, the second of four children of Joseph and Josephine Mirabella, who were of Sicilian heritage. He grew up in Monterey, CA, and, right after high school, joined the U.S. Army and trained as a medic. He served for 20 years, including combat service in Korea and Vietnam. Upon retiring from the Army, he earned his bachelor’s degree in teaching from California State University. “John’s values were quietly conveyed in his desire to pass on good advice to younger people, both in and out of the classroom,” Barkhuff reflects. He became a high school physics and math teacher in Modesto and was later a teacher at a state youth correctional facility, proud to help the young adults earn their high school diplomas. John and Sylvia settled in Ceres, enjoying a private and quiet life with John staying active with his passion for investing, while Sylvia enjoyed the arts, gardening, and tending her koi pond.
Louise remained in the Poughkeepsie area after high school. In the 1950’s, she was selected to be a Community Ambassador with the Experiment in International Living, travelling to Egypt and India. “My mother had a gift for relationship-building,” Barkhuff says. “She was able to foster relationships with many people from different backgrounds, who were taken with her caring attitude, hospitality, and openness to new things.” Upon her return, she gave many presentations on her experiences to local organizations. Soon after, Louise became activities director of the YWCA in Poughkeepsie and met Earl D. Barkhuff at a church event. They married in 1960 and raised three sons, Peter, David, and Stephen. She later enjoyed working as a librarian and participating in local homemakers’ and bridge clubs.
Despite living on opposite coasts, Sylvia and Louise remained very close throughout their lives, even venturing to Armenia together in the 1980s. In 1996, Louise passed away at age 67 and is survived by her three sons and three grandchildren. In 2017, Sylvia passed away at age 85. A year later, in 2018, John passed away, at age 85, survived by his son and granddaughter. John and Sylvia established the Tufenkjian-Mirabella Trust to benefit the many programs of AGBU, on behalf of themselves and Louise.