Story by Mayram Tikoyan Artinian
Translation by Emma Artinian Soghomonian
Edited by Missak Artinian
Of the eight children my parents had during their marriage, I was the first born, named Mayram in memory of my father’s mother, who he lost contact with at eight years old during the Armenian Genocide. All eight of us kids were born in Aleppo, Syria in a community full of Armenians who were mostly survivors. My father, Setrak Tikoyan, was one of them. He once told me his story of survival. This is what he said, as I remember it:
“My daughter, I was only eight years old when the genocide was perpetrated on our people. I remember my extended family all lived in the Palu region of Western Armenia. When we sat down for dinner, there were 40 spoons scooping up food at our table. There were four brothers, their wives and children and grandchildren.
When the genocide began, we were driven out of our homes. My brother and I started walking with our mom to an unknown destination. I can hardly remember how long we walked when I realized I was separated from my mother.
I managed to sneak away from the masses by walking through an alley and into a small village. At one point, I met a man who proceeded to take me to his home. He gave me bread and said I could stay with them and work as a shepherd to herd his sheep. I stayed there as long as I could manage. But I was determined to leave.
One day, I took some bread and escaped to another village. It certainly is a long story how I travelled from village to village, begging for bread or food. I guess I had life in me strong enough to survive. It pains me to remember or talk about that period in my life. I just can’t bear reminiscing about those tragic times.
After several years I ended up in an orphanage. After some time, the orphanage was visited by American missionaries who gathered the orphans and transported them to Aleppo, Syria. I was part of the group of orphans who travelled with them. When I was there, I searched for my mother and younger brother, Marsoub, who was in my mother’s arms when we separated. But regrettably I had no luck.”
Tears streamed down his face as he told this story, as painful memories flooded back into his consciousness. After wiping his tears, he took me into his arms, and said, “You’re just like my mother.” He spoke of her often, sharing memories he had of her from his childhood. “I remember one day, my father was building a house for us in Palu, and she worked right alongside him and the construction workers. Then through some freak accident, one of the walls that was built collapsed on top of her, but she came out of the rubble unscathed. From that day on, I knew my mother was invincible.”
“I will find her,” he once told me. “My heart tells me I will find her. She appears in my dreams so often. I don’t know where she is, or whether she is alive. But I will never give up.”
One summer in Aleppo, Syria, my father and I were sitting on our porch when our neighbor Lusig Nene was returning home from church.
“God bless you, Setrak,” she greeted my father. “Today at church we were surprised by a visit of an elderly lady who was dressed in Kurdish attire. I asked her what she was doing at our church, and to our surprise, she started speaking Armenian. So I asked her where she came from. And you’ll never believe it. She said she was married in Palu and moved to Kharpert with her husband, who was the son of a priest.”
“Did she say her name?” My father asked.
“Yes. Her name is Anna.”
My father was stunned for a moment. He realized the description fit his long lost cousin from his father’s side. Excitedly, my parents got dressed. Lusig Nene said Anna was staying with a local family called Haroutioun. A few hours passed, and my parents returned with an elderly woman accompanying them.
My father called all of us kids and introduced us one by one to the visitor. “This is my eldest daughter, Mayram, named after my mother. This is my eldest son, Thomas, named after my father.”
We each took turns greeting the elderly lady and kissing her hand in a welcoming gesture and called her grandmother, but my father corrected us by saying, “No, children, she is not your grandmother. You can call her aunt.”
After the introductions and initial discussions, my Aunt Anna, as we started calling her, delivered stunning news to my father. She said, “Setrak, your mother is alive! I saw her about a year ago in a village called Aslan Dashi.” My father was beside himself with joy. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He asked her for any details she could remember.
The very next morning, when I woke up, my father was gone. He had gone off in the early hours of dawn to track down his mother. Probably a week’s time passed as we were waiting for his return, when we saw a taxi pull up in front of our residence. We ran out to see our father helping an elderly woman out of the car.
I noticed that she was wearing a white head scarf and was dressed in Kurdish attire. My mother tried helping the lady, but my father informed her that her legs were broken and that she could not walk. Then my father picked her up gently from the car and brought her into our home where he sat her down.
For the following weeks, I remember our home became a revolving door of visitors wanting to see her and extol in the union of a mother and her son after 32 years. Friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances alike filled our home. The visitors had many questions for my father.
“How did you find your mother? How did you know for sure she was truly your mother after 32 years?”
My father would recount the events as they had transpired:
“When I got on the road that morning, I rented a car and drove straight down to Arab Punar, a small Kurdish village around 35 kilometers east of the Euphrates where I had some relatives. Before I continued on my journey I wanted to have security in case of any trouble. I asked around to find out who the village magistrate was. My relatives took me to the magistrate. I asked him if he would accompany me on my trip to Aslan Dashi to help me find my mother. He agreed.
Together we set off for Aslan Dashi via boat. On the way there, I told him my story: ’When I survived the genocide, I was eight years old and was separated from my mother during the deportation. All these years I have searched for her to no avail. But recently I was tipped off that my mother may be residing in Aslan Dashi so I am going there to find her. My full name is Setrak Tikoyan, my father’s name is Thomas and I have a younger brother who my mom was carrying in her arms during the deportation. He was two years old, and named Marsoub. We are from the village of Palu. And my mother’s name is Mayram.’
The magistrate listened to me closely, and he said, ‘When we reach the village and find the woman named Mayram, I advise that you not enter her home. I will go in and ask her questions to determine if she is your mother. That way if she is not your mother, you are not involved.’
We arrived in Aslan Dashi and went around town asking the names of any elderly lady we came across. We asked if they knew anyone by the name of Mayram. For days we asked, but no luck. One day, the magistrate came across an elderly woman named Mayram. He brought her to me and asked if she was my mother. I took one look and immediately knew she wasn’t the one. I started feeling very depressed and disillusioned. But nevertheless we proceeded with our search, asking passersby if there was a Mayram in town.
Finally, one villager we came across said she knew a woman by the name of Mayram who lives in a tent not far from where we were. We followed his directions and came upon the tent. The magistrate advised me to stay outside the tent. He went in and I heard him greeting a woman and asking her name. She answered, ‘Mayram.’ The magistrate then asked her where she was from. ‘I’m a Kurd’, she answered. He asked for her original ethnicity. She said sadly, ‘What does it matter?’
After persisting with more questions, finally she gave in. ‘I’m Armenian. A long time ago I had a husband from Palu. His name was Thomas.’
‘Did you have any children?’ the magistrate asked her.
‘Yes, I had two children. The oldest was Setrak. The youngest was named Marsoub. I lost my Setrak during the genocide. I was never able to find him. My youngest grew ill and died when he was a teenager here with me. I am now married to a Kurd. I can no longer walk anymore because four years ago I heard from a villager that there was a man named Setrak in a nearby village. I hurriedly got on a horse and raced to that village to find him. But in that town the horse got spooked when we came across cars and started jumping violently. I was thrown off the horse, fell and broke my legs. I was brought back home but nobody helped me. I remain in this tent because I cannot take care of myself or leave. This Kurd husband gives me a piece of bread every day to survive.’
‘If you were to see your son Setrak, would you recognize him?’ the magistrate asked her.
‘He has a mark on his wrist from an accident when he hurt his arm as a child.’
The magistrate finally called me into the tent. I was expecting to see my young mother as I remembered her 32 years ago, maybe somewhat aged. But I was shocked and heartbroken to see her handicapped and in such a dire situation. I went over to her, held her hand, and looked into her eyes.
She didn’t have to look at my wrist to recognize me. I kneeled down and scooped her into my arms, both of us weeping together, overjoyed at this unexpected and long-awaited reunion.
The magistrate finally interjected and asked my mother, ‘Do you want to come with us to live with your son? Do you want to see your grandchildren?’
‘With all my heart,’ she answered.”
Mayram Tikoyan only lived nine months at our house in Aleppo before resting in peace. Before she died, she would randomly start singing a religious hymn, “Soorp Garabed volor molor.” The visitors from all over Aleppo would leave our house weeping with sadness and heartache and cathartic joy for the reunion. Many thought she held onto her life only long enough to see her beloved son and his family and to bless them with her love and longing. I believed that too, but I also thought something different. I thought she lived long enough so she could finally rest in peace in an Armenian cemetery, where she belonged.
Mayram Kassabian Tikoyan, circa 1947
Setrak and Mary Tikoyan with Mayram Tikoyan Artinian and her four brothers.