Kochari

By Natalie Kamajian (Guest Contributor)

my generation

stands on the shoulders of our parents
on the bent backs of our grandparents
on the snapped necks of our ancestors

listen not, to what you think your people need
we know nothing without ancestors…ancient sisters
//my first sisters//

they have bled, knelt, marched, killed, hurt
loved, wrote, built and buried
so that I can breathe “hye”

strong women
&                                             ignite fires within my spirit
selfless men

when I dance Քոչարի…

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Natalie Kamajian works at a community and economic development organization designing innovative solutions to responsibly revitalize low-income, urban areas around Los Angeles. After living in Հայաստան for a year she unearthed, as Charlemagne once put it, “her second soul.” She is an inbetweener: never here nor there, never making sense and never wanting to and liking it that way. Natalie loves to write but she feels life moves too fast, its moments too precious sometimes to do anything other than live it. Lover of lavender ice cream, homemade halva and handmade soaps; Gardening’s worst gardener and biggest fan; and best friend to both the young & elderly but not really the folks in between causing all the trouble. She practices traditional Armenian ethnographic folk dancing and will revel at any chance to do a mean Մշո Խըռ to some live dhol and zurna. She will gladly bring out her inner թագուհի when necessary and believes that only when she contradicts herself, is she able to seek truth. More of her poetry can be found here.

The Armenian Who Thought She Was a Turk

By Melissa Lake

An important part of stating Armenian culture has never died is to focus on its evolution. In biology we determine the fitness of a species by its ability to adapt to and cope with its environment, and just like animals will experience the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” law of nature, cultures throughout society have come and gone, waxed and waned, morphing and changing with time, some continuing on while others are left to die. As a scientist, I’m inclined to draw parallels to the laws of nature, so Armenian culture was no different to me. I see our common ancestor, a rich but concentrated culture exclusive to almost one singular area of the world, and I see its descendants, its gradual evolution and growth, its continued adaptations needed to survive in new environments. I see the branching from the original, the creation of different sub-families within a greater species. And like species in nature, while we all share a similar common ancestor, while our basic foundations are from the same source, all different Armenian cultures had to individually adapt to survive to their unique environments.

For my personal cultural experience, I was raised believing I was Turkish while still knowing I was Armenian. Whether it be to spare a child from tales of horrific violence, the inability to speak of a wound still raw and painful, or the fact that the reason my family is here today is thanks to the kindness of Turkish strangers, my mother never really spoke to me of the genocide when I was young. So my youth was a mix of two conflicting cultures: I ate breakfast in a kitchen adorned with Armenian flags but then talked about Turkey when people asked what ethnicity my mother was. My mother never renounced her nationality but also never abandoned her heritage. She was Turkish-Armenian just as American diaspora-born Armenians are Armenian-American. But I think this cultural fusion speaks more for Armenian perseverance than it does of forced Turkish cultural assimilation. My mother and her family spent years hiding their true ethnicity, adopting a culture that had seen to the decimation of their own. And yet their root culture was not lost, it had simply changed, evolving in its latency.

I’m here now, an adult raised a part of two enemy cultures, proud to say I am both, but also acutely aware that I am an Armenian by blood and birthright, and a Turk by genocide. And thus, I don’t think it would be too bold to say that Armenian genetics are a dominant trait. Somewhere on one of our 46 chromosomes sits an allele unique to Armenians and even through generational dilution it still permeates as strong as ever.

Even I stand up here today, half Turkish diasporan Armenian and half generationally American, raised in a town where I was the only Armenian, incapable of speaking the language of my ancestors, more than aware that I am Armenian before I am anything else. And whether it be through generations of ethnic mixing or from sheer distance from an elusive homeland, this genomic marker still remains permanent and impervious to the effects of time and other evasive cultural interference.

We are a culture of a people marred by tragedy and driven by strength. We are a culture of people who refuse to be forgotten, a people who refuse to be ignored and driven into obscurity. We are a culture that has survived through insurmountable strife and impossible odds. We are a culture that has come back from the systematic annihilation of our people stronger than we were before. You can drag us from our homes, you can burn us and rape us and reduce us to nothing, you can forcefully and coercively take the people out of Armenia, but you cannot, through any form of abuse or injustice or forced assimilation, take Armenia out of the people.

100 Years Later

By Melissa Lake

There is absolutely no rebuttal in saying that the Armenian Genocide was a horrific and senseless display of human cruelty and indifference. It is a large, unsightly stain upon the history of the world. I’m certain that if it were scientifically possible, most people would have it so that such an immense human tragedy had never happened.

However, while some may think it callous to say so, it would be historically and culturally ignorant to not take into consideration the few positive outcomes that resulted from the Armenian Genocide.

Armenians today could be described as a diaspora culture. Our ethnic heritage may have its roots placed in a small area in the west of Europe but the branches of our cultural tree have grown far and wide across the globe. A culture once fenced in and limited to a specific geographical region of the world has both developed and evolved, changing and morphing into something much different from what it began, as well as much different from other branches on the same familial tree.

Armenians are a people united in origin and fundamental cultural and dogmatic practices and yet it seems almost as if that is where our unity ends. The mass displacement of Armenians during the years preceding and during the genocide caused an irreparable cultural tear from traditional practices that we can easily see the effects of today. Armenians raised generationally in Syria, or Istanbul, or on the East Coast of the United States, while sharing some lasting and vital cultural characteristics, could be labeled as their own unique subcultures, somewhat similar but still astoundingly different.

I first realized this when I dated an Armenian who had grown up in New York City. At a young age, he had been adopted from Armenia. Both his parents were Armenian, so he spent the entirety of his young adult life immersed in his personal sect of Armenian culture- a small diaspora located in the New York/New Jersey area. So much of his appeal to me was a chance to connect with someone with a similar cultural background- to be able to share common beliefs and ideals and family lifestyles. But the more time I spent with him, the more acutely aware I became of the dissimilarity we shared culturally. His family life was much more reserved and conservative, full of professionals who behaved, well, professionally. And my family life was far different. The Armenians I grew up with were carefree, eccentric and astoundingly loud. So when I tried to joke with him about how the most cheetah print and stripper heels I’ve ever seen in my life were at the Armenian church on Easter Sunday, he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. And it was then that I realized exactly how much our culture has changed. The diaspora I grew up in, a large community of mostly Turkish and Syrian Armenians, was bound to be immensely different than others across the world. So much of our cultural traditions had adapted and grew with our change of scenery so that now, intermingled with our traditional beliefs and practices, are customs native to the places Armenians have found themselves. So my reality was that my culture was as much Turkish as it was Armenian, regardless of the fact that my mother and my family had spent their whole lives immersed in “Armenian” culture.

Many see this as a terrible tragedy, as an egregious calamitous aftermath of a horrific event. Yet it seems that the people who see it this way are also those that believe that change is terrifying. Cultural evolution, especially from a biological and historical context, is not only intrinsically necessary but humanitarianly beneficial. Culture changes with the evolution of time. The fact that Armenians as a people were able to experience such an immense tragedy and still maintain a base foundational cultural identity is less of an unfortunate loss and more of a remarkable achievement.

For a people who were ignored for much of history, Armenians across the world have been gaining renown and spreading Armenian awareness with their success, all while breathing new life into Armenian cultural identity. And still all Armenians share the cultural pain of our genocide. For such an immense act of human injustice, the Armenian Genocide is in all likelihood one of the largest sources for encouragement on Armenian communal gathering today. To say it is culturally irrelevant or unimportant would be to disregard what Armenian culture has become. Through such immense hardship and strife, Armenians have endured, and this shared strength and pride and yet also immense sadness has woven itself into a key block in the foundation of Armenian culture.

So through all of the varying differences Armenians culturally share today we are bonded together foundationally by our shared history and our distant past. Where we may lead different lifestyles and have different beliefs, as a culture we are bonded by what we were and what we’ve endured but also by what we may become. As the 100 year anniversary of the genocide looms ever closer, Armenians have become more active in their communities than ever and slowly but surely gaps that have existed between varying diasporas are narrowing. For a country that once struggled to maintain its cultural identity in the midst of war and systematic annihilation, it has flourished and grown into something even greater than what it began.

Irrepressible

By Semaline Joukakelian (Guest Contributor)

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Semaline Joukakelian is a graphic designer living in Montreal, Canada.  She enjoys painting and reading, and finds inspiration in the voices of Arthur Meschian and Ruben Hakhverdyan.   

Survivors: Ohan Akaragian

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Kharpert // 1898-1980

Ohan Akaragian was born in Agn on June 12, 1898 to Baghdasar and Haiganoush Akaragian.  He was the youngest of six; Serpouhi, Melkon, Makrouhi, Pilibos, and Varvar.  The Akaragians were well known in the region. They owned farmland, as well as a store in Romania. The profit that generated from this business was used to create an irrigation system to support farmland in Agn.

Before the Armenian Genocide was orchestrated, the Akaragians lived in peace.  The Armenian population in Kharpert was educated, hardworking, and extremely close with one another.  Every morning the entire village would attend badarak at the local church before heading to work or school.

Ohan’s two older sisters, Serpouhi and Makrouhi, were married and lived in Bolis, Turkey.  Melkon was married with three children and worked in the financial district before opening a jewelry store. Pilibos studied in Romania and in 1912, at 21 years old, he died from an illness.  In the meantime, their youngest sister, Varvar, had been asked for her hand in marriage at the tender age of fourteen.  The Akaragians agreed to the marriage with one ultimatum, that she would continue her education, and she did before giving birth to three children.

As soon as orders to begin the mass killings of Armenians were given in 1915, the entire region was devastated.  Ohan’s grandfather and brother, Melkon, were hung.  Melkon’s wife and children were killed, along with Varvar and her entire family.

Ohan’s grandmother was approached by a group of Muslims who informed her that if she were to abandon Christianity and convert to Islam, they would allow her and her family to live. Without hesitation, she responded, “I will give up my life, but I will not give up my religion.”  And so her entire family, including Ohan, was put on the death march.

They managed to purchase a horse with gold to carry Ohan’s grandmother since her old age kept her from walking. The remaining members of the Akaragian family walked while witnessing the most horrifying sights.  Ohan saw a group of young girls, holding hands, jumping into the Yeprad Ked. Corpses lay everywhere they went; along the roads, in the rivers, scattered all over the region like fallen leaves in the wintertime.  Ohan and his mother quickly realized that surviving was nearly impossible.  Ohan’s mother, determined to save the only man left in the Akaragian family, bribed the surrounding Turkish soldiers.  She offered them a quilt that she had sewn gold into and in return, the soldiers would allow Ohan to slowly fall behind the march so that upon reaching the end of the long line of people, he could run.  But once he was at the end of the line, he would be on his own.  The soldiers would not help him escape, simply, give him a chance to get away.

Following their agreement, Ohan started walking slower, slowly separating from his family and falling back within the line of people.  And each time that he would almost be out of sight, his mother would call for him with unstoppable tears in her eyes.  And he would quickly come back to her towards the front of the line.  His mother would hold him in her arms, refusing to let go because she knew that they would forever be apart.  And so she called back for him three times and he came back to her every time.  As she finally let go of him the third time, she had one last request.

“Don’t come back.  Even if I call you again and again, don’t come back.”

These were the last words she spoke to Ohan.  Once again, Ohan slowed down his pace, leaving his family ahead.  And it was only a matter of minutes before he heard his mother’s voice, screaming for him, again.  Each scream louder than the one before, her cries intensifying with every passing second.  And he honored his mother’s last words with tears in his eyes and longing in his heart.  He kept his eye on his family from a distance until they were too far to be seen.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the Turkish soldiers held their part of the bargain and turned a blind eye to Ohan while he ran.  He headed back to Agn, only to find that Turks now occupied his family’s home. Having nowhere to go, 17 year-old Ohan knocked on his neighbor’s door. His Muslim neighbor took him in and kept him in hiding for several months.

Knowing that there was no life left for him in Kharpert, Ohan took off once again, this time to Bolis to search for his sisters and their families.  He hid during the day and traveled by foot in the nighttime and every time he came across a farm, he would study the people, and the possible work that needed to be done.  If he felt comfortable enough, he would seek work for several days, weeks, or months at a time, before continuing on his journey.

It took Ohan two years to arrive in Bolis and to be reunited with the only family he had left.  Serpouhi, Makrouhi, and Ohan had lost sixteen members of their close family during the genocide; their grandparents, parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. Ohan stayed with his sisters for a year until he finally decided to move to Romania.

In Romania, Ohan met his future wife, Elisabeth Tevanian, and had two children, Baghdasar and Haiganoush, naming them after his parents.  Despite being in a new country and creating a new life, Ohan was often consumed by dark memories of the past.  He did not talk about the genocide often, as it was too painful of an experience to share. However, he consistently had nightmares, causing him to frantically wake up during the late hours of the night.  And it was in these moments that he would confess to his wife the inhumanity he fell victim to in 1915.  Knowing that Ohan could not speak about the genocide without emotions taking over, Elisabeth would tell Ohan’s stories to their children, ensuring that they were aware of their father’s past.

In 1963, Ohan and his family relocated to Los Angeles, California.  Although he didn’t speak a word of English and had no experience in the shoe business, he purchased a shoe store that was for sale near their home. While his family wondered how he would start a new business in a new country, Ohan took a piece of paper and drew a line through the center of the sheet.  On the left side he wrote down shoe sizes, parts of a shoe, and days of the week in Armenian; gosheeg, guroong, yergooshapti, yerekshapti… He handed the sheet to his daughter who listed the English equivalents of these words on the right side.  And it was with this one piece of paper that Ohan provided for his family and went on to create a successful business.

Ohan passed away in 1980.  He is survived by his two children, three grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. He is remembered as an honest and respected man, who loved abundantly.   He loved his family, his church, his people, and his community.

Honored by Haiganoush Akaragian, Ara Akaragian, and Jeannette Akaragian

 

The Armenian Genocide- Where is Justice?

By Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., Founder and Executive Director of World Without Genocide

‘Race murder,’ Henry Morgenthau, US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, called it – the extermination of all Christian Armenians by the Ottoman government during World War I. And ‘race murder’ it was, with 1,500,000 men, women, and children dead of torture, starvation, and killing. Although this catastrophe was widely documented by eyewitnesses while it was happening, there was no global intervention to stop the slaughter.

The Armenian catastrophe became almost a footnote to history. In fact, when Hitler was asked how he thought he would be able to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews, he infamously replied, “Who today remembers the Armenians?”

This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and we remember the Armenians.

Ending Impunity

What happened after the Armenian genocide? Following massive human rights abuses like genocide, people need to restore their belief in justice. This also restores their dignity and brings the truth to light.

When the war ended in 1918, Britain, France, and Russia wanted the leaders in Germany, Austria, and Turkey to be held responsible for violating the laws of war and the ‘laws of humanity.’ They began planning for an international war crimes tribunal, the first one ever, to try the German Kaiser and Talat, Enver, and Jamal Pasha, known as the Young Turks, along with other leading Turkish perpetrators.

The new Turk leaders hoped that, by blaming a few members of the Committee on Union and Progress, the Young Turks, they would shift blame away from the Turkish nation as a whole.

However, the three Young Turk leaders were convicted in absentia. They had fled the country; two were ultimately assassinated and one was killed in battle.

The British Foreign Office demanded that 141 Turks be tried for crimes against British soldiers, and another 17 tried for the crimes against Armenians during World War I.

Government and military leaders were arrested. Military courts-martial and at least six domestic trials were held in provincial cities where massacres had occurred. Ministers from the Young Turks’ government, party leaders, attorneys, governors, military officers, and other officials were arrested.

However, despite public hatred for the previous regime, the response to these courts was lukewarm. On April 4, 1919, Lewis Heck, the US High Commissioner in Istanbul, reported, “It is popularly believed that many of [the trials] are made from motives of personal vengeance or at the instigation of the Allied authorities, especially the British.”

Under Ataturk’s leadership, a nationalist had movement emerged and many people were afraid that the trials were part of an Allied plan to divide the Ottoman Empire. On August 11, 1920, Ataturk’s government ordered a stop to all the court proceedings.

Failing to Find Justice

In the end, there was no international tribunal. Some scholars suggest that there wasn’t enough forensic evidence. Others assert there were no international laws to use at the tribunal. However, there also was little interest in a tribunal. The Allies saw a large Turkish population waiting to modernize, a huge potential partner just waiting for trade and economic development. The Allies didn’t want to risk their long-term economic relationship with Turkey.

The British also wanted their prisoners of war back. In 1921, they released 145 Turkish perpetrators who had been held on Malta and exchanged them for 29 British soldiers. This ended any possibility of an international tribunal.

Denying Genocide

Despite extensive personal testimonies, photographs, and court documents, the Turkish government consistently denies that genocide occurred. However, 23 countries, 43 US states and many cities, and leading scholars around the world recognize that what happened was, indeed, genocide and have labeled it as such.

The leading perpetrators were never prosecuted for their crimes. The survivors never received restitution for their losses. The victims’ descendants never found justice for the terror inflicted on their ancestors. But we can remember those who perished and those who stood up against the violence.

In Minnesota, Texas, California, and New Hampshire, every April is designated as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. Six genocides are officially memorialized during April – Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Holocaust, and the Armenian genocide. This year, we will all remember. Attend an event, watch a film, or stage a reading of our play “Upstanders: Taking a Stand against the Armenian Genocide.”

Moving Towards Justice

Holocaust survivor, Raphael Lemkin, read about the tragedy of the Armenians. Lemkin had lost 49 members of his extended family during the Holocaust. He felt that there had to be a word to describe the killing of a people, for which there was no word. There were many words to describe the killing of people, such as homicide, suicide, and fratricide, but there was no word to describe the horrors perpetrated on the Armenians and, twenty-five years later, on the Jews.

Lemkin coined the word genocide, with geno from the Greek meaning tribe or group, and cide from the Latin meaning ‘to kill.’ Once he had the word, he felt that there had to be a law to prevent and to punish this crime. He wrote the United Nations Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide, which was ratified by the United Nations in 1948.

What can we conclude? Some scholars say that the documents (encoded telegraphs and letters) attached to the verdicts of those regional trials prove that the Armenian deportations were aimed at total annihilation of the Armenian population. These trials and verdicts are important arguments against the denial of the Armenian Genocide.

But, just like with the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg in 1946 and subsequent trials throughout Europe after World War II, most of the Ottoman officials who perpetrated the mass killings and property theft later held important positions in the military and political elite of Turkey.

Transitional Justice

The implementation of transitional justice following genocide or other atrocity crimes is critical. We need laws to prosecute the perpetrators. We need truth and reconciliation commissions to bring the guilty together with victims, witnesses, and survivors.

We need reparations for land, artifacts, money, and other assets that have been stolen. We need vetting of public officials to be sure that those who committed atrocities don’t stay in positions of power.

The path to justice in the world perhaps started with the Armenian genocide. Raphael Lemkin’s word and the UN Convention made the intent to exterminate a people, based on race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, a crime. The first international criminal tribunal came close to reality with the attempt to prosecute the Young Turks. Although this tribunal never came to fruition, the three Allied nations of France, the UK, and Russia (later the Soviet Union) became three of the four major participants in the Nuremberg trials of 1946, the first international criminal tribunal to prosecute individuals for atrocity crimes. The Nazi trials at Nuremberg might not have happened without Britain, Russia, and France talking about an international tribunal for the Armenian atrocities.  We remember the Armenians and these small steps towards global justice.

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Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the founder and Executive Director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul. The organization provides education about past and current conflicts and advocacy at the local, state, and national levels to protect innocent people, prevent genocide, prosecute perpetrators, and remember those affected by genocide.

Kennedy has received many awards for her work, including Outstanding Citizen from the Anne Frank Center, Higher Education Leader of the Year from the National Society for Experiential Education, Outstanding Service Award from the Midwest Sociological Society, two awards from the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Women’s Press Change-maker award.

World Without Genocide received a Certificate of Merit from the State of Minnesota, Office of the Governor, for efforts to seek justice and to eliminate genocide around the globe; and the 2014 Minnesota Ethical Leadership Award.

Kennedy is an adjunct professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law and is the Minnesota representative to AMICC, a national organization that advocates for the International Criminal Court. She also serves on the Human Rights and Relations Commission for the City of Edina, Minnesota, and on the Board of Directors of the Minneapolis University Rotary Club.

Kennedy received her BA degree from the University of Michigan and doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota.

Survivors: Helen and John Demerjian

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Aintab // Helen Demerjian 1889-1975 // John Demerjian 1910-1978

Emanuel Demerjian lived in Aintab with his wife, Lussia Minassian, and their five children; Helen, John, George, Garabed, and Artin.  Helen was born on June 23, 1889 and John was born on April 15, 1910.  The Demerjians were a wealthy and well-known family in the region, as their grandfather, Manouk Demerjian, was the Turkish ambassador to Persia. They owned a vineyard and a factory located near the Copper Bazaar, where pots were made.  Helen managed the Congregational Orphanage of Aintab. The orphanage was once an American college but was turned into an orphanage after the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896.  It has been estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenians were killed during this time, leaving many children orphaned.  When the deportation orders were announced in 1915, John immediately ran to the orphanage to be with Helen and her two young daughters, Lucine and Agnes.

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Helen with the orphans of Aintab.  (center, plaid dress)

The rest of the family was deported to a concentration camp where they lived miserably. Lussia died at the camp, and Emanuel, along with his sons, found their way to Aleppo.

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The Demerjian’s (the family members Helen and John left behind). 

John, Helen, Lucine, and Agnes were deported to Deir Zor along with three hundred orphans.  They lived in dire conditions during this time, having nothing to eat but grass and drinking their own urine to survive. Helen dressed John in women’s clothing so that the Turks would not kill him. With the help of the French and the Near East Foundation, they managed to escape and survive, finding their way to Syria and later to Lebanon. From Lebanon they moved to Algeria, then France, until they finally found their way to the United States.

Helen resided in Washington D.C. and eventually married John Kazanjian. John lived in New Jersey for some time before moving to Montebello, California where he served on the city council and successfully operated a dry cleaning business, providing a comfortable lifestyle for his wife, Arax Arjanian, and their four children: Joan, Carole, John, and Gary.

Ironically, the Demerjian residence in Aintab, which was seized during the bloodbath of 1915, now serves as a bed and breakfast, advertised as a resting place for vacationers.  Although Helen and John lost their home, wealth, and family members, they persevered against all odds and successfully created new lives for themselves and their families.

Helen Demerjian passed away on March 31, 1975 and was survived by her two daughters and four grandchildren.  John Demerjian passed away on February 18, 1978.  He is survived by his four children, nine grandchildren, fourteen great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

Honored by Joan Ainilian McClendon, Carole Ainilian Crone, Gary Ainilian, and John Ainilian

Surviving

By Leta Stagno (Guest Contributor)

“The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.”

                        – Juliette Lewis

I wish I could say being born Armenian meant there was something inherently different about me biologically; that my ancestry caused redeeming and admirable characteristics like bravery and strength and altruism to be woven into my genetic code. I wish I could say that just the sheer fact that my ancestors were Armenian conditioned me to be the dynamic mesh of character traits that I am. But it didn’t. Had I experienced a severe cultural disconnect as a child, had I been raised with different moral ideals, had I grown up ignorant of my mother’s culture, a lot of my admirable (and not so admirable) qualities that I had so unwittingly attributed to my heritage would no longer define me, or exist within me at all. Brutal honesty, impossible stubbornness, loquacious tendencies- all personality traits I had attributed to my mother’s Armenian nature, all of which I had, without thought, assumed I had been born with. And yet, now, I’m acutely aware that had I been raised apart from my mother, had she not been such an integral and vital part of my upbringing, I may have turned out to be a very different person.

I think the only inherent trait I can directly attribute to my Armenian genetics is the unwavering determination to survive. While this is a basic biological trait, all species on earth are programmed with some genetic marker for self-preservation, something caused a genomic augmentation within Armenian DNA. Somehow the chromosomal allele mutated and adapted, making the will to survive an indestructible and distinctive factor woven within my interlocking ladders of nucleotides. Because of this genetic mutation, Armenians are an intrinsically hardy people. We are hard to kill, especially in spirit- a people that refuse to die. Where others would be motivated by hope, we are motivated by pride and the singular driving force of bitterness or spite is enough to fuel us to a near impossible end. We survive, we push through, we continue on through insurmountable odds and immeasurable strife. We are brave even in the face of death, vengeful to a fault, determined and unyielding.

And these are the qualities that kept me alive.

The problem with society today is that we always believe that bad things will never happen to us. Television and film have desensitized us, numbed us to the real horrors of the world. Things that should cause us to live in constant states of paranoia do the exact opposite; we sleep easier at night believing we are immune to the catastrophe around us.

So I grew up believing I was safe.

I spent my whole life hearing that I was strong; that I was strong-minded and strong-willed and that I was more than capable of taking care of myself. So I grew up both pitying abuse victims and sympathizing for them, but I was incapable of empathizing for them. I sighed deeply and judgmentally with the rest of the world when Rihanna confessed to still loving Chris Brown after he had beaten her. I saw her inability to disconnect from and resent her abuser as a sign of weakness, I saw her as frail and pathetic- what kind of woman is incapable of leaving the man who hit her? Even as a teenager I was bold and forthcoming- I was upfront and honest about what I wanted. I never backed down without a fight, I was never afraid to make enemies. So I never thought it would happen to me.

You hear it over and over again, the story about the frog in the boiling pot. It states that if you put a frog in boiling water it will instantly jump out, cognizant of the danger and pain it faces imminently; however, if you put a frog in a pot of tepid water and then slowly increase the temperature until it is boiling, the frog will remain there until it dies, indifferent to its own demise. The moral of this story is the same justification given to victims of abuse for why they stay with their abuser. So when I was 19 and sat in my own pot of tepid water, by the time my flesh was charring from the scalding waves of my reality, it was too late.

All I can remember is that he was striking. My god, he was beautiful. And I was just a teenager, still shedding the skins of my over-extended awkward phase. I was both deeply unaware and uncomfortable with my new found sex appeal, like a child trapped within an adult body. He was grossly flattering, to such an extent that would now set off red flags, but then it felt like a real-life manifestation of my favorite romance novel. I think my naivety was part of my allure; the idea that he could be the first to break me was enticing to him.

It started off perfect, my tepid water bliss. I was smart, I was beautiful, I was wonderful. He built me up into some ethereal goddess. He was excessively dedicated and exceedingly attentive. I fell asleep to goodnight texts and woke up to good morning messages. I was his princess, his baby, his perfect girl. Until I wasn’t. I wish I could say I don’t remember the exact details of how it first happened. I wish I could say it was all one giant, horrible blur. But if there’s anything in my past I can recall with near crystal clear accuracy, it was the first time. I also wish I could say it was the last.

I already mentioned I have always been argumentative. I hate hearing I’m wrong, I hate people thinking I’m wrong. But I know when to bite my tongue. So for weeks, I bit down-hard. But as I grew more comfortable and as I felt safer, I became more vocal. I voiced my opinion, I spoke my mind, and for a short while it was fine. It was refreshing to be able to say things and know someone wanted to listen.

But one day, I said the wrong thing. We were alone in a parking lot, talking about something unimportant when he asked me if I would go home with him. I turned my head and laughed, jokingly proclaiming, “Never in your wildest dreams.”

There are still days where I have to fight myself to remember that it wasn’t my fault, that I couldn’t have known that a lighthearted, flirtatious joke would end with a hand wrapped around my throat and me gasping for air. I could never have known that I would discover what it feels to know I’m going to die with hot tears streaming down my face while I choked up pleas for my life at 11:30 at night in a movie theater parking lot.

It was over quickly. I was more stunned than injured as I collapsed onto the pavement and sucked in more air than necessary. He crouched down while I kneeled on all fours, like a wounded animal at his mercy, and he tucked my hair behind my ear while he whispered, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“I’m sorry” was always his phrase of choice. Sometimes he would say, “I can’t help it”, others, “I wasn’t always like this”. At a certain point I think he just started to run out of things to say and would just resign himself to wiping the tears off my face. I spent more of my relationship wearing scarves and layering foundation, covering up hand marks where other girls would have covered up hickeys, than I spent happy.

But I couldn’t leave. It wasn’t because I loved him or because I was afraid he would hurt me if I left, it was because he did to me what most abusers do to their victims, he made me feel worthless to everyone but him. When the physical abuse started, so did the verbal abuse. I was fat and no one else would ever want to be with someone like me. I was grossly unattractive. I was a dumb slut who was a waste of everyone’s time. But he professed that he had somehow found it in his heart to see past all those things and still want to be with me. So I stopped waking up to good morning text messages and instead woke up to pictures of me where he would critique every flaw and say he was the only person who could learn to live with them. He valiantly confessed I should pity him for not only putting up with me but for the fact that he had been so damaged by his previous relationship that it was obvious justification for destroying me. I lived every day in abject misery, incapable of escaping because I wholeheartedly believed that what he told me was true.

I don’t remember when it was that I realized my relationship was going to kill me. Whether it be the eating disorder, the violent physical abuse, or such severe mental atrophy that I would eventually choose to give up entirely, I knew that I was going to die. It’s a sobering thought, to feel yourself on the precipice between life and death, aware that you are the only one capable of saving yourself.

Albert Camus wrote multiple philosophical books on the idea that the hardest decision we make as humans is choosing between living and killing ourselves. For years we have scoffed at this idea, a generation that sees mental illness as more a personal weakness than a debilitating disease. For almost my whole life I too fell victim to the negative stigma, I saw suicide victims as both gravely sad and terribly tragic, but also selfishly frail. So when I too was caught in Camus’s philosophical net, torn between continuing my life and dying, I finally understood what I had been so ignorant of before.

The thing about wanting to die is that it makes you explicitly aware of exactly everything you’re living for. And that made me exceptionally angry. I was so young and so brimming with potential; my future was blindingly bright and all I could think about was how badly I never wanted to see it. So where before I had been possessed with a crippling sense of worthlessness, I was now filled with seething bitterness.

I didn’t decide to end the relationship that was slowly killing me because I woke up one day with a new found self-worth. I didn’t choose to continue my life because I saw through the haze of lies and manipulation meant to trap me. I didn’t realize I could do better. Instead, I woke up one day pissed the fuck off.

I don’t know if the fact that I’m only half Armenian is to blame for the fact that my genetic coding to “proceed through all costs” kicked in a little later than expected, but it did. Where other abuse victims can say they chose to leave through new found self-love or through support from friends and family, I chose to do so because my ancestors didn’t break their backs for centuries so their most privileged descendant could be ruined at the hands of a ridiculously insignificant man. So it was also pride. I was bitter and vengeful and full of spite. And it was also shame, to be a living member of a generation that was never meant to exist, to have grown up among stories of such immense courage and bravery and resilience and yet somehow, through all of my gifts and privilege, still manage to possess enough inherent frailty to let the empty words and actions of an emptier man erase my family’s history. How my ancestors must have wept from their unmarked graves while I let him treat me with the same physical brutality that they had died to show me I could overcome.

And thus I overcame it. Like an alcoholic weans himself from the poison in his cup, I slowly went through remission, gradually and painfully removing myself from the source of my misery. I less and less let myself fall victim to both his words and his fists. I saw myself more as what I could be and less of what I was in that moment. I acknowledged my own mental and physical willpower and I left my abuser, battered and bruised and broken but stronger than ever.

Because this is not a sob story. This is not a tale of tragedy, of immense grief, of loss and suffering; it’s a story of survival. Because that’s all I did, I survived. And while it would be wrong of me to say that the only reason that I did was because my ancestry can be traced back to a small country in Eastern Europe, it would be just as incorrect to say that my heritage had nothing to do with my ability to remove myself from chains I had watched being formed. I am no hero but I am also no victim, I’m just a girl who used her courageous ancestry as a source of strength in a time of dire need. I’m just a girl who already had markers for persistence pre-programmed within her genome and who just needed a catalyst to drive them out of dormancy. I’m just a girl who was lucky enough to be born Armenian.

Leta Stagno is a graduate student currently pursuing a Masters in Biology. Originally from Florida, she now divides her time between her old home in Fort Lauderdale and her new one in Chicago. She enjoys baking and writes love notes with cooking utensils and oven mitts.

If I Could Visit Armenia Someday

By Tamar Hovsepian (Guest Contributor)

If I could go to Armenia one day, where would I go?  The answer does not come easy for someone like me who never visited Armenia and would like to go and visit very badly.  There are so many beautiful historical sites, sacred churches and monuments in our homeland, Armenia, that I’ve heard about and would love to see. However, the one place that stands out for me is the Armenian Genocide Memorial, Tsitsernakaberd.

This Armenian Genocide Memorial is found in Yerevan and construction started in 1965 after Armenians demonstrated in Armenia on the 50th anniversary of the genocide. The construction of the monument was completed in 1968. Every year on April 24, thousands of Armenians from Armenia and around the world commemorate the anniversary of the genocide by laying flowers around the eternal flame. I have never been to Armenia, but when I do go, the first place I want to visit will be the Armenian Genocide Memorial because it will be the place where I will lay flowers and say our Lord’s Prayer Hayr Mer for the souls of my ancestors who perished away at the hands of Turks.

This genocide monument in Yerevan is dedicated to the memory of all my ancestors who perished in the first genocide of the twentieth century. This is a very painful part of our history and a human disaster, a very personal one for me because my great-grandparents and family members from both my mother’s and father’s side were victims of this terrible crime. They lost their lives, their farmlands and their homeland. Listening to very personal stories about the genocide from my mom who heard it firsthand from her surviving great-aunt definitely makes me want to go Tsitsernakaberd to remember, pay my respect, and honor the victims by lighting a candle and laying flowers on the ground as millions of people did and will continue to do.

Tamar Hovsepian is an 8th grade student in Philadelphia.  She attends Haigazian Armenian School on the weekends and is a member of Meghry Dance Group, where she performs and exercises her passion for Armenian dance.  Tamar loves theatre, playing the piano, and painting.