Survivors: Helen and John Demerjian

dem3

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.

dem2

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.

dem1

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

Lost in Translation- Part I

By Christopher Yemenidjian (Guest Contributor)

Among the first Armenians who immigrated to the United States and the succeeding generations of Armenian-Americans, there have been phrases, terminologies, mannerisms, and behaviors that hold distinctly different meanings from those of non-Armenians. My non-Armenian friends have slowly learned the difference between Pacific Standard Time and Armenian time. They have seen our tables filled with food and wondered if more would be joining us. We aren’t the most straight-forward group of people, and we require a bit of conditioning to be properly understood. This series is intended to provide the necessary insight into how Armenians think, act, and operate, a means of bridging the gap between ourselves and our non-Armenian counterparts.

Disclaimer: The notes below are based on real-life experiences. They are not intended to insult, disparage, or disrespect Armenians or non-Armenians in any way, shape, or form. They may not reflect the views of every Armenian, and are not intended to do so. This piece is purely written for entertainment purposes. 

  1. “I will be there in 15 minutes”

Ordinary Meaning: I am about 10 – 20 minutes away.

Armenians: I am just now about to get in my car and should be there within an hour or two.

  1. “My dream is a small intimate wedding”

Ordinary Meaning: Similar to an elopement with less than 100 people (being generous).

Armenians: At least 300 people, and you just broke your mother’s heart because now she can’t invite this couple whom you have never met. However, the couple invited your parents to their daughter’s wedding 8 years ago, and are therefore obligated to send them a wedding invitation. Not to do so is considered an insult of epic proportions.

  1. How to greet distant relatives

Ordinary way: With a handshake and a verbal greeting.

Armenians: Calculate the age and degree of consanguinity or affinity. Then select from the following list: handshake, a nod of the head, hug, or kiss on the cheek. If it is a kiss on the cheek, you must determine who will be the first to lean in. A slight miscalculation and you are left in an awkward position, and run the risk of offending your relative.

  1. A weekend barbecue

Ordinary Meaning: Hamburgers and hot dogs, and maybe a salad, properly apportioned to the number of guests.

Armenians: Beef Kebab, Chicken Kebab, Hummus, Lebne, Tabouleh, Fattoush, Rice, Basterma, Baba Ghanoush, Grilled Veggies, and a few other dishes that vary from house to house. Apportioned to feed about 3 villages in a 3rd world country for multiple days.

  1. The Mother from “Everybody Loves Raymond”

Ordinary Meaning: An overbearing, pain in your butt woman who does not exist.

Armenians: A mellow, toned down version of our mother or mother-in-law.

Christopher Yemenidjian graduated with a degree in Rhetoric from U.C. Berkeley and is currently a law student in Portland, Oregon.  He spends his free time playing video games, watching movies, and driving his family crazy.  He’s had vegan powers for the past four years and counting. 

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.  

How Basketball Came To Be My Armenian-American Identity

By Angela Koussian (Guest Contributor)

Two years ago Kobe Bryant became the campaign ad for Turkish Airlines’ direct flights from Los Angeles to Istanbul. As Armenians, some of us felt uncomfortable and disappointed that one of our favorite athletes would support such an endorsement. Some of us even went as far as ditching the purple and gold jerseys and giving up tickets to games entirely. It was a fresh wound, the kind we would get as kids, a scrape after we would spend hours playing basketball outside. The kind our moms would tell us in Armenian, medznasneh geh mornas, which translates to “when you grow up you will forget it happened.”

Despite still being a Kobe fan myself, you might be asking what sports has to do with my identity? Well, I never knew an Armenia that existed to me as strongly as I did while playing basketball. I was the young girl who had mastered a jump shot before I even learned how to make sourj (Armenian coffee). Turns out I would need both of these skills to properly socialize into my Armenian culture.

As a kid, I played basketball both for my public school and a city youth league. I grew up in South Bay, a town of beach cities located in Los Angeles with a small, and I mean small, population of Armenians. It was through my agoump (Armenian Center) that I found out about an all-Armenian basketball league. This organization is known around the world as Homenetmen. It might have been the third team that I joined, but it was the first time I was able to have a balance between my love of basketball (a passion shared by all backgrounds) and my culture (shared only among those on my team). I called this my “sub culture win-win,” the birth of my Armenian-American identity.

Each team was named after Armenian historic sites such as Ararat, Massis, Ani, Sassoun and Arakatz. Often times, the other communities had too many players on their roster so they would break in to 2-3 teams. This is because they lived in regions where there were a larger population of Armenians such as Glendale, Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. A game of Ararat 2 vs Massis 1 would be going on, but there was always one Arakatz. We were the team that had to play with six, five or four players throughout the whole game. Through our wins and losses, we learned about the importance of communication.

It isn’t uncommon to see a mutual interest in any activity between siblings and parents, especially in a tight knit Armenian family. My older brother played basketball, so naturally I wanted to too. I don’t have any sisters, and being a part of this team felt like I gained many Armenian sisters. We would come up with plays that were named after Armenian foods, like bahmya (okra stew) which I remember wasn’t a favorite food among many of us. I couldn’t talk about bahmya with my American friends, even if I did compare it to the Armenian equivalent of broccoli.

In the years I spent playing basketball with Armenians, I heard many kids on the court say that their “dream is to be the next Kobe.” Certainly Armenians are not like Kobe.  Growing up, we weren’t told that basketball could be a career.  Instead, our priorities included getting good grades, taking care of our parents, siblings and grandparents, and participating in activities that kept Armenian tradition alive. But, what I never lost hope in was to see an Armenian in the NBA. I want to see someone like me who pursued their love of basketball while still maintaining the benefits of an Armenian lifestyle.

From tennis to football and basketball, we have provided important –ian’s to the world of sports. In 2012, Bleacher Report took notice of this and ranked the 10 Most Influential Armenians in Sports History. Three of these figures include David Nalbandian, Steve Sarkisian and Jerry Tarkanian.

David Nalbandian is the Argentinian Armenian who is known to be in the top 50 best tennis players in the world. But, what really connects us to him is his personal story where “his Armenian grandfather built a cement court in his backyard, where David learned to play against his two older brothers.” Little did a five-year-old Nalbandian know that his future would influence other Armenians to start playing tennis.

Steve Sarkisian, of Irish and Armenian descent, was coincidentally born and raised in South Bay, in the same small community of Armenians where I lived for most of my life. He played football and baseball in college for El Camino College and Bringham Young University. Later, he played professionally for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. Sarkisian is now making his mark as the current head coach for University of Southern California football team.

Jerry Tarkanian or more commonly known as “Tark the Shark,” has his coaching success in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Tarkanian has coached basketball for the University of Las Vegas, Nevada and California State University, Long Beach. He also turned down a position as the head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 and served as a temporary coach for the San Antonio Spurs in the 1992-93 season. Tarkanian faced both controversy and harassment for violation accusations that caused him to resign, but he used basketball to look past it all.

So, it really might be just a matter of time until we have a Koko, Kevork or Karapet who will live out the dream.

Kobe’s contract with Turkish Airlines is supposed to be coming to a close this year and it seems like we have already moved on. The hurt has passed as I have seen many Armenians attend games again.

And my mother was right that my scars have healed from falling during practices in our unstable agoump parking lot. But I never forgot about what those memories taught me, much like the stories of our famous Armenian sports legends. Ultimately, it was the bond between my sisterhood and brotherhood of Homenetmen basketball players that strengthened my understanding of what it means to be Armenian.

Angela Koussian was born and raised in Los Angeles, having Armenian parents who migrated to the United States from Lebanon. She is a writer and content producer for Artest Media Group and Courtsideaccess.com.  Angela holds a Master’s of Public Policy from Pepperdine University and Bachelor’s degrees in Peace Studies and French from Chapman University. Her call of action is to encourage the use of sports as a tool for community relations, philanthropy, diplomacy, and the empowerment of women and children. 

Armenia Sings on in Our Hearts

By Isabella Bablumian (Guest Contributor)

I am what they call a transcultural child. I started my serial migrations by moving out of Armenia when I was eleven and have since lived in nine cities across three continents. Leaving my motherland behind was a difficult experience and always haunted me no matter how closely I integrated with the countries that became my new homes. Learning new languages and cultures became the remedy for dealing with this partial loss of identity in a continuous process of self-discovery within new cultures. I thrive in multi-cultural environments and am a local everywhere I go.

Yet, somehow, my Armenian identity remains intact. The voice calling on me from within is strong and unmistakable. On many occasions I´ve fled back to Armenia in tears, wanting to start everything from scratch; traveled across the world just to wash myself in the millennial freshwater of our high-mountain Lake Sevan, to breathe the childhood air that filled me with memories, eat a real apricot that seemed to heal me with its nectar. It never failed, but also did not last… I was forever changed, fully true to my Armenian roots, but unable to put them down again on the lands that gave me birth.

As this search continued, I came to the realization that no matter where I am (even back in Armenia), I will always feel the longing that is calling from the depth of my self to stay connected with the essence that makes up the interweaving of my being.

Therefore, instead of continuing to chase my identity within a specific location, I have since tried to find and retain particles of cultural connection in new ways. One of which occurred through finding and connecting to those dispersed pieces of Armenia that I had the chance to uncover around me in the most unimaginable parts of the world; through the people that dispersed a century ago away from their ancestral lands and formed a new world-wide Armenia.

Each encounter with our compatriots resonates deep on a molecular level and restores something that I lost when I left home. The first encounter is always replete with surprise; the awe of finding the Armenian oases that remain intact in the communities that our people have created with so much care and worked so hard to maintain. These places, whether they are churches, monuments, cultural centers, schools, all breathe something so inexplicably Armenian.   In them, those of us that leave abroad find a fleeting connection that serves as a link to maintaining our tie to our culture and identity.

There are numerous flashbacks that revive some of these connections: the looks full of longing memories in the eyes of the St. John Garabed church members in San Diego as I sing some of the Komitas songs at an event; the uncontrollable tears flooding from my eyes as I hear Zulal sing Sareri Hovin Mernem in Washington D.C. ; the first attempt at singing an Armenian song by a Rio de Janeiro native of Armenian descent, who never understood her passion for a language she didn’t speak and music she didn’t know, but the love for which seems to have been passed to her by her great-grandmother before she perished in Adana; a poem dedicated to the victims of the genocide engraved on a glass in a busy metro-station called Armenia in Sao Paulo.

The uplifting memories are endless. Receiving my grandmother from Armenia, a small tree in her hands that customs somehow allowed her to bring to the US, because she HAD to plant an Armenian tree in her daughter´s garden; a French-Armenian girl running up to me in a huge crowd of strangers, eager to meet the very first Armenian from Armenia at a social event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; the enthusiasm of the youth dancing shurj par at the cultural center in Buenos Aires; the four Armenians united by some incredible force of serendipity on a metro train en route to the Maracana Stadium, drawn by the Armenian flag I was carrying to a World Cup game in Rio de Janeiro.

The stories are infinite and distinct, but all connected by something truly Armenian that our people carry with them no matter where they are.

The urge to give voice to their unmistakably Armenian voices, whose individual and collective stories remain unknown to the world, inspired me to implement a project, entitled Armenia Sings on in our Hearts. The short documentary will tell the story of the Armenians a century after the genocide by capturing the common threat that persisted in the individuals that persevered, formed new communities around the world, and maintained their identity so far from home.

Isabella Bablumian currently resides in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. She works in the field of International Relations and Development and is also a singer who performs classical and traditional Armenian music. She is currently working on a documentary entitled Armenia Sings on in our Hearts.  

 

The Breaking Point

By Shoushan Keshishian (Guest Contributor)

Visiting Armenia has been the highlight of my summers ever since I was a child with a gap in my teeth and a fancy pair of pigtails. Compared to Lebanon, the air is fresher, the streets are cleaner, and the colors are brighter… what’s not to love? As rhetorical as this question may sound, the answer to it is becoming blaringly obvious as I spend more time here, even if for merely two months out of each year.

It may not have to do with the gravity or the capacity of the problems increasing as much as it has to do with me growing older and admitting that my country may actually be less than perfect; however, writing these words down, there is only one issue progressively weighing down on my thoughts.

Before I divulge what that issue is, I would like to state that some may not consider it an issue, much less a problem, but I believe it is both, and that in fact, it can and should be classified as a national concern.

Wherever I go in Yerevan and whichever store I enter, whether it is for clothing, hardware, or food, I am bombarded with Turkish products. Only today I came across three stores selling Turkish hampers. Maybe it has to do with the way my parents raised me, or the school I go to, or the people I surround myself with, but regardless of the “why”, I find being confronted with Turkish letters in every nook and cranny of Yerevan to be truly devastating.

Some of you are already rolling your eyes to this idea you consider “outdated” and “senseless” as I’ve been told before. In this age where money dictates all the “big decisions”, and where economical gain is the driving force of nations and civilizations, it does seem futile even discussing such a topic. I am aware of that, and I am in no way hindered by Don Quixotian delusions, but when given the chance to express myself I will not refrain from raising my voice and letting people know just how wrong I consider selling Turkish products on Armenian soil is.

First and foremost, why should my country, or more particularly, Armenian wholesalers, importers, or distributers, contribute by no small amount to the flourishing of an economy that dedicates a significant part of its budget to military financing, thus oppressing Armenia. Need I remind my fellow Armenians about the state of our borderline villages? Those villages are repeatedly and frequently submitted to Turkish gunshots which so often leave behind wounded Armenian soldiers and civilians, sometimes even martyred ones. How bitterly sardonic is it that an Armenian businessman may have paid for the bullet that shot down his fellow Armenian?

Here we are on the threshold of the centennial of the Armenian genocide demanding its recognition from Turkey, parading around the globe burning the Turkish flag, organizing protests, holding seminars, building memorials, and declaring Turkey an enemy, an antagonist, a nemesis. All that would have been swell if there wasn’t a “however”… knowing us Armenians, there is always the “however”. This time, it is the fact that there exists an unfortunate parallel overshadowing all those previous acts. Here we are, on the threshold of the centennial, dressing our children with Turkish clothes, stocking our pantries with Turkish foods, advertising that Turkish products are the best and therefore the most expensive.

What is the national image we are portraying to the rest of the world; one of hypocrisy, pretense, insincerity, or maybe illiteracy and ignorance, as if the meaning of enemy is vague or incomprehensible to us? Why should those be adjectives describing Armenians when we are diligent, hard-working, earnest people?

All this brings me back to one underlying issue. Our national dignity, a central value, is missing. Our national pride has dissipated. It does not dignify us Armenians to act the way we are acting when it comes to our relationship with Turkey. As a teenage Armenian living in the diaspora, I consider buying and using Turkish products condescending, as should all Armenians. Our national integrity should ascertain the attitude we take on these matters, not convenience. Only when this incentive becomes collective will we realize true prosperity, in whatever field it may be… but who am I to talk? If the Armenian population finds it more beneficial to let go of its pride and of all the values our nation has kept dear for thousands of years, then so be it.

Armenia, despite all its flaws, is my home and my haven, and it pains me to see it falling through the cracks under the false premise of “globalization” and “development”. But I will keep returning to it, one summer at a time, praying that I will not be let down, or better yet, that I won’t allow myself to be let down because hopelessness breeds indifference, and ultimately, indifference is when we surrender… indifference will be our breaking point.

Shoushan Keshishian is a high school senior from Beirut, Lebanon.  She’s an avid reader and a trivia junkie, in love with dancing and The Beatles.  She’s always searching for inspiration, fueled by literary rage. 

Survivors: Boghos Merdjanian

mel

Tarsus // 1906-1974

Boghos Merdjanian, formerly Mouradjanian, was six years old when he first came face to face with the terror of the Armenian Genocide.

Once a wealthy family, the Merdjanians enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Boghos’s father, Minas, was a renowned checkers champion and competed all around the region. The police, or “CheChes” as Minas called them, falsely accused him of being a cheat simply because he was Armenian and thus, the family’s fortune was seized.

When a friend of the family, a Turkish general, heard of their misfortune, he protected them from further prosecution and deportation by hiding them in a safe-house. The family, however, never recovered their wealth, so all members of the family were required to work for their survival.

One day, Boghos was sent to deliver food and water to his sisters who were working in a nearby field. He set off on the family donkey and suddenly became entrapped by a group of Turkish gendarmes. One of the higher ranking officials threw a daggar at Boghos but missed and the dagger landed on the ground. He exclaimed “We are killing and killing but you are not dying!” Another realized the inhumanity of his comrade’s actions and asked his superior to spare the boy. He told Boghos to get down from his donkey, retrieve the dagger and hand it back to the official. The gendarmes left Boghos with no way to get back on the donkey. Little Boghos walked the rest of the way to meet his sisters on foot.

In 1919, the family deemed it was time to escape Turkey and immigrate to Lebanon. Under the cover of night, part of the family trudged the rough terrain and rivers to find refuge at one of the many camps erected for Genocide survivors. When they arrived, the customs agents at the border changed the family’s name to Merdjanian because they couldn’t properly translate Mouradjanian.

Boghos forwent education and was immediately put to work as a cobbler’s assistant, often working long and arduous hours.

In the mid 1940’s, Boghos married Armenouhi Tshikian and had five sons. They were very poor but rich in honor and love towards one another. The boys did what they could, at very young ages to help support their family, despite the raging civil war in Lebanon.

Having lived in Turkey most of his life, Boghos never learned Armenian. His wife taught him how to speak and read Armenian by reading him the daily newspaper. Their sons, however, were taught their mother language at home and in school.

When his family found out that Boghos was dying of liver cancer in the 1970’s they did not tell him because they wanted him to be happy during his last days. They took their father to a hospice in the mountains so he could pass away comfortably by receiving the care he needed and deserved. Boghos passed away in 1974.  Soon after his death, his family escaped war-torn Lebanon and immigrated to the United States. They went on to create their own families and establish a successful jewelry business.

Boghos is survived by his five children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Honored by Merdjanian Family

DNA of Hope

Tammy Marashlian, Suzzane Cawthra, and Karineh Mahdessian are the creators of DNA of Hope, a short documentary that explores the scholars, survivors, and leaders who keep the memories of the Armenian Genocide alive despite the political and social challenges in fully acknowledging the nearly 100-year-old genocide. Tammy, Suzzane, and Karineh created the documentary as part of their studies at the University of Southern California – School of Social Work. All three have since earned their Masters of Social Work and live in Los Angeles.  

The Benefits of Being Raised Armenian

By Taleen Mardirossian

I see the new generation of Armenian parents repeatedly shying away from Armenian traditions, culture, and even, language. And the reasoning behind this somewhat intentional abandonment of identity seems to be one and the same, to make it easier for their children to integrate into society. Here’s my take on this trend; you’re not doing your kid any favors.

This is probably a good time to mention that I’m not a parent and by no means is this meant to be a parenting guide on how to raise your children. These are just the thoughts and experiences of a twenty-six year old, raised to be Armenian in a city where most people would ask, what’s an Armenian?

I grew up in the South Bay, a predominantly white neighborhood where Armenians are a rare find.  I vividly remember my mom calling me one day, hurriedly telling me to tidy up the living room.  To Armenian moms, tidy up actually means dust the tables, vacuum the floors, Windex the mirrors, and set up an impressive arrangement of nuts, cookies, and dried fruits.

“Why mom? The house is already clean.”

“Because I found people.  I’ll be home in ten.”

This either meant that the human race had become extinct since the last time I checked or that my mom meant that she had found our kind of people, which turned out to be the case. Where I grew up, if you heard Armenian-speaking voices in the next aisle while shopping, you’d bring them home for coffee.  So, it goes without saying that I was raised in a town where the norm wasn’t being Armenian, it was having blonde hair and light eyes, and I definitely didn’t fit into this norm. At school, I was often the only bearer of an –ian last name.  And I was always okay with this because instead of indirectly encouraging me to shy away from my identity, my parents taught me that having a hard to pronounce name, thick eyebrows, and a not-so-perfect nose made me different, and that being different meant that I was special. So I grew up loving my name, my eyebrows, and my nose but most of all, I loved being Armenian. I loved being different.

And this “being different” that young parents are now trying so hard to dodge away from, is the very thing that is rewarded in the society they are trying to fit into. Being different is what lands you the job that hundreds of other applicants interviewed for.  Having a voice that’s different, a perspective that’s different, a presence that’s different, is the difference between being ordinary and extraordinary.  The progression of our society is not thanks to people who invest their time and effort into being like everyone else. So, instead of trying to mold into the norms of society, allow your child the opportunity to embrace the fact that they are different.

And I don’t mean to say that being different is always easy, because it’s not. Being the only Taleen in a school of thousands of students wasn’t exactly a stress-free experience growing up, but I attribute a lot of my personality to the fact that I had an uncommon name and here’s why. It taught me to speak up when my classmates dared to call me something different and it taught me to demand respect from anyone who needed to call my name. I learned not to sacrifice something as important as my identity for the sake of not inconveniencing my peers. I learned to be patient and teach others to pronounce my name correctly, think Pauline but with a T, even if it took a dozen tries to get it right. Having an Armenian name taught me to stand up for myself and others, even if it meant that I had to stand alone.

Being raised Armenian also taught me to educate my peers. In third grade, my teacher handed each student a sheet of paper and told us to write down interesting facts about a country of our choice, which we would later present to the class.  Naturally, I chose Armenia and the facts that I found interesting weren’t about Armenian foods or landmarks. Here’s what my third-grade self wrote:

Taleen is a special name in Arminia because in Arminia there is an old village called Taleen and a lot of people live there.  Turkish wanted to fight us because we were the first people to be Christian and the Turkish didn’t want us to be Christian and they wanted to have our land.  Every ten Arminians fought back against hundreds of Turkish soldiers.  April 24, 1915 is a memoriel day for the Arminian people because they killed over one million Arminian children, womans, men.”

Mind you, I didn’t know how to spell Armenia in third grade but I did know that Armenia was the first Christian nation and I did know about the genocide perpetrated against my ancestors.  And in case you’re trying to figure out how old you were in third grade, the magic number is eight. While my classmates went up, one-by-one, educating the class about how the French eat snails and how fascinating the Great Wall of China is, eight-year old Taleen proudly went up and gave a history lesson about Armenians.

Most parents these days would cringe at the thought of an eight-year old having any knowledge about an attempted mass extermination of an entire race but my parents taught me about the history of my people at a fairly young age.  They never sheltered me from the cruelties capable by man and they didn’t raise me with the false perception that there is no evil in this world.  And because I was always acutely aware of my people’s past, I grew up with compassion and a constant desire to right a wrong.  And it is for this very reason that I continuously found myself gravitating towards positions that involved public interest throughout law school.  This constant desire to seek justice for people who are victimized and advocate for those who are oppressed was not just happenstance.  This compassion was deeply rooted to a past that occurred long before I was ever born, a past that nearly annihilated the Armenian people, and being raised with knowledge of this past taught me to care for people other than myself.

Many people rolled an eye or two at my parents for their traditional approach to parenting while raising me and my brothers. Surely, they were told that their children would fall behind in school if they were taught Armenian before English, that they would become insecure if given un-American names, and that they’d be emotionally scarred if they were taught about the devastating past of their people before they were adults. But my parents, each fluent in four languages and raised to be Armenian in the Middle East and Europe, thought differently. They followed tradition in naming their children, raised their kids in a hayeren khoseer household where we only spoke Armenian, and educated us about both the victories and tragedies of our history. I can honestly and confidently say that all those eye-rollers were wrong. My brothers and I were not adversely affected by being raised Armenian, nor were any of our close friends who were raised similarly. Among our group are educated and intelligent Armenians who attended prestigious universities, graduated at the top of their classes, hold influential positions, and are successful entrepreneurs.

It doesn’t mean that a child with an American name or a child who doesn’t speak Armenian is any less capable of achieving success or possessing these qualities. All I’m saying is that if you’re foregoing an Armenian name for your child, choosing not to teach them the language or history, solely because it will be easier for them to assimilate, then maybe it would be worthwhile to think about the positive aspects of gifting them with a unique name, language, and history. Before being so quick in holding your child back from their own identity for the sake of convenience, let’s remember that parents are supposed to build their child’s potential, not limit it.

Armenians are a people whose history dates back thousands of years, a people who have lived through kingdoms, wars, and genocide, which means, we’re pretty damn good at persevering when all odds are against us.  And your children are their descendants and they too will persevere. By raising your children to be Armenian, you will be raising them to be kind, compassionate, understanding, loving, and appreciative. You will be teaching them to stand up for themselves and others, to be a leader, and a hard worker. If for no reason at all, raise your children to be Armenian for their sake because being Armenian is a beautiful thing to be.

blog