Survivors: Krikor Shirozian

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Shira // 1910-1995

Krikor Shirozian was five years old when he and his mother were deported from their home in Shira, Turkey.  Although he was a young boy during the Armenian Genocide, he vividly remembered the last moment he shared with his mother.  One night, as the procession of Armenians was resting, Krikor asked his mother if she would always be with him. “Of course sonnow rest your head on my lap so you know I am with you.”

In the morning, when Krikor woke up, his head was resting on the ground and his mother was gone. He ran along the caravan, crying, asking if anyone knew where his mother was. They all stared at him with blank expressions, for they too had lost their loved ones.

Completely alone and helpless, Krikor found himself surrounded by three Turkish soldiers on horses.  One aimed to shoot him but a sympathetic gendarme reasoned with his comrade that he was only a child and should be spared. The soldier with a gun backed away and the gendarme lifted Krikor and rode with him to the Euphrates River, where he was delivered to an orphanage.  The orphanage named him Shirozian, after the town he was from because his last name was unknown.

Some time later, he was taken to a Kurdish farmer’s family, where he was treated like a slave and lived in the stable with the animals.  He was forced to carry out back-breaking duties, hardly fed, and often beaten.

When he grew old enough to escape, he fled to Syria, where he met his wife, Vergeen, who was also an Armenian Genocide survivor.  They had four children and moved to the United States in the 1970s.

Krikor passed away in 1995 in Philadelphia.  He is survived by his four children, seven grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

Honored by Melineh Merdjanian and Shirozian Family 

A Broken Culture

By Melissa Lake

I think one of the saddest travesties of our generation is the push for the decimation of individual culture. We are the generation that saw bhindis and belly skirts as fashion forward- as long as they adorned the bodies of skinny white women. We consider ourselves so receptive and accepting- as we assimilate all of these beautiful aspects of foreign culture into our own without any personal regard or sense of respect toward the people we steal it from. And it’s sadly not a one-sided affair.

Women and men of color- or of any foreign ethnicity- are too quick to abandon aspects of their culture that have permeated through generations. We are so quick to “white-wash” ourselves, to fit into a culture where when a white girl wears a sari it’s seen as “boho-chic” and when a brown girl wears one it’s “you’re in America now, it’s time to act like it”. We pick and choose what to like about a culture to fulfill our own selfish desires. We are selectively racist and electively ignorant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard boys tell me how much they “love Armenian girls” and subsequently not even be able to so much as point out the general area Armenia is on a map or tell me a single fact about my culture. These boys praise themselves for being culturally liberal and morally righteous for being generous enough to be interested in a not-so-standard ideal of beauty (a foreign culture in this instance) when in reality they’re just trying to sleep with an exotic-looking girl. And I wish I could say Armenians are innocent to this tragedy, the forced “white-washing”, but we are just as guilty as anyone else.

I grew up around Armenian boys who proudly swore that they would “never date an Armenian girl”. Boys who fought so hard to lose their culture, to entirely disregard their ethnic identity, rather than realize they lived in a society that encouraged them to forget their heritage. I am so sick and tired of hearing my ethnicity being used as a sexual trademark. I am so sick of people telling me that they are or are not attracted to an entire race of people because it is or is not socially lauded to desire girls from that race. My ethnicity doesn’t make me special or more or less desirable. My ethnicity doesn’t make me “sexy” or “beautiful” or “slutty” or “trashy” or “shallow”. My ethnicity makes me Armenian and it’s me and my choices that make me everything else.

Us and Them

By Taleen Mardirossian

The only Armenia I knew growing up was the one I had envisioned in my mind. It was a place I had never visited, neither had my parents, nor my grandparents, yet the language, history, and culture of this unfamiliar place had somehow always been the center of my universe. And the simple fact that my family loved, cherished, and honored a country they had never known fascinated me. But this fascination transformed into fear during my very first flight to Yerevan. I felt sick to my stomach. What if I hate everything about this place?  I had way too much to lose and I wasn’t ready to give any of it up.

Luckily, this fear was short-lived. I fell in love with the open arms of strangers that could warm hearts with their embrace.  I fell in love with the voices of children, yelling at each other in Armenian. I fell in love with the sight of old men playing backgammon on the sidewalks, chewing their sunflower seeds. I fell in love with the wrinkled hands of women who cooked the tastiest meals from scratch. I fell in love with ancient books that had been covered in centuries worth of dust. I fell in love with the generosity and kindness exhibited by villagers who had nothing but gave everything to anyone who knocked on their door. I fell in love with the eyes of the elderly that told a different story with every blink.  I fell in love with the hearts, smiles, tears, and souls of my people. I fell in love with the churches, the mountains, the trees, and the lakes. I fell in love with a place that I had only known in my heart.

Although I felt at home, I quickly realized that I was an outsider to many. The simple fact that I didn’t speak the same dialect of Armenian automatically made me different in a “you’re obviously not one of us” kind of way. When asked about my thoughts on Armenia, I’d say something like I love it here, which turned out to be an answer that made me the subject of disapproving eyes, coupled with mouths that spoke bitter words in sweet tones. Words to remind me that in some way or another, living outside of Armenia’s borders meant that I shared no resemblance to this ‘authentic’ group; that my reflection was and always would be vividly unalike; that I somehow wasn’t entitled to that feeling of being home in Armenia. And so, I remained on the receiving end of strategically concealed comments during every subsequent visit. But it wasn’t until my most recent visit that a comment along these lines left me utterly shocked.

I landed in Yerevan, a hair away from feeling at home once again, and impatiently waited in line to get my passport stamped. As my turn approached, I walked towards the man at the counter, a smile blatantly visible on my face, and handed him my passport. His face was anything but pleasant as he browsed through it and failed terribly at his attempt to speak broken English while handing me a piece of paper.

“Write.”

He held up a form.

“Sign.”

Pointed to where I’m supposed to sign.

“Bring to me.”

He then motioned with his hand for me to move over to the next counter and bring back the form upon completion.

My smile immediately disappeared. It was obvious that he did not speak any English so I was having a hard time understanding why he wasn’t talking to me in Armenian. But then it clicked. He had seen my American passport and automatically assumed that I did not know a word of Armenian. I snatched the form from his hand, annoyed and not in the mood to argue after a 12-hour flight. I dragged my luggage, and myself, to the next nearest stand. Minutes later, I strutted back and dropped the form on his counter, every line filled out in Armenian. He stared at the form, then at me, then back at the form, then back at me, as if I had magically pulled a rabbit out of my pocket. I glared back with my don’t you feel stupid face, as he was having trouble finding words.

“How do you know how to write Armenian?” he finally asked.

“Because I’m Armenian.”

“No.”

He grabbed my passport and waved it in the air, as if I had never seen it before.

“You’re not Armenian. You’re an American.”

And you’re an asshole I wanted to say, but instead, I grabbed my passport and walked away.

He wasn’t completely wrong but he definitely wasn’t right. In the States, my un-American name comes with an automatic presumption that it belongs to a foreigner. So, regardless of the fact that I was born and raised in California, attended public schools my entire life, and speak English without the slightest accent attached to my tongue, I am undoubtedly identified as Armenian. And here I was, in Armenia, being told, by an Armenian, that I was not Armenian, merely because my passport stated otherwise.  Great, I thought to myself, I’m an Armenian in America and an American in Armenia.

Here’s what Mr. Rude will never understand; I can’t be one without the other. Living in America has certainly shaped the person I am today, but so has my family’s past. My roots cannot be unheeded and deemed void simply because I was born somewhere that is not Armenia. Referring to the Armenian diaspora as a population that is not Armenian is comical. These are the very people who preserved a culture and identity they were never directly exposed to. These people built Armenian churches in Muslim countries, stood trials in foreign courts, and created little Armenia’s all across the world out of passion for the land they come from and respect for the people who occupy it. While our ancestors were driven out of their homes, given no choice but to fight for their lives and flee elsewhere, we had to continue to fight discrimination and oppression long after they stepped foot into their safe havens.

There exists a flaw in the way Armenians perceive one another. Citizens in Armenia can’t begin to imagine the struggles faced by the diaspora to keep our identity overseas, and Armenians in the diaspora don’t know the challenges faced by those living in the Motherland, so let’s not pretend to understand. Whether a diasporan or a citizen, a Garabed or a Gary, native speaker or not, one is not inferior or superior to the other.

The soil beneath our feet may be different, but our roots are grounded in the same land. Our ancestors were targets of the same crime. Growing up, our ears heard the same melodies, our eyes read the same stories, our mouths spoke the same words, our hands moved to the same songs. Armenia has been a part of us, as much as it’s been a part of you. We must put our differences aside, move past “us” and “them”, and realize that the world sees us all as one people, Armenians. I think it’s about time we do the same.

Pulling Teeth

By Melissa Lake

Growing up, my Aunt always used to say that getting Turks and Armenians to interact amicably was like “pulling teeth”. And by all literal comparisons, she was completely right- it was often a bloody, difficult, painful task that left things sore and only slightly better off than when they started. And call it fate, or divine intervention, or the cruel tragedy of the reality of my life, but I discovered first hand in a literal sense the symbolic meaning behind the “pulling teeth” struggle between the Armenians and the Turks.

I was born with a rare genetic defect that caused two of my adult premolars to never form and thus the baby teeth remained to serve as my pseudo-adult teeth. For generations this issue has existed within my mother’s family and it has never been a large cause for concern. For 20 years, my soft fragile, baby teeth remained in my mouth, slowly being eaten away by everyday use- decaying and softening. And then the time came where it was finally time for them to go and my uncle (who has the same problem) assured my mother that he “had a friend” who could take them out for me and place an implant in.

And thus began the most illegitimate medical experience of my entire life. The dentist was an Armenian, with only a foreign dental license so consequently he was forbidden from legally practicing in the U.S. He had been running an under-the-table dental operation within the heart of the largest Armenian diaspora outside of Armenia itself and his clientele were mostly older Armenians. The “office” was located in a warehouse; it shared the building with an auto repair shop and metal factory. There was no sign, nothing that would indicate that any sort of medical professional worked in the building. The only thing that would possibly allude to the fact that there was more to this building than heavy metal work was an Armenian last name pasted onto the glass front door in faded and peeling block sticker letters. When my uncle rang the doorbell, a large man with a thick mustache and a white apron I’ve only ever seen butchers in meat markets wear opened the door. My first instinct was flight, and as my knees tensed ready to help me escape, my mother smelled my fear and pushed me in.

The office looked exactly as how I always pictured a third-world dentist office would look. The machinery had at least a good 20 years on me, sharp metal instruments were lain strewn about. The paint was peeling from the walls and directly in front of me was a large canvas painting of a countryside with Armenian lettering scrawled on the bottom. I was terrified. I had spent my whole life in professional dental offices to come here- a place where I could almost hear the echoes of the screams from previous patients reverberating off the walls. “If there was a God, he could not help me now”- I thought to myself in panic as the large dentist examined my tooth, his gloveless hands in my mouth. All I could see was his thick mustache moving as he talked in Turkish to my mom and uncle, the panic in me swelling. He X-rayed my teeth to confirm what I had known my entire adult life- that the baby teeth were all I had-no adult teeth would be making an appearance to take their place. And as he was explaining this to me, he reached into one of his drawers and pulled out a set of pliers that I pray were designed solely for medical use and looked at me as he said in a broken, accent stained English “the tooth needs to come out today”.

If I had ever felt fear before in my life it was nothing to what I felt then. Every muscle ached as they strained to fight every one of my survival reflexes and remain seated while adrenaline pumped through my body. I turned to my mother and begged “Please just knock me out”. They all laughed, like captors laugh at frightened prey. He pulled out a needle and assured me that I wouldn’t feel a thing and as he poked my gums with it and injected the liquid into the base of my tooth, my eyes shot daggers at my mother. As he waited for my mouth to numb, my mom asked him in English about his children, probably thinking that my panic would subside hearing a language I could understand (she was wrong). He talked about how his daughter was going to dental school, how she would be the fourth generation dentist in the family. And my mother, who could never pass up an opportunity to pry deep into someone’s past, asked him about his grandfather who had practiced in Istanbul. He asked me about how numb I felt, reached for his pliers and told my mom, “My grandfather was the best dentist in Istanbul. The Turks would never admit it, but even they would go see him and deny it if anyone asked.” At this point, the pliers were snug around my tooth, wiggling back and forth, and then accompanied by the most horrifying tearing sound you could imagine. I could hear every tendon ripping and I could feel nothing. When the tooth was finally out, after my mom made sure to ask if she could keep it, the dentist had me rinse my mouth and while I was bent over spitting up blood, he patted my back and jokingly said, “Aren’t you glad you’re Armenian? Any other dentist would have taken twice as long.” My mom and my uncle both laughed and I gave my best attempt at a smile, the half-numbness of my face causing me to look like I was suffering a stroke.

If I was capable of speaking, I would have told him I’m happy to be Armenian every day, maybe just not so much on days that it means brutal medical procedures. I’m happy and proud and honored to be part of a people who have faced and still face callous discrimination and are able to move past it and through it with grace and dignity. And the day may never come when relations between Turks and Armenians are free from enmity and vehemence, where Armenians are no longer seen as inferiors, where seeking their help is no longer a thing of shame, but we have always been a strong people and we will continue to be a strong people, one tooth pulling at a time.