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All Roads Lead to Refugees

I have always been drawn to the themes of uprooting, displacement, border-crossing, and the ongoing connections between old and new homes.

Perhaps because I carry some degree of transmitted trauma associated with forced displacement, I’ve been propelled into wanting to understand how humans experience persecution, how they flee from it, and how their lives unfold following traumatic uprooting. After all, it is what we knew growing up, having genocide survivors as grandparents. And today, on the eve of the Centennial, as the survivors quietly fade away, we need to be talking about this more than ever.

My maternal grandparents landed in Canada after fleeing the civil war in Lebanon—displaced for a second time since the Armenian Genocide. As a high school student at the time, I distinctly recall my 80-year-old grandfather, Khatcher dede, at the kitchen table, duly studying Canadian history, government structure, and his rights and responsibilities as a future citizen. Canada would be his final stop in the tumultuous life journey that started in the region of Tomarza where he was born. I took advantage of the studious mood and did my math homework by his side.

The day finally came for my grandparents to present themselves at the immigration offices for their citizenship test. At his advanced age, my grandfather was starting to show signs of weakened legs. I remember wondering if there was a direct correlation between the pain in his legs and the inhuman distances he had been forced to walk as an orphaned 5-year-old child, displaced from his home in Tomarza, in the region of Kayseri.

As my grandfather passed through the main doors of the exam room, he fell to the ground; his legs had momentarily given up on him. He, of course, got back up, but fell again as soon as he entered the room. He must have been eager to pass that exam; perhaps his nerves and excitement had gotten the best of him. The government official, having witnessed my grandfather’s fall, told my mother that they could reschedule the test. Khatcher dede immediately interjected this, saying, “No, no, I am ready to take the exam.”

Following the test, my grandfather, who was not the most talkative person, especially about anything related to his harrowing childhood, turned to the examiner and said he was happy to be in Canada. He said he knew that Canada was a good country, because when he had lived in an orphanage in Adana, Turkey, Canadian missionaries had given him one of his first real meals since leaving home.

Indeed, the humanitarian aid provided to Armenian orphans at the beginning of the 20th century was highly valuable. Yet, the idea here is not to glorify Canadian humanitarian traditions. Mostly, this simple story leaves me amazed by the matter-of-factness behind such statements. My grandfather had said these words without a hint of victimization, bitterness, or repressed anger in his tone or body language. Is this how his potential and never-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder was expressed and vocalized?

Subconsciously, my grandparents’ trajectories as refugees have left an indelible mark on my being, even though they rarely discussed their experiences unless probed from time to time. In retrospect, I suppose that writing my Ph.D. dissertation on the refugees in Montreal today was never an arbitrary choice. (In fact, completing my degree also explains my absence from the “Scattered Beads” column and the Weekly’s pages!)

As we approach the Armenian Genocide Centennial with rampant denial discourse aggressively circulating in every shape and form, we must be prompted by the enormous urgency to preserve our survivors’ voices and narratives. One of the many commendable initiatives is taking place at the University of Southern California, where the Shoah Foundation–Institute for Visual History and Education is preserving every first-hand testimony for educational and action-driven purposes.

So many untold refugee stories are floating in all regions of the world, as the number of the displaced rises at a staggering rate. In the meantime, the least we can do is to start building, documenting, and preserving our own family archives before the sons and daughters of genocide survivors start fading away, too.

8 Comments on All Roads Lead to Refugees

  1. avatar Gaizag Demirdjian // February 10, 2014 at 9:25 am // Reply

    BRAVO

  2. avatar Hriyr Dadaian // February 10, 2014 at 10:39 am // Reply

    Enjoyed reading your article about your grandfather in Montreal. In 2002, there was an Armenian documentary that won first place for foreign documentary and music at the Moondance Film Festival in Colorado. The CD is entitled, “The Handjian Story”.It is about the lives of two survivors of the Genocide, Kourken from Erzinga and Malvine from Izmir (Smyrna) relating what they experienced. Kourken as an orphan and Malvine witnessing the burning of Izmir in 1922 lead them eventually to Greece, later to France and then in 1957 to the United States. A compelling CD, a must for all to see and hear, especially with the upcoming Genocide Centennial. This CD would be an excellent tool for teaching about the “inhumanities” committed by the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The CD has English sub-titled so that all can follow it well. The composer and producer of the Handjian Story is Denise Gentilini, the grand-daughter of the Handjians. To get a copy of this CD, you can contact her in Colorado, her phone number is 1 818 517- 7749

  3. Such a beautiful essay. Thank you for sharing you family memories and history.

  4. Thank you Lalai! Beautifully captured, and speaks to all our hearts. What a gift you have given the memories of your family by capturing their stories and survival.

  5. I was touched very much with this article because I have experienced the same things with my orphan father who was born in the famous Armenian city of Van and later he was found in the Syrian desert by the Arab Beduins. Every year he had twice or three time nightmares and he cried saying ” do not kill me please do not kill me “and that was the effect of the genocide.

  6. avatar George mirzayans // February 10, 2014 at 7:04 pm // Reply

    This is what I wrote to the director of ITS
    Message: Hello , There is something that your treasurer dr. Edward Erickson stated on February 5th lecture at Georgetown university that I could not get out of my mind. In response to his thoughts of the Armenian genocide , he stated some mornings he believes it occurred and other mornings not so much. How can he make such a callous response to something that has been clearly documented even in turkey let alone by many governments globally. This matter is no longer even considered to be debatable let alone having someone like dr.erickson representing Turkey with such infallible comments. I was very surprised that he dared try to remove mrs. nahapetian from the room. I personally would be very embarrassed to have someone like dr.erickson representing the great country of Turkey with such insipid comments and behavior. P

  7. thank you so much Lalai. so well written.

  8. Thank you for your comments and for sharing information relevant to survivor narratives.

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