Special for the Armenian Weekly
When the events in Syria unfolded last year, Ani was the first person I thought of. We met over a decade ago when our children were in Montessori school together. She and her husband were active members of the Boy Scout troop in our area. They helped teach my son how to properly fold and retire the American flag, as well as the importance of serving one’s community. This is a couple that takes their American citizenship and civic duty seriously. Her son Michael is a straight-A student who plays on his high school football team and recently earned his Eagle Scout badge. He’s a great role model for my own sons, who are significantly younger.
When Ani opens the door of her four bedroom house in Laguna Niguel, her hair is swept up in a high ponytail. She wears the uniform of most Orange County housewives, designer jeans and a loose fitting top. It’s Monday afternoon and she has to drive her son to practice. She kisses me on the cheek and tells me to make myself comfortable.
I haven’t come to Laguna Niguel to talk about Syria. I’m not even here to talk to Ani. I’m here to see her mother, Suzanne, who’s visiting from Syria. Suzanne and her husband are descendants of the Armenian Genocide, a historical event which happens to be the backdrop of my novel. Suzanne Ohanian has brought with her a printed manuscript, written in Armenian, chronicling the family’s exile from Turkey in 1915. At sixty five, Suzanne is too young to have live through the Armenian genocide, but the first hand account written by a long deceased uncle is the kind of thing I live for.
I’m used to talking to people about 1915. I was only eight when my great grandmother told me stories of her harrowing escape from what historians refer to as the first genocide of the twentieth century. Asking centenarians to tell me about the most horrific episodes in their lives is something I’ve grown used to, but this interview is different. I may be here to talk about the Ohanian family’s painful past, but the subject of what’s happening in Syria today looms large between us.
Suzanne Ohanian was visiting her daughter and grandkids in California in July of 2011, when the airports closed back in Syria. She’s been here ever since, away from her other grown children and her husband of 43 years. She is a well-dressed woman in her sixties, with blue eyes, and blond hair worn in a stylish bob. She greets me at the kitchen table, where she’s laid out homemade cookies and baklava. No Costco cookies here.
“My husband’s grandfather was a leatherworker from Gessaria,” she begins, pointing to a faded photograph in the family memoir. The inscription beneath the photograph reads ‘Turkey 1913.’ “They hung him when he refused to convert to Islam. My father-in-law and his family were driven into the desert with only the clothes on their backs.”
She tells me of how the family arrived, starving and half crazed in the Rakka region of Syria, and how a kindly and rich Arab by the name of Ojaila took pity on them.
“He gave them food, work, and mercy. They wouldn’t have survived without his help.”
Suzanne tells me that the Armenians of Syria, who numbered over a hundred thousand before the Civil War, are all descendants of genocide survivors, a community of orphans who considered Syria a place of religious and political refuge.
I ask her to tell me about the Syria of her childhood and she describes a thriving metropolis with schools and churches, where Christian Armenians like herself, were free to learn their language and culture. Her face lights up as she describes meeting her husband, Setrag Ohanian.
“He was 27 years old. Ten years my senior. But I knew he was smart and hard working so when he asked me to marry him, I said yes.” She blushes.
“Could you have said no? I ask
“Of course, it wasn’t the stone-age, you know.”
“He is a self made man,” she adds proudly.
Her husband, Setrag, dropped out of pharmacy school to start a small business selling and repairing high-pressure hydraulic hoses. Over the next fifty years, that storefront grew into a large export business supplying Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and all of Syria. The descendants of Armenian refugees, the Ohanians became barons of industry, rising so high that a major street was named after them. By 2001, Ohanian’s eldest son, Levon, joined the company, expanding the business until they had not one but three warehouses shipping all over the Middle East.
Ohanian’s original storefront turned warehouse was located in a valley beneath the Bostan Pasha region of Allepo. In 2011, anti- government forces moved into the homes and apartment units of the region, kicking residents out onto the street. Car bombs and snipers riddled the neighborhood. Levon and his father stubbornly kept the storefront and warehouse open anyway. “One day, the government soldiers walked into the store and never walked out,” Suzanne explains. “They needed a base from which to launch a counter attack against the rebels and my husband’s warehouse was the perfect place.”
Two years have passed, and they are still waiting. Suzanne waits from Laguna Niguel, while her son and husband fled first to Armenia, then to Lebanon. They are a family twice exiled.
Two months ago, Levon got a call from a former employee. The entrance of the remaining warehouse, and the family’s last hope, had been marked by a large red X. A note attached to the door proclaimed that all Christian properties marked with a red X now belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. With the pieces of his father’s empire in the hands of opposing factions, he and his wife and two children left Syria for good. He now sells hydraulic hoses for a company in Lebanon.
“Syria was our refuge,” Suzanne says. “100 years have past since the Turks kicked us out of our homes.100 years of building hospitals and schools and lives…and for what? Exiled again.”
When I ask her if she has any animosity against Muslims, Suzanne looks confused.
“For what?” she asks. “A Muslim hung my husbands grandfather, and a Muslim took pity on the surviving members of his family. Muslims took our homes and warehouses in Allepo, but it was a Muslim who gave my son a job when he landed in Lebanon. This isn’t about God or religion.”
“What do you think it’s about?” I ask.
“Greed,” she says. “This is about man and his folly.”
As various armed oppositional groups continue fighting against Assad’s regime, taking one town or street, then losing it again, one wonders who is winning here? And what is being won? Perhaps Faulkner said it best when he said victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools. For now Suzanne waits from the safety of a Southern California suburb. Her only wish is that the family’s legacy of exile will not continue to haunt her grandchildren.
Names have been change to protect the identity of the people named.