Some came by chartered bus from Diyarbakir, Sasun, and Urfa, others by public transport from Dersim through Tbilisi. A few came by rail from Artvin in the Hamshen region via Batumi, others drove their own cars from Hopa. The destination for all? Yerevan, Armenia.
Following the success of the historic first trip of 50 “hidden” Islamicized Armenians from Diyarbakir, Turkey, to Armenia last August to re-discover their roots, culture, and language, the project was repeated again this year in an expanded fashion.
The trip, now formally named Project REBIRTH: VERADZNOUNT, was part of a wide range of activities supporting Islamicized Armenians. This year, 80 selected Islamicized Armenians were brought from Turkey to the homeland, to participate in the Ari-Tun event organized by the Ministry of Diaspora.
After several months of planning, fundraising, organizing, and negotiating with government officials and hotels in Armenia, the trip was set for the first week of August.
The participants were met in Yerevan by the organizer of the tour, who flew in from Toronto, Canada. The timing of the trip was made to coincide with the Pan-Armenian Games, which brought more than 6,200 Armenian athletes from all over the world to Armenia, including 450 from Turkey, representing the historic Armenian homeland teams from Van, Bitlis, Mush, Dersim, Diyarbakir, and Musa Ler.
This year, more emphasis was placed on having the younger generation participate in the trip; as a result, several children of those who came last year were now part of the group. The age of the participants ranged from 11 to 87. The Islamicized Armenians come from all walks of life; they are teachers, lawyers, artists, writers, poets, high school and university students, business people, housewives, and retired pensioners. They may have different perspectives about almost every subject, but they all share one common goal: to search for and find their Armenian roots. Their life stories and quest for their roots are as different as themselves.
They are all descendants of the “living victims” of the 1915 Armenian Genocide—orphaned Armenian boys and girls who were captured, protected, hidden, or bought by Turks and Kurds, and who became Islamicized, Turkified and Kurdified.
As the grandchildren of these assimilated orphans, they became aware of their Armenian roots during different stages of their lives. Some found out about their Armenian origins at an early age, while others discovered it in their adulthood, on their parents’ or grandparents’ deathbed.
During this trip, they eagerly participated in Armenian-language classes every morning, followed by expeditions to significant historic sites during the day, and cultural events in the evenings. Interestingly, the participants from the Hamshen region already spoke a dialect of Armenian, and could easily understand or be understood by Armenians in the street.
One of the Armenian cultural events the entire group attended was a concert I gave, performing the works of Komitas, Khatchaturian, Alan Hovhaness, and Edgar Hovanissian. The full-house concert and the activities of the group were followed widely by the Armenian media and TV.
As a result of this trip, the participants will no longer be hidden Armenians when they return to Turkey, as their real identities have been revealed at considerable risk to themselves and their families. They may be discriminated against by their employers, lose their jobs if working in the public sector, lose their Muslim friends, neighbors, and even the rest of their families who prefer to remain Muslim Turks or Kurds. But they are all willing to take the risk.
Throughout the trip, the expectations, short- and long-term goals of Project Rebirth and the needs of the hidden Armenians were discussed. As courageous people willing to take the risk of revealing their Armenian identities, they need support mechanisms related to Armenian-language instruction, increased interaction and exchanges with cultural groups to and from Armenia, and technical and professional help related to restoration projects for abandoned or destroyed Armenian churches, cemeteries, and other monuments in their cities and villages.
More importantly, on a personal level, they may need financial, legal, and social services help for family and employment problems triggered from revealing their Armenian identities.
The Project Rebirth organizers hope to engender a willingness in these new Armenians to learn the Armenian language and history, organize among themselves the planning and implementation of the restoration of Armenian churches and buildings, arrange regular social and cultural activities to encourage others to “come out,” and more critically, pass along their desire to return to their Armenian roots to their children and the next generation.
The goals and objectives of Project Rebirth are now well defined, and a few of the short-term goals have already been achieved. One example was the agreement negotiated between the organizer and the Ministry of Diaspora last year to have two university students from Diyarbakir, who had participated in last years’ trip, continue their studies in Armenia with free tuition. After a year of intensive Armenian language instruction in Yerevan University, we watched with great pride and satisfaction as one of these students acted as a guide and translator to the participants of this year’s trip.
The ultimate goal of Project Rebirth is nothing short of creating an Armenian presence again on historic Armenian lands within Turkey, in terms of people, culture, and architecture.
Although there is support and appreciation by certain influential leaders in Armenia, the significance and potential of Project Rebirth is not yet fully understood by some diasporan leaders and organizations. It is our hope that with increased understanding of the new realities related to the hidden Armenians in Turkey, Armenians within the diaspora and Armenia will be able to undo some of the damages of the past through Project Rebirth.
The trip was organized and sponsored by Raffi Bedrosyan, with additional contributions from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, AGBU Asbeds, and a few individuals.