DETROIT, Mich.—The hall was filled with the music of violinist Harry Hovakimian as guests enjoyed an Italian feast prepared Krista Tossounian at the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) Detroit “Sybille” chapter’s annual Mother’s Day celebration. The event, which brought together friends and families, also included its famous tin can raffle and an opportunity to meet Diane Harountian of “The Pampered Chef.”
Armenian-American journalist Liana Aghajanian served as the event’s keynote speaker. Aghajanian is currently based in Detroit, after being awarded a home by the non-profit “Write a House.” In her address, she reflected on moving to Detroit a year ago and the collective Armenian identity.
The “Sybille” chapter is honored to share excerpts from the speech that Aghajanian so eloquently delivered that very special evening (below).
To understand this city—and appreciate it—you have to be here. You have to be gardening with your Bengali neighbors, you have to be going to the Michigan’s oldest blues bar on a Thursday night – the only establishment that seems to be holding down a devastated street full of empty building every which way you look.
You have to be eating at coney islands peppered throughout the city, you have to be visiting cemeteries and the African-American mosque after Friday prayers. You have to be attending the soccer games of the city’s underdog team, or hanging out for weeks with the crew of the only mailboat in the world with its own zip code. You have to drive your car over the pot-hole ridden streets, and recognize that the new, hip and cool Detroit is only contained in less than 10 miles and that this city still has very serious, visible problems with infrastructure and water and perhaps most important of all—schools.
You have to be the kind of person who cares enough to explore the complexity of this place. When I start to have panic attacks about the state of journalism fueled by overthinking, reality and copious amounts of tea, I try to remind myself why I start writing in the first place: journalism has always been my excuse to get the know the world.
That curiosity has helped me out before. Now it’s helping me understand the most misunderstood city in the country, which I’m still slowly getting to know.
The eternal conundrum of the Armenians, Jews, Rwandans, Bosnians, Cambodians and Native Americans – people who survive and overcome something as horrific as genocide is a dual reality, teetering between what once was and what is, an inability to exist only in the present, with time divided between the here and now and the past. This is what happens when your connections to home are severed and when that home transforms and molds overtime to erase you.You are on a never ending mission, one that sometimes borders on an unhealthy obsession, to figure out what home even means. Not being able to think about your identity isn’t part of your reality, but an unreachable luxury reserved for those whose family lines follow a straight line. In the Armenian case, this quest for identity is made even more burdensome by an overarching issue that never actually resolves itself: the continued denial by the Turkish government that such organized annihilation ever took place.
What does this kind of mass displacement do to a people? It destroys bloodlines, cities, homes, success and wealth while insidiously making room inside you for the kind of inter-generational trauma that spreads itself into your consciousness over decades, seeping into your being and taking up residence in ways unseen. It disrupts memory, identity and your ability to cope with and process both.
But when we often talk about about genocide, we fail to discuss another aspect of what comes after – of how a population insists on not just existing in the face of unspeakable tragedy, but persists in spite of it.
When speaking about the fate that had befallen on the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population, the French novelist Anatole France said in 1916 that “a nation that does not want to die, does not die.”
In many ways, this sums up the quintessential modern Armenian story, a roller coaster of building and rebuilding, over and over again for 100 years, despite genocide, despite being refugees, despite facing prejudice, despite having to start all over again as newcomers in foreign countries around the world, suffering through and escaping subsequent decades of violence, war and displacement.
Nowhere is this story expressed more poetically than America, where each generation of Armenian-Americans have contributed in their own way to a patchwork attempt to put the Armenian nation back together again. Nowhere is this better expressed than Detroit.
This history rooted in resilience has remained largely hidden—both to Armenians and Americans – despite the fact that the United State’s first collective display of humanitarian aid was a relief campaign dedicated to the Armenian Genocide.
I’ve learned to start over in a sense, in a new city that’s more complex and perhaps more misunderstood than anywhere else in America, here is a lesson I’ve learned, the biggest thing I’ve taken away with me both from Detroit and from the Armenian-American community sitting in front of me today: people can and will thrive, if you let them