Returning to the Roots: Stories of Hidden Armenians

Special to the Armenian Weekly

Over the years, I have met many hidden Armenians from different regions of Turkey. Each one has a unique story that can become an article or even a book on its own. Some stories can be shared; most cannot. Some are funny; most are sad.

Recently, many hidden Armenians decided to return to their roots, culture, and language after they discovered their Armenian origins and the forced Islamization/Turkification/Kurdification of their grandparents, who were orphans and the living victims of the Armenian Genocide.

Diyarbakir Armenians baptized at Etchmiadzin in Aug. 2014 during a trip organized by the author (standing second from R) (Photo: Gulisor Akkum/The Armenian Weekly)

In 2014 and 2015, I organized trips for dozens of them from Turkey to Armenia, in cooperation with Armenia’s Ministry of the Diaspora. In past articles, I have shared the stories of some of these “no longer hidden” Armenians. In this article, I will tell some stories of the “still hidden” Armenians, names withheld for obvious reasons.

Let me start with a memory from my days in the Turkish army. Although I was already living in Canada at the time, I had to return to complete my compulsory military service in the Turkish army in order to be able to travel back to Turkey to take care of my elderly parents. On top of the drills and other military activities during the day, the conscripts were required to attend lectures in the evening. One of the subjects was “Who are the enemies of Turkey?” After discussing the assorted bad deeds of all the “enemy” neighboring countries, such as Soviet Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Bulgaria, and Greece, the instructor would inevitably conclude that the worst enemy were the Armenians, since they had massacred the Turks in 1915 and were still after Turkish diplomats.

After these lectures, a few fellow conscripts with Turkish or Kurdish names, especially from the eastern provinces, would approach me and confess that their grandmothers were Armenian, or that they lived in a house left behind by Armenians, or that their village was Armenian before 1915 but had converted to Islam.

When I started writing articles about the hidden Armenians and the Surp Giragos Church reconstruction project in Diyarbakir (Dikranagerd), an elderly Armenian lady from the United States made contact with me. She was an orphan of 1915 and had found her way to the U.S. Her brother, however, had to remain in Turkey and was eventually Islamized and Turkified. This brother prospered and became a successful builder in Turkey, with cement plants in many provinces. After some research, I tracked his grandson in Turkey, a man in his early thirties, who had carried on the family construction business, building luxury condos in Istanbul. He was aware of his Armenian past, but obviously unable to reveal it publicly for fear of losing his wife, business, and status as a successful Turkish builder. He eventually made contact with his grandfather’s Armenian sister in the U.S. and visited her.

“My grandfather’s sister had one request when I traveled to the U.S. to see her, to lie in bed with her, just as she had done with her brother when they were little, so that she can smell the scent of her brother,” he explained to me. And that is just what they did—an 85-year-old Armenian woman hugging in bed with a Turkish condo builder in his thirties that she just met, in order to remember her long-lost family.

There are many stories of orphans torn apart from their loved ones in 1915. Some were brought to orphanages under the control of the victorious Allies after WWI, eventually finding their way to the Armenian Diaspora or Soviet Armenia, while others were placed in Turkish orphanages, becoming Muslim Turks or Kurds. We witnessed a few happy reunions on our trips, as once-hidden Armenians found their long-lost relatives in Armenia for the first time. We brought together a 65-year-old hidden Armenian from Diyarbakir with his cousin, a 70-year-old villager from Armavir region. One didn’t speak Armenian, the other didn’t speak Turkish, but they held hands and hugged each other continuously for three hours during a dinner.

Hamshen (or Hemshin) is the name given to people living in the eastern Black Sea coastal region of Turkey. There is strong evidence that they are Armenians who have migrated to this region after Seljuk Turks captured the city of Ani in the eleventh century, followed by more waves of Armenians settling in the region in later times. Soon after, in the 16th century, the region was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and the Armenians were eventually forced to convert to Islam. Most of them did convert, but interestingly enough they kept the Armenian language, and continue to keep it until today. And although they still speak a dialect of Armenian, with constant indoctrination from the government they have been made to believe that their ancestors migrated from Central Asia and their language was a branch of Central Asian Turkish.

Until recently, most Hamshen people had a strong nationalistic—even racist—allegiance to Turkey. In conversation with a Hamshen woman, I was amazed to hear the following: “Yes Hay chem. Yes Turk em” (“I am not Armenian. I am a Turk.”)—in Armenian!

Since the early 2000s, Hamshentsis (Hamshen people) have started to search for their real, Armenian roots. Here is the story told by an elderly Hamshentsi about how people in the region first got a clue that what they spoke was Armenian and not a Central Asian Turkic language. In 1982, Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) commandos carried out an unsuccessful attack at the Ankara airport. All were killed, except Levon Ekmekjian, who was captured, tortured, and then put on trial. His trial was aired live on Turkish television, and Ekmekjian gave his testimony in Armenian, which was then translated to Turkish. People all over Turkey, including the Hamshentsis, were glued to the television watching the trial. The Hamshen people were surprised to discover that Levon spoke their own language. Many of them wondered if  he was a Hamshentsi, and eventually realized that their language is Armenian, like his.

As a postscript to this story, the trial was just a formality, and Ekmekjian was executed in Jan. 1983, buried in an unmarked grave until 2016, when the heroic Turkish human rights lawyer Eren Keskin succeeded in having Levon’s remains transferred to France, to reunite with his family.

On a happier note, one of the hidden Armenians from Hamshen who traveled to Armenia with me met a hidden Armenian woman from Diyarbakir, and they are now married.

In the mid-1990s, I joined the Hayastan All Armenia Fund as a volunteer participant in reconstruction projects. One of the projects was the reconstruction of the Spitak church, which was damaged during the 1988 earthquake, financed from an account in Switzerland administered by lawyers on behalf of an anonymous donor—who turned out to be the hidden Armenian grandmother of a very wealthy, high-profile Turkish family.

In 2013, I was fortunate enough to accomplish one of my bucket-list items by climbing Mount Ararat with my son Daron. The starting point for the expedition was a town named Doğubayazıt—the former Daroynk of medieval Armenia, now populated entirely by Kurds, except for Turkish security forces. One of the roads is built with the contents of the Armenian cemetery, with Armenian-scripted gravestones and bones still visible on the road shoulders. The grandmother of one of the Kurdish mountain guides was Armenian, and he fondly remembered how she prayed five times a day as a Muslim, while keeping a cross and Bible under her pillow. The guide had 18 brothers and sisters, most of them married to other Kurds with Armenian grandmothers in their families, and each brother and sister had at least five children themselves. He wished his children would go to a university on the other side of the mountain, in Armenia, instead of a Turkish university.

Hidden Armenians have complicated lives, full of emotional turmoil and psychological scars. They are shunned by Muslim Turks and Kurds—and also by most members of the Armenian community in Istanbul and the Armenian Patriarchate.

When the grandchildren of forcibly Islamized Armenian orphans find the courage to come out and return to their Armenian roots and identity despite all the risks, discrimination, and abuse they will receive in their neighborhood, workplace, and even their own families, they must be encouraged, not rejected. Sure, there may be opportunistic pretenders with Armenian claims for personal gain who should be investigated and scrutinized, but I have come to realize that through my network of hidden Armenians and their links it is surprisingly easy to uncover them. For example, when someone claiming to be Dersimtsi Armenian approached a cleric here in Toronto, I was able to determine the truth about him after some questioning and investigation in his Dersim village. When I took hidden Armenians to Armenia and some of them wanted to become Christian by baptism, it was easy to determine through family ties back in Diyarbakir whether they really had Armenian roots. The obstruction of some clerics preventing them from becoming Christian Armenian is unreasonable, however, when a trustworthy Armenian godfather (gnkahayr) is vouching for the truth.

Being born an Armenian is not a choice, and if someone chooses to return to his/her roots after discovering his/her Armenian origin, no cleric or government official has the right to prevent that. Whether someone adopts a new religion is a choice that comes later. There are many differing viewpoints on the subject of who can “become an Armenian.” Of course, there is freedom of thought and expression, but if someone in power or influence makes a decision that infringes on another’s freedom, that is simply unacceptable.

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Raffi Bedrosyan

Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer and a concert pianist, living in Toronto. Proceeds from his concerts and CDs have been donated to the construction of school, highways, and water and gas distribution projects in Armenia and Karabagh—projects in which he has also participated as a voluntary engineer. Bedrosyan was involved in organizing the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church reconstruction project. His articles explain the significance of this historic project as the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915, as well as other Turkish-Armenian issues. He gave the first Armenian piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915, most recently at the 2015 Genocide Centenary Commemoration. He is the founder of Project Rebirth, which helps hidden Islamized Armenians reclaim their original Armenian roots, language, and culture.

14 Comments

  1. Dear Raffi and Armenian weekly

    Do you know that Sami Celik and Rahime Kesici Karakas are still musluman in their id.and and you made news 2 years before. Please research this baptisms if this peopl’ s id are muslim in turkey it is mean that they are muslim.

    Regards

    • Siran,

      I would advise you to directly contact Raffi and not publicly use anybody’s name. What is your intention by doing that? I would suggest allowing people the liberty of living their own life.

  2. A brilliant article, well done. It is a shame and a pity that the clergy have this unwanted connection of the Armenians who were forcibly converted to islam and who now want to reunite and establish themselves as Armenians. No clergy should be allowed to refuse “converting” those who desire to once again become Christian Armenians. Shame on those who refuse to allow this. A BIG PITY and a disgrace.

  3. Thank you Mr. Bedrosyan for another well informed and emotionally gripping article.
    I was contacted on a few occasions by crypto-Armenians from Turkey seeking help to settle in Canada, but I must admit that I do not have the skills nor the contacts to distinguish “opportunistic pretenders” from the genuine “hidden Armenians”. They would usually tell me that their grand-father’s/mother’s name was xxx, but this is far from fool-proof. Since it is surprisingly easy for you to uncover the “pretenders”, may I suggest you set-up a community referral service in Canada where Canadian-Armenians who seek to confirm the identity of those who contact them, could turn to.
    Thank you again for your wisdom and dedication

  4. Mr. Raffi Bedrosyan:
    Your excellent article is an eye opener to any true Armenian that cares about the aftermath of the 1915 Genocide Survivors. I am a first generation Survivor. My father’s father, mother, brother, first wife and 4 year old son were brutally massacred in Marash in 1916 while he was serving in the Ottoman Army in Palestine. One can not and must not blame any Armenian that converted to Muslim under such circumstances. Any hidden Armenia or Turkish person that wants to return to their roots or want to convert to Armenianism must be encouraged and be accepted by the Armenian Community at large. No need for iron clad proof.

    Sebouh V Tashjian
    Former State Minister
    Republic of Armenia, ’92-96

  5. are we assuming that Armenians are pure bred, from one couple??? we are a cocktail mix, a beautiful mosaic, present day Armenians don’t even look like their original ancestors, over the years we had to adopt to the ever changing racial identities…our appearance our customs underwent many evolutionary processes… some voluntary some forced and not too long ago, were even subjected to convert to the Christian sect of Judaism…what difference does it make if they are white or dark, tall or short, muslim or Christian…. if someone decides to be and live as an Armenian, that is entirely his/her choice. no one, I repeat no one has the right or the business to meddle… people… we have much more pressing matters to be concerned about, our survival, with these blood thirsty money worshiping anti life satanas at the helm, the whole world is headed into a wide path of destruction, we need to wake up, before it is too late.
    may the true creator of heaven and earth have mercy on us and protect us from evil…

    • “what difference does it make if they are white or dark, tall or short, muslim or Christian….”

      So you wouldn’t mind it or simply don’t see the difference of Armenia became a Muslim country. I’m sure if we just replaced all the ethnic Armeniams with black Somalians then Armenia would be exactly the same right. I mean what’s the point of having borders anyway Mr modern armenian- let Turkey just annex Armenia.

  6. I’M NOT CERTAIN IF THE AUTHOR OF THE ABOVE STATEMENT IS AWARE OF WHAT HE/SHE IS SAYING:”THROUGHOUT OUR LONG HISTORY WE HAD ‘VASAGNER’ AND EVEN TO DAY THEY FLOURISH AMONG US” WE MUST SIEVE THOSE WANTING TO CONVERT TO ENSURE THAT THEY IN FACT HAVE ARMENIAN ROOTS-HOWEVER WEAK/DISTANT ROOTS. NO MY FRIENDS, WE DON’T HAVE TO OPEN OUR DOORS FOR MORE ‘VASAGNER’ WHOSE PURPOSE TO “BECOME” ARMENIANS IS TO DESTROY US INTERNALLY- I REFER TO THE ABOVE STATEMENT:”If some one decides to be and live as an Armenian…etc.” This my friend is an illiterate statement…to say the least.
    You may disagree

    • who gave you the authority to decide who can be or not be whatever, you have your opinion…but you have no right to open or close doors except in you own house (that is until the banking mafia or the tax collectors of the country you live in decide to take it away from you), just by the fact that you are using terms as illiterate, I going to go on the limb and guess that you dear hayrenakits live in the U.S.A, and if so you are the perfect candidate to protect the Armenian gene from being corrupted, very literate indeed…

  7. ketses, raffi, sharunake’ veradartsnel mer kortsratz zavakner@ metzn armenio
    cheers, raffi continue to return our lost children of greater armenia

  8. As usual, fascinating article from Raffi Bedrosyan. who has the tact and the sensitivity to relate those stories without pathos.

    Here is our story : My grand grand father had two brothers who were separated during the genocide. While he and his elder brother made their way in France and US, the younger was adopted by a Kurdish family and remained in our original village in Dersim region, I ll not mention the name of the village for security reasons.

    Few years ago, my brother and I visited the region without knowing what we will find. What we find was astonishing : we found the cousins of my grand father and all their children, grandchildren, gathered here during summer holidays.
    It turns out that ALL the village is, to this day, Armenian and although none of them was speaking Armenian – except the elders who knew few words – , they were all well aware of their roots. We have been welcomed with tears, we have been shown the secret chapel that was jealously and secretly kept, the cross and the candles were not kept inside for obvious reasons.
    We have been told they were several villages with the exact same story in the vicinity, at least 4, and those crypto Armenians from Dersim villages traditionally marry each other. Their roots is well known from their Kurdish Alevis and Zazas neighbors who never betrayed them. To this day, we are in touch with our cousins – most of them leaving in Germany and Istanbul – and we are planning to visit Armenia together soon.

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