Survival Against All Odds: Raise Your Voice

Kinaliada, Turkey (Photo captured by author)

Every day, waking up to venture out in the world as an Armenian girl in Turkey has been a peculiar and fierce experience. When I was growing up, one of the many questions that I could not somehow find a sufficient answer to was ‘How can someone feel like they are home and not at the same time?’ I have always been a little jealous of Armenians in diaspora worldwide who could speak and post about who they were and the ways their family was grieving. However, I was, and to this very day still am, incredibly proud of our people who seek justice that we longed for a long time. I am sure people have heard about the many lives of Armenians in Turkey. As Armenians in Turkey, we continue our lives with fear and caution, and there are so few of us here who are aware we can vocalize our opinions with a yearning to be heard. Nevertheless, I want to change that. I want to tell our story, raise my voice and find others who will have the slightest desire to do so.

When I was younger, I thought that I had a freeing, healthy life. I speculated that my classmates’ discriminatory Turkish names they called me in the fifth grade were a part of life, and I just had to deal with it. Tucking my cross around my neck into my shirt as soon as I entered the subway was routine. Hiding the origin and meaning of my name from teachers at school was instinctual by the time seventh grade started. Hearing the president of the country I inhabit say that he could deport us whenever he wanted or use the word ‘Armenians’ as if it were a dirty word on national television were all normalized to me at that point of my life. I accepted some things as a part of life and naively assumed that those were how every other minority in other countries lived. I have grown to realize that things Armenians in Turkey normalize should not be an element of who we are.

I reckon my incident of awakening was when a couple of my peers started to bully me. At this point, I was immune to everything, growing up the way I did. But I could not take it when eventually one of them said that my presence indicated they failed in 1915. At that moment I realized it was one of the most cruel things for me to stay silent when my ancestors fought for their lives. So, I wrecked everything I perceived as normal and began to seek opportunities to make my voice, even slightly, and that of many others heard. Indeed, this is what I cherish about our community and Armenians worldwide. We rise when we face a challenge. After that, something, a feeling inside me ignited; all I desired was to amplify to the world that we, and other oppressed groups, have been objectified and misrepresented.

My father used to tell me that we didn’t belong anywhere as Armenians in Turkey. Though I understood his point, I strongly disagreed with him over time. As I started experiencing the world through my lens, I saw a part of me in the Armenian bazaar in Boston. I saw a part of me in the restaurant next to the massive fountain in downtown Yerevan, Armenia. I felt the ghosts of my great-grandparents when I ate Armenian manti for the first time. I walked in the footsteps of grief and pain through the shadow of my family and many others when I visited the Genocide Museum for the first time. When I traveled to Little Armenia in Los Angeles, a place I had never visited, I somehow felt like I was home. Everywhere I went, I found little pieces of my community and myself. After that, everywhere I went, I wanted to leave a piece of myself as well.

I hope that everyone who belongs, or knows someone who does, to a marginalized community fights for what they believe in. Whether we are Armenians, African-Americans, members of the LGBT community, or members of any at-risk community, we should all unite to demand to be equals of this world. My journey led me to become this young woman seeking opportunities to express herself and represent her community. I voluntarily work at the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul, am applying to colleges I never imagined I could ever apply to, and hence, creating opportunities to put forth my ideas, beliefs and vision of this world.

If you can raise your voice, please do so loudly. Be an activist for those who dream of being one but cannot. Be one for those who don’t even know that they have a voice. After all, surviving against all the odds is what we are known for. Let us be known for raising our voices too.

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Naira Altunkeser

Naira Altunkeser is a rising senior at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul. She has been actively in her local community since she was 10 years old. Her plan is to study neuroscience in the US next year.
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5 Comments

  1. Thank you Naira for your contribution to the Armenian Weekly. Your words show how much I take for granted. You remind me why I myself must contribute to raise my voice and join in solidarity. Thank you!

  2. I think I can understand the feelings of an Armenian girl who lives in Turkey. But it would be better to give some examples about the cases which cause fear and avoidance.
    I also every day, wake up to venture out in my own world as a humanist Turkish old man has been a peculiar and fierce experience because of dictator Erdogan who rules(!) Turkey as one ineffective one man. May God save all of us.

  3. I am proud of you Naira. As your physics teacher for 3 years I have seen you only demonstrate a kind and positive attitude towards the majority population. Your outstanding academic performance and work ethic have been a tribute to your heritage.

  4. Thank you Naira. You expressed so well the liberating feel of not remaining silent against oppressions of all kind. All social justice movements start by raising a voice. It is perhaps the most important step on the path forward.

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