“What nationality are you?” “I am Armenian,” my grandfather replied to a Turkish officer who asked what his nationality was. “This is the way the Armenians should be,” he asserted, kicking his feet together, lifting his chin up and forcing him to attention and submission. He continued, “This is the way Armenians should be—straight with their heads up.”
This is a first-hand account of how my grandfather Zohrab was treated after the genocide. Though he survived, he was forced to join the Turkish military, where he was humiliated by Turkish soldiers and forced to dig holes all day only to have them be filled up again. He was an automatic target simply for being alive and being Armenian. Everything he encountered during his lifetime was about survival and doing whatever he had to do to keep him and his family safe. He passed on his work ethic to his children—my father, uncles and aunts—who also suffered the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide.
My ancestors lived in the city of Bitlis for years, later moving to Siirt and finally settling in the city of Shernakh where they worked as skilled blacksmiths. In the summer of 1915, my great grandfather Aperham and his brother Mardiros were advised by Kurdish tribal leaders to convert to Islam, like many Armenians and Christians at the time. They refused. They heard that Armenian fedayis were defending themselves against the Turks, so they left their work and family to join the self-defense units in Van. They found themselves in a Kurdish village; although disguised, villagers recognized them as Armenians. Their lives were spared, and they were brought back unharmed to their home in Shernakh. As blacksmiths, Aperham and Mardiros manufactured and repaired everything from farm tools to artillery.
After his unsuccessful mission to join the fedayi movement, my great grandfather came home to find his son (my grandfather) Zohrab, seven years old at the time, alone. Aperham learned from neighbors that his home had been invaded by Turkish soldiers. His family was rounded up and deported out of Turkey. Zohrab was spared because he had gone out for a walk and was protected by neighbors on his way back. His two-year-old sister, who was ill, was dragged by a horse to her death. His mother was sent on a death march with her infant son Dikran in her arms. Ultimately, she grew tired and lagged behind. Soldiers began striking her, ordering her to catch up with the others, causing Dikran to cry. The soldiers snatched him from her arms and threw him, leaving him to die between the rocks. Zohrab’s mother was forced to continue walking in despair and pain.
Zohrab grew up in Shernakh, Turkey with his cousins, where they married and continued to work as blacksmiths until Apraham passed away. They then turned to weaving and making fine clothes, which was more profitable. They also began to travel and trade undercover, because they were Christians, and it was much too dangerous to do so openly. They would even hire friendly Muslims to accompany them for safety while they traveled.
During their trading and travels, my family would stay in Zakho, Iraq. They used mules for transport, and on their way back they would load the mules with goods from Zakho to be sold in Sharnakh. It was a two-day journey, crossing the Judi mountain to Khabur River, where they would stay until dark to avoid Turkish security. In Zakho, a welcoming community of Armenians would greet and host them. My grandfather’s sister got married and took up residence in Zakho. Eventually, my grandfather would move there as well after the birth of his son Namrod.
Once they settled in Zakho, Iraq, Zohrab worked as a tailor, designing Kurdish attire. He also encouraged his children to go to school. He was so afraid to get his children residency cards in Iraq that he asked two of his neighbors who were about the same age as his sons Mourad and Namrod to share theirs. Mourad, the eldest son, refused to go to school; instead, he became an exceptional tailor and worked with his father. Tailoring was labor intensive for the father and son. Across seasons, Zohrab bought, washed, dyed, dried, combed and weaved animal hair before it could be turned to thread to create garments. They even tailored clothes for Saddam Hussein but were still quite poor at the time.
Namrod, for his part, did go to school; he once recalled a story when he didn’t have a pencil in class, and the teacher sent him home to get one and come back. When he went home and asked his mother for two pennies for a pencil, they both cried because she did not have anything. She pitied her son and went to the neighbor who gave her five pennies. School was difficult for my uncle Namrod, who was often scolded and punished with a ruler for his lack of preparation.
It was around this time that the family members started changing and developing their last name. Before and during the genocide, they didn’t have last names, so they used their fathers’ first name. When they moved to Zakho, they were using the name Apraham, but since it was a Muslim country they were told, “We don’t have Apraham, we have Ibrahim, so your name is now Ibrahim.” From there, my father and uncles’ names were Mourad Ibrahim, Namrod Ibrahim, Vartan Ibrahim and Mikail Ibrahim.
Namrod, for his part, started gaining more confidence at school; he began to write the name “Namrod Zohrabian” on his schoolwork, using his father’s name as the root. Despite being teased and chastised about it, he would still write it. Namrod excelled in math, English and science and passed the national exam. To continue his studies, he needed to go to Mosul, but his father Zohrab couldn’t afford it. They were still very poor; the family during this time totaled 14 people in one household. When my uncle’s teacher learned that one of his top students couldn’t afford higher education, he offered to help financially. Namrod was accepted into Baghdad’s Industrial Engineering College. He became an Iraqi citizen and started teaching English as a second language. He also worked as a translator and earned the praise of the city’s board of education.
When he was 27 years old, Namrod married Mariam and together they had two children—Vegen and Vera. He continued his studies at the University of Baghdad, graduated with an English degree and continued to teach. In the summer of 1976, he and his family decided to immigrate to the US. They would travel to Athens, Greece through Turkey to make their way to the United States. Throughout this time, the family continued to face discrimination for their Armenian identity. During their travels in Turkey, where they visited family, Namrod once stopped to buy some fresh grapes from a street vendor, who tried to sell him older grapes, remarking that the fresh ones “weren’t for Arabs.” My uncle replied, “Thank God you don’t know that I am Armenian.” The man refused to sell my uncle Namrod the grapes. The family spent several months in Greece; Namrod tried to find a temporary job at a local Armenian church. He was rejected and told to go back to Iraq. Not knowing how to proceed, they went back home. A year later, they tried again and arrived in New York City on August 4, 1977 with $300 to their name.
Namrod found a job in motor repairs, a skill he learned back home that paid $3.50 per hour. He enrolled in Queens Community College as well as Hunter College in Manhattan. He ultimately graduated from The City College of New York with an engineering degree. He once recalled an interview during which the potential employer, who was Muslim, inquired whether he was Muslim as well based on his last name Ibrahim. It was a life changing moment of freedom when he openly said, “I am Armenian Christian.” He ultimately changed his name to Nubar Zohrabian; the rest of the family followed suit.
His brother Vartan and sister-in-law Araxy later made it to the US by way of a visa. Vartan wanted to go back to Iraq, but Namrod encouraged him to stay. Vartan would graduate from the City College of New York and become an engineer. His brother Mikail did the same and started a life in the US with his wife as well.
This article is dedicated to my paternal ancestors, especially my uncle Nubar, whose resilience and pride never faltered in the face of adversity and my grandfather Zohrab, who despite the many difficulties he endured in life, was quite a jokester at heart. When I was a toddler, he would play with me and mimic a spider traveling up my arm. He’d try to frighten me with a light pinch. I’ll forever cherish sharing those lighthearted and playful moments with him.