Zoryan Institute’s President dedicates Order of Canada recognition to the memory of a righteous Turk

On February 22, 2024, 60 new members were invested into the Order of Canada at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. The Order of Canada is a Canadian state order and the second-highest honor for merit in the system of order, decorations and medals in the system of Canada, bestowed on individuals in recognition of their extraordinary contributions to Canada. Among those invested was the co-founder and current president of the Zoryan Institute, K.M. Greg Sarkissian, for his lifelong contributions to the field of genocide and human rights studies.

Sarkissian was recognized and awarded the Order of Canada insignia by Her Excellency the Right Honorable Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada. He was introduced with the following description: 

“A Canadian of Armenian descent, Greg Sarkissian is a well-esteemed community leader and activist. He is the co-founder and main patron of the Zoryan Institute, which strives to promote historically accurate analyses of large-scale traumatic events through multidisciplinary research, publications and curricula. By establishing a graduate-level university program, he has helped Canada become an international destination for studies in genocide and human rights. Deeply involved with various minority groups and ethnic communities across Canada, he fights against the us-versus-them mentality with a compassionate approach that fuels his international reputation.” 

Zoryan Institute President K.M. Greg Sarkissian and Her Excellency the Right Honorable Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada (Photo via Office of Governor General)

When asked about what prompted him to co-found the Zoryan Institute, Sarkissian cited two pivotal incidents that impacted and inspired him in his endeavor. The first incident was a personal story about a great humanitarian, Haji Khalil, a pious Muslim Turk from Urfa, Turkey, who saved the lives of Sarkissian’s grandmother and her children; the second was the tragic fate of the 11 members of one family who all were killed in the 1930s in Germany simply for being Jewish. He finished by dedicating the recognition and his investiture into the Order of Canada to the memory of this great Turkish humanitarian and those 11 family members. 

Sarkissian’s life is marked by his own experience growing up with parents who survived the Armenian Genocide. Khalil, his maternal grandfather’s Turkish business partner, promised to take care of his grandfather’s family in case of any misfortune. When Sarkissian’s grandfather was subsequently hanged by the Ottoman Turkish authorities and the deportations of the Armenians from their ancestral homeland began, Khalil kept his promise by hiding Sarkissian’s pregnant grandmother, her sister and their children in the upper story of his house for eight months. Food for seven extra mouths had to be purchased, prepared and carried up undetected nightly, which had to suffice until the following night. He arranged for his own family to be absent from the house at least once a week, taking them to the mosque, so that Sarkissian’s grandmother, sister and their children could bathe. Khalil exposed himself to tremendous risk, as even his servants were aware of what was transpiring and could easily have informed the authorities. Had he been caught sheltering Armenians, he certainly would have faced death. Luckily, his household remained loyal and discreet, and therefore, Sarkissian was one of the very few children of his generation and in his neighborhood to grow up with aunts and uncles, all of whom remembered Khalil, the righteous Turk. The memory of Khalil and his sacrifice, contrasting with the horrors of the genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey, represents an innermost tension that became the motivation of Sarkissian’s life and the fight against the “us-versus-them” mentality. 

During his university years, Sarkissian attended a lecture on “Genocide and Media,” run by Hilel, a Jewish student association on campus. The lecturer displayed a major U.S. newspaper from the 1930s, with a man’s picture and a front-page article featuring a headline about a man who had beaten his dog to death and his community’s uproar for the lack of punishment for such a crime. Several pages later, on page 26, underneath an advertisement about women’s swimwear, was a small caption in a one-inch square about the murder of 11 people belonging to a Jewish family. This was disturbing for Sarkissian. The newspaper had featured the death of a dog more prominently than the life of 11 humans who were reduced to a mere “footnote.” These two moments became pivotal motivations for his co-founding of Zoryan Institute.

Order of Canada recipients with Her Excellency the Right Honorable Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada (center) (Photo via Office of Governor General)

Sarkissian was born to parents who survived the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey and were traumatized by the lost heritage of his ancestral homeland. He found profound significance in receiving the Order of Canada from Governor General Mary Simon, herself an Indigenous Canadian and descendant of genocide survivors. That, together with the Right Honorable Madam Simon’s opening remarks in Inuktitut, was viewed by Sarkissian as a symbol of reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous people and its settlers. He then reflected on the closing paragraph of the speech he had given in Yerevan, Armenia in 1995, where he said:

“I want to extend my hand to the people of Turkey to ask them to remember that, though at one time their state was led by mass murders, they also had their Haji Khalil, and that it would honor the memory of the latter to acknowledge the overwhelming truth of the Genocide, to express regrets, so that the healing process may begin between our two people. Because without this healing, mass extermination as a tool of political dominance may become more common in the future. If Armenians and other victims of genocide do not do everything in their power to pursue the battle against genocide, they would have failed in their responsibility towards future generations.”

Zoryan Institute
Zoryan Institute and its subsidiary, the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, is a non-profit organization that serves the cause of scholarship and public awareness relating to issues of universal human rights, genocide, and diaspora-homeland relations. This is done through the systematic continued efforts of scholars and specialists using a comparative and multidisciplinary approach and in accordance with the highest academic standards.

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