Homecoming Part Three: Bringing Hidden Armenians Home

By Raffi Bedrosyan

The historic first trip of the Diyarbakir hidden Armenians to Armenia  is now over and it is time for us to assess the impact, consequences and next steps.

At the end of the first week, we organized a Dikranagerd Night at a beautiful location called HyeLandz Eco Village in the village of Keghatir. We invited government officials, academicians and researchers following our group, as well as some of the new-found relatives of the Diyarbakir hidden Armenians whose ancestors had managed to move to Armenia after 1915. The re-union of the Christian Armenian relatives with the Islamicized Armenians of Diyarbakir was another special moment. Needless to say, the dancing and singing kept the whole village awake until the early hours of the morning. In the last few days the group visited Lake Sevan. Moslem or Christian, they all reinforced their “Armenianness’ by dipping into the holy waters of Sevan, some their toes, some their entire bodies… Then they were off to a government camping facility in Tsakhgadzor for a few days, where they had a chance to rest after a whirlwind tour of Armenia, as well as learn more Armenian lessons, songs and dances. They all enjoyed the camp, except for the morning gym classes and the “beds from the Stalin era”…

As they drive back home to Diyarbakir to resume their lives, perhaps a bit apprehensive about their emerging new identities, I would like to share some of the life stories of these no more hidden Armenians. There is enough material for a book or a movie for each of the 50 members of the group. Through interviews by media or Ministry of Diaspora officials, Armenians of Armenia have started finding out about them.  The most interesting responses were to the question of when they realized they had Armenian roots. Some of them found out they were Armenian when they were already adults, at the deathbed of their parents or grandparents. Some discovered when they were in compulsory military service in the Turkish Army, when their commanders told them they can’t be trusted because of their “background.” Some were told as little kids, when other kids shouted at them as “Armenian” in the street or at school as a swear word, without knowing the meaning of the word. As they rushed home crying that other kids swore at them, their parents had to explain that Armenian is not a swear word, but their own identity. Some hidden Armenians tried hard to appear as devout Moslems; one even became Imam, a Moslem religious leader, while still keeping his hidden identity. However, most hidden Armenians tried to ensure that their children married into other hidden Armenian families, even the Imam giving his daughter  to another Islamicized Armenian boy, raising questions among his Moslem followers. No matter how much these people tried to hide their Armenian roots, it seems that the neighbors or the government officials knew about their origins. During disagreements between business people, shopkeepers, neighboring women or kids at school, the insults of “gavur/infidel” or “devil rooted Armenian” easily came out, no matter how devout Moslems they appeared to be. One tragicomic incident was the story of three Moslem Kurdish boys about 8-9 years old, one of them being from a hidden Armenian family but unaware of his roots at the time. They stole some of those famous Diyarbakir watermelons from the orchard of a hidden Armenian Islamicized man. The man caught the three little thieves, but let go the two real Moslem Kurdish boys and gave a good beating to the hidden Armenian boy. I leave it to the psychologists to ponder the reasons for this man’s actions. Years later, this hidden Armenian boy finds out his real identity and still thinks about this incident.

Another interesting fact that came out during the interviews was the special place of Yerevan Radio in all Kurdish families’ lives, including our hidden Armenians group. As Kurdish language was banned and even possessing a Kurdish music tape was a punishable crime in Turkey for several decades, all Kurds tuned in to Yerevan Radio which broadcast Kurdish news and music a couple of hours each day. The group members all remembered how, when they were growing up, everyone would stop work at home or at shops to gather around the radio to hear Yerevan Radio Kurdish news…

I am confident the groundbreaking nature of this historic first trip will open the road for other hidden Armenians to follow, but I would like to report on three additional successful outcomes resulting from this trip.

Firstly, two university graduates in our group who wanted to further their graduate studies in Armenia will be able to fulfill their dreams. In discussion with the Armenian government officials, we reached agreement that they will be able to attend Armenian universities with free tuition, master the Armenian language for a year and then continue into their desired field of study.

Secondly, some of the group members inquired about obtaining Armenian citizenship, perhaps toward future plans of retirement in Armenia. As per the existing citizenship requirements, Armenian government demands documents and proof of Armenian ethnic origin but of course no such documents exist among our hidden Armenians, except their memories from their parents and grandparents. In discussion with the government officials, I proposed the possibility of a baptism document as proof of Armenian origin. I suggested that if a hidden Armenian comes out and gets baptized in Armenia, similar to our two members who got baptized in Echmiadzin (see previous article), then this should be sufficient proof to apply for Armenian citizenship. The proposal was received favorably and will now be discussed in cabinet, hopefully leading to  approval by the government.

Thirdly, learning the Armenian language, history and culture is essential to re-discovering Armenian roots. The Virtual University run by AGBU in Yerevan is offering online courses in these subjects. The administrators have now agreed to offer these courses for free to all applicants from Turkey. This will have a huge impact on the hidden Armenians of Turkey wherever they are, in Dersim, Van, Mush or Diyarbakir, as they can start learning on their own, in their own homes, even in the absence of organized language courses.

Although this trip is the start of a new reality within the Armenian world and received with great enthusiasm by both government officials and public in Armenia, I must admit that not everyone is on board. There are still quite a few Armenians disapproving of the time and effort in bringing out the hidden Armenians. Perhaps it is untimely to air our dirty laundry, but I believe the arguments put forth by these disapproving Armenians must be discussed, as some of these people hold important posts within the Armenian church and political organizations in Diaspora and in Istanbul. These disapprovers argue that Moslem Armenians are not really Armenian, until they convert to Christianity by getting baptized; but then, they go on arguing that they cannot get baptized unless they show proof and documents of Armenian origins, until they speak fluent Armenian and “pass tests of being a good Armenian’. I believe it is shortsightedness and totally unrealistic to have such requirements for hidden Armenians living in Van or Dersim, surrounded by Moslem Turks/Kurds, working in government jobs. The other argument I find incomprehensible is that the emergence of hidden Armenians in large numbers lessens the claims of the 1915 genocide, and that it is tantamount to strengthening Turkish cases of denial. I have even received comments that Turks will now use the hidden Armenians as proof that genocide never happened, and therefore, I should stick to engineering or music, instead of getting involved in these issues…These comments can be dismissed, were it not for the fact that they come from some individuals in undeservedly responsible positions in Diaspora and in Istanbul.

Regardless, we will keep on expanding our efforts in Diyarbakir and other regions of Turkey, continuously pushing the envelope on rules and regulations in order to facilitate the “coming out” of our hidden Armenian brothers and sisters, the grandchildren of the “living” victims of the genocide. There is a Turkish term for these hapless survivors — “kilic artigi,” meaning “remnants of the sword.” The attempted murder of a nation and the total confiscation of its wealth took place within Turkey, but as we approach the centennial of these problems, we must realize that the resolution of these problems will also take place within Turkey. No matter how many events we organize in the diaspora or Armenia, no matter how many third-country parliaments and politicians  appear to sympathize with our cause, at the end of the day, the only change will come from within Turkey when the peoples of Turkey realize the truth about 1915 and force their government also to stop the denial and deal with the consequences. One of the key components toward this goal will be to re-create an Armenian presence within Turkey. The continuing dialogue of Armenian and Turkish civil societies and opinion makers, combined with the emergence of hidden Armenians within Turkey are essential toward eliminating the past and present barriers.

I will conclude this series of articles with a tribute to the courage and determination of our hidden Armenians, and a few questions for you to ponder. How will they be received back in Turkey? How will their families, neighbors, employers, employees react to their new identity? Just consider Stepan’s case, the newly baptized man who works as a teacher at a government school. All his students are Moslems. He told me he knows there are several kids in his class who come from hidden Armenian Islamicized families, but he doesn’t know if the kids know about their roots. How will the Moslem kids (or their parents) react to him coming out? How will the hidden Armenian kids (or their parents) react? How will his own kids react? We are in uncharted waters, but sooner or later, truth and justice will prevail.

(Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer and concert pianist, living in Toronto, Canada. He has donated concert and CD proceedings to infrastructure projects in Armenia and Karabagh, in which he has also participated as an engineer. He helped organize the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church and the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915. He gave the first piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915.)