By Alin K. Gregorian
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A murder almost a decade ago and a genocide a century back impacted one woman so much that she altered the course of her life.
The woman, Gonca Sönmez-Poole, a Turkish-American, formed the grassroots group Turkish-Armenian Women’s Association (TAWA) in 2012, to bring together women who could speak frankly and openly about the Armenian Genocide and its impact on both Turks and Armenians.
“I wanted to do something on the overall subject,” said Sönmez-Poole recently, after the murder of Hrant Dink. “I knew there was something I had to say. I can keep talking myself,” she said, noting she could not change minds on her own. “I decided to start after Hrant Dink. I threw myself into the dialogue group.”
The resulting conversations and friendships between September 2012 and May 2014 are now in the process of becoming a documentary.
She did not tape the sessions, but asked some of the people involved to speak on camera at a different time.
Sönmez-Poole, who spent more than two decades at the WCVB program “Chronicle,” explained that she realized that a lot of people could benefit from the documentary in terms of education.
“I want to do it for those other people” who did not participate in the conversations, she said.
In an earlier interview about the film, she said, “The documentary, titled ‘Neighbors in Memory…A Personal Journey,’ will be a first of its kind project, exploring the Armenian-Turkish relationship from the bottom up…starting from the reeducation of one Turkish woman (that is myself) and weaving in the thoughts and feelings of others who have been — or still are — pondering the question: why does this hundred year old event — the Armenian Genocide — continue to be so controversial, so sensitive and so significant?”
Sönmez-Poole moved to the US as a college student from her native Turkey, knowing next to nothing about the Armenian Genocide. According to the history books she had in school, during World War I Armenians had betrayed Turkey by siding with their Russian enemy. Her sister, 13 years younger, also received “outright misinformation” about the Genocide.
She recalled that she came to the US to study after graduating from a private French high school in Istanbul. “I have a very hardworking and amazing father,” who agreed to send his daughter to the US to study at Emerson College.
“It was culture shock,” she recalled.
After Emerson, she attended graduate school at Boston University, where she met her future husband, Curtis Poole. She and her family, including her two children, stayed in the US. Her children, she said, have grown up with a strong sense of their Turkish heritage.
Sönmez-Poole said her enlightenment on the Armenian Genocide is “both a blessing and a curse.”
She credited Dr. Pamela Steiner of the Harvard School of Public Health for drawing her into a dialogue.
“It was an effort eight or nine years ago for public diplomacy to get people to break down walls,” she recalled. Those efforts included workshops, with Sönmez-Poole often the only Turkish person in the room. Once Hrant Dink was assassinated, Sönmez-Poole “couldn’t stop” herself from wading into the deep end of the pool.
Forming TAWA and delving into the subject “has been wonderful, incredibly enriching,” she said, adding, “The Turkish community knows me very well. They respect me, however, absolutely there is no support when it comes to this subject.”
Moving to Turkey and Back
For two years in the early 1990s, the family decamped to Turkey, in hopes of better opportunities. However, though the children enjoyed the great care of their grandparents, the couple decided living in Turkey was not to be their fate.
They returned to the US, and when they did, Sönmez-Poole attended the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy mid-career program, during which she focused on the Kurdish issue in Turkey. “It was extremely satisfying,” she said. Her curiosity about and interest in minority rights in Turkey and human rights in general were born.
At the same time, the subject of the Armenian Genocide had always been a “taboo” one with her parents. However, she added, in the past two years, she has seen “elements of acceptance.” She said her mother recently told her stories that she had heard about Armenians’ forced disappearances from her youth.
Sönmez-Poole is the founder of Mediation Way, Inc., a small Boston-based nonprofit that was in operation from 1999 until 2012. Mediation Way was also home to a series of panel discussion/screenings about the Roma population in its earlier years, as well as an author/discussion event related to Turkish-Armenian relations held at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2010.
Sönmez-Poole holds a BA in mass communication from Emerson College, an MS in broadcasting and film from Boston University and a mid-career MA from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, where she studied international human rights, minorities and methods in mediation and conflict resolution.
She held a screening of the snippets of the taped dialogue at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University last month. Now she is in the process of raising funds to complete the film. “I need money to hire a very good photographer/videographer to [produce footage] to go along with the interviews,” she said.
She is seeking to raise $25,000 to complete the film. A showing for the completed portion has been planned for April 6 at Framingham State University.
“It is a phase-by-phase process,” she recounted.
She said her long-term wish for the film is that it would be shown in the US, as well as Turkey and Armenia. In the short term, she said, she would like to have it shown in local venues such as the recent Boston University showing. “I would like to use it in a panel discussion for people to talk,” she said.
The value of the documentary is to “explore the other people’s feelings and thought. There is value in listening to and observing other people’s thoughts and feelings,” she added. “It is a tool that people can use to listen to each other.”
To help, visit ://www.kickstarter.com/projects/513683760/neighbors-in-memorya-personal-journey