My life and my work at USC Shoah Foundation are strongly connected to the joys and the sorrows of the Armenian community. Thus, I was both shocked and heartened by recent separate events that demonstrated how far we’ve come in advancing human dignity and how far we still have to go.
In late January, hate crimes were committed at two private Armenian-American schools in Los Angeles. The first happened at Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Armenian School, where I used to teach World History and the second happened at AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School, from which my colleague at the Institute Manuk Avedikyan is an alumni. Both schools were vandalized by a masked assailant who hung more than a dozen Turkish flags on school grounds before students arrived.
For me, a fourth generation descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors, this unwelcomed event was meant to ignite fear, as it is a reminder of the horrific hatred of 1915 that resulted in the oppression, violence, pain and attempt to erase Turkey’s Christian society. Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz called these acts “the equivalent of putting a Nazi swastika on the side of a Jewish school.” This symbolism was truly felt by the community.
Draping the Turkish flag at Armenian schools remind us that the history of the past is still unreconciled in the present as the denial of the Armenian Genocide by the Republic of Turkey continues 100 years later.
The Los Angeles Police Department, which has labelled the act as a hate crime, continues to investigate the incident. Various community leaders, local and state government officials and especially the principals of both schools have taken the lead on responding and providing guidance to the community.
While these events were deeply disappointing, something else happened that week that lifted my spirits.
Two students from New York City wrote to let me know that their History Day Exhibit about the American humanitarian efforts of the Near East Relief, which featured a clip of testimony from Armenian Genocide survivor Arpine Terlemezian, had just won their school competition and was now advancing to the county level competitions.
The theme of this year's national competition "“Triumph and Tragedy in History,” allows students the opportunity to share examples of when people triumphed after tragedy throughout history.
Terlemezian, who was born in 1900, worked for the Near East Relief in 1918, a humanitarian organization which provided aid and refuge for thousands of Armenian orphans whose families had been murdered and displaced by the genocide.
Orphans of the Armenian Genocide suffered through episodes of mass murder, unsanitary living conditions, and traumatic losses of their families and homes. The Near East Relief offered them a home, opportunities to reclaim their Armenian identity, continue their education and learn new trades. They also allowed for many young Armenian adults to work in their orphanages as teachers.
My great-grandmother, Nectar Kevorkian, like Terlemezian, was one of these young teachers. The organization also connected orphans with any surviving family relatives who may have been living in different parts of the world before 1915 or who may have fled elsewhere as a result of genocide. Many of these surviving orphans immigrated to the United States, putting their skills to work and adapted to a new culture, built new homes while also building Armenian religious, cultural and educational institutions to preserve their heritage and identity.
I was proud of the students for sharing this history and Terlemezian’s testimony with their school. And I am both grateful to those Armenian orphans who did not give up hope, and inspired by the true altruism of those who provided aid and support to the orphans after the tragedies they suffered.
USC Shoah Foundation has many resources available to learn more about the Armenian Genocide.
The Institute also offers testimony based educational resources to support student knowledge about the Armenian Genocide and to help them engage in crucial conversations about respect, hate and the impact of perceptions we make about each other. Visit IWitness for grade-specific resources and opportunities: primary school, middle school and high school.