In ninth grade, my world studies teacher was delivering a requisite “We are the melting pot of the world” lecture when he said something that jarred me away from my old-school Nokia cell phone game.
“I mean, if there was a war, most immigrants in this country would fight for America’s army,” he said, or something along those lines.
Not so fast, I thought. It can’t be that clear-cut.
As a third-generation Armenian, and ever since I spent my first summer transitioning abruptly from country club tennis matches to singing the Armenian anthem at culture camp, I’ve been playing some sort of identity hopscotch game, never quite knowing on exactly which square to land.
It’s no surprise that there’s a blurring of national loyalties for someone who grew up, as I did, with steadfast ties to an ancestral homeland, but who also waves the American flag, as I do, as high as the rest on the Fourth of July.
But for many Armenians, there’s an especially strong devotion to our ethnicity because of an unrecognized, unaddressed and often unknown genocide that’s been stinging our people for more than 92 years.
While the passing of almost a century might seem to dim the catastrophe for most, it only sharpens it for Armenians of my generation. The survivors and witnesses to the systematic killings are all but gone, and most countries still won’t go on the record to call it a genocide. Many young Armenians feel it now falls to them to make sure the atrocities aren’t blotted out of history forever.
By now, I hope you’ve heard. Between the years of 1915 and 1918, the Ottoman Turks killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. Many were either brutally murdered or died of starvation or exhaustion while on forced marches to concentration camps in the Syrian Desert that most never reached.
It concerns me that most students won’t read about the genocide in textbooks. Despite the scholarly consensus, overwhelming evidence and first-hand accounts of the atrocities, Turkey’s government claims the mass killings were “ethnic conflicts” due to World War I. Only 22 countries to date have officially recognized the Armenian genocide.
It’s impossible for me not to relate the “Save Darfur” e-mails dotting my inbox to my own country, which, almost a hundred years later, still needs some saving of its own.
While President Bush has officially acknowledged the killings in Darfur as genocide, the United States has yet to condemn the Armenian killings as such.
In October, the U.S. got sort of close when the House of Representatives nearly brought to a vote a resolution condemning the Ottoman Turks’ actions against Armenians as genocide.
But for me, the resolution represented both a step toward the fulfillment of a longtime hope and a personal identity crisis.
Immediately after the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed the resolution, there was backlash from President Bush, prominent politicians and others who insisted that, while what happened was regrettable, relations with Turkey were too crucial to be harmed. And relations with Turkey were what mattered.
This isn’t the right time, they insisted. Not when Turkey is an ally in an ongoing war, they decreed.
At the risk of making the Armenian community’s collective jaw drop, I found myself a bit conflicted while sifting through the many news articles and columns on the issue. I’d been grappling with the genocide since I was five years old, ever since my Sunday school teacher explained it as I crafted a cross out of dry macaroni noodles. I’d written the letters to my congressmen. I’d held my candle during the vigils on the Diag.
But I’m an American, too, I thought. As government official after government official warned of violence and a ricochet of consequences felt round the world, I wondered whether it would be best if we waited just a few more years. Maybe this isn’t the right time. What if the resolution was adopted and the next day, Turkish syndicates launched an attack on the U.S.? I felt un-Armenian and un-American at the same time, and suddenly I wasn’t even on the hopscotch board at all.
But soon I understood that I was in such a state of flux because I wasn’t looking at the situation properly. I realized that it does more harm than good for the U.S. to continue denying that the massacres were genocide and to condoning the millions of dollars the Turkish government spends trying to convince people it never happened. Sitting center stage in the global arena, the U.S. can send a message to the world that there are actual consequences for committing genocide. It doesn’t matter that ours was in the past. Genocide is still happening today.
I also realized that it’s OK to have two homes and sport both an American flag and an Armenian key chain. There’s no need to pick between countries, and if there was, I’d fight for whichever needed me most.
–Lisa Haidostian is an associate news editor for The Michigan Daily