Under Hrant Dink’s Aura, a Turkish-Armenian Community Comes Into Its Own
As the sun took its last breath on a cold Sunday night, a crowd shuffled its way into a crème-colored hall deep in the heart of L.A’s San Fernando Valley. The mood, although somber, was tinged with a sparkle of hope and chairs, although plenty, weren’t enough.
Between the handshakes and embraces, where personal space is usually lost somewhere between the first, and then second kiss on the cheek, a Turkish-Armenian community, almost 7000 miles away from Istanbul, paid their respects to one of their own, with his iconic image emblazoned on their coat pockets, to the sounds of the melancholy lull of Albert Vardanyan’s duduk lingering through the room.
Some had met him and formed relationships, sharing dinner tables and discussions. Others knew him from afar. In either case, the impressions that Hrant Dink — the Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor who was gunned down five years ago — left were always the same: not just a good Armenian, but a good human being, whose vision and determination had warmth to thaw away physical and emotional borders. For this crowd more than any other, Dink has come to represent a sort of Armenian Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who stood for peace and justice — a man who was not only a voice for Armenians, but of Turkish democracy.
Held by the Organization of Istanbul Armenians (OIA), the event featured a prominent and diverse set of speakers, like Raffi Hovannisian, leader of the Armenian Heritage party, and Taner Akçam, a distinguished Turkish scholar, chair of the Armenian Genocide program at Clark University and Dink’s friend.
A Turkish television crew, there to capture the night for a far-away audience in Istanbul, cemented an atmosphere that took a certain kind of person to demand.
“It was the aura of Hrant Dink,” said Edvin Minassian, chairman of the board of trustees of OIA, who presided over the commemoration.
It was a standout moment for L.A.’s Turkish-Armenian community, which remains a key part of the inevitable torchbearers of Dink’s legacy outside of Turkey, advocating dialogue while bringing knowledge and understanding of a place and society many in the diaspora remain unfamiliar with.
Once misunderstood and overlooked in the diaspora’s most populated city in the West, their significance wasn’t always appreciated.
Decades ago, waves of Armenian immigrants from a Middle East caught in wars and revolutions, coupled with a post-Soviet exodus from Armenia, changed the dynamics of the diaspora, creating a crescendo in the thousand-page symphony of Armenian history. Suddenly, Armenians, separated by tragedy and distance, were interacting — and learning about each other again. Though strong bonds were formed, tensions also ran high.
While groups from Lebanon, Iran, and Armenia clashed at times, Armenians from Istanbul, many of whom spoke Turkish and listened to Turkish music, experienced segregation too. The psychological trauma of the Genocide, passed down from generation to generation, negatively marred “Turkishness,” including much of what was associated with it.
“It was misinterpreted,” said Minassian. “They weren’t thinking deep enough that all these people are here because they’re Armenians, they didn’t come as economic refugees, they left much better business and standards of living in order to grow up freely and enjoy their lives.”
For many, being of Armenian descent and living in Turkey meant being treated like second-class citizens, whether it was their freedom of speech being oppressed or being prosecuted like Dink under article 301 of the Turkish penal code for “insulting Turkishness.” The word “Armenian” was frequently used as an insult.
The personal stories and experiences of L.A.-area bolsahyes, as Armenians from Istanbul are known, are testament to the discrimination.
Ari Ohanian’s family, for example, moved to L.A from Turkey in 1979 when he was 6 years old. There was no threat of war, no looming disaster or great internal strife, but a feeling echoed by other Turkish-Armenian emigres: fear.
“Fear of property or life being taken away from you,” he said.
His mother’s family was stripped of its property, later living through the government-orchestrated Istanbul riots of 1955, where Greek, Jewish, and Armenian minorities were attacked by mobs.
Manuk Avedikyan’s family also left Turkey. Both his father, a biochemist who founded the first chemistry lab at the University of Istanbul, and his mother weren’t able to find employment due to their ethnic Armenian backgrounds.
Minassian, who was raised in Turkey until he was a teenager, felt it too.
“Before, when you walked into an Armenian church, you looked right and left,” said Minassian.
Establishing themselves as part of the Armenian community in L.A presented its own set of challenges.
Known for preserving the art of Armenian chorale music through the Khachadourian Choir, Turkish Armenians felt discriminated against in religious Armenian circles, and while most of the community attended church services elsewhere, they flocked to east L.A and adopted St. Sarkis, the first Armenian church in the city, as their own.
The children of immigrants bore the brunt of it, too. Some were ostracized at school, called names and made fun of, said Minassian.
Both Avedikyan and Ohanian at one point felt like outsiders in the larger Armenian community.
Ohanian recalls his contributions during discussions in certain diasporan Armenian groups being brushed off, where he was told that he just didn’t get it, he said.
“They had not a drop of interest to listen to somebody who might understand.”
While much of the diaspora is far removed from Turkish society, Turkish Armenians say that their first-hand experience and knowledge can add shades of grey to the two cultural groups which tend to see mostly in black and white. And that includes empathy.
“They know a little more about how the regular people of Turkey act, feel and do things,” Minassian said, adding that it would be wrong to ask an average Turkish person how they can deny the genocide when most of them aren’t aware of its existence or pre-1915 Anatolia.
“For most average Turks, they’re rediscovering their true history, which includes the Armenian Genocide, but it’s much wider than that,” he said. “It’s an ongoing process.”
Ohanian, who says that by oversimplifying matters, individuals in the Armenian diaspora have a hard time separating the Turks of today from those of their ancestors almost 100 years ago.
“If you weren’t there and in the diaspora, you just basically adopted the tradition and attitudes of the trauma-victim grandparents, that they’re [Turks] all barbarians,” he said.
As president of the international students organization during his time at the University of Southern California, Minassian remembers bridging gaps between Armenian and Turkish soccer players who wanted nothing to do with each other, on or off the field. Bridges, he said, that are critical to achieving truth and understanding.
These days, generational changes have filled in a significant amount of cracks that divided the L.A. Armenian community, including those that affected Turkish-Armenian immigrants.
Avedikyan sees his generation as an integral part of continuing Dink’s message for both Armenians and Turks.
“I think if diasporans advocated democracy and human rights in Tukey, then it would benefit the Armenian Cause and Turks as well,” he said, adding that interaction with Turks about their own democratic issues will lead to less stigmatization of both groups against each other.
Attitudes and mentalities are also being shifted both inside and around Turkey.
Armenian Genocide commemorations have grown considerably since Dink’s murder, while Armenian and Turkish journalists are increasingly collaborating on Cross Border media projects. Despite closed borders, tourism has increased, too, with flights available between Yerevan and Istanbul. Minassian said he saw many Armenians visiting Istanbul when he was there last.
Last week in Turkey, a crowd of 40,000 spilled out onto the streets both in commemoration of Dink’s life and in angry protest over verdicts that acquitted 19 people charged in connection with an ultra-nationalist crime ring, which is widely considered to be behind Dink’s assassination. Dink’s actual killer, Ogun Samast, received a 22-year prison sentence in 2011.
Photos of the unprecedented display, during which protesters shouted, “We are all Armenian,” circulated via social networks, surprising many.
For Ohanian, it was an emotional moment.
“It forces me to be positive about the future,” he said. “It forces you to have hope, when you see Turks marching for Armenians, it’s quite moving. I never imagined it would happen.”