One Hundred Years of Gratitude

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Russian-Armenian entrepreneur and philanthropist Ruben Vardanian has co-founded 100 Lives, a charitable initiative intended to recognize those who came to the aid of refugees, alongside the actor, George Clooney, who chairs its selection committee. IMAGE: 100 Lives Project

A new Armenian initiative promises to honor the Arab world’s contribution to refugees

By Anna Yazijyan

IT WAS A COLD and snowy day in Moscow. Frosty air filled my lungs, but this did little to mute the arresting sight of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior from my hotel window. Though it was not my first visit to Moscow, I got lost in its quiet streets, flecked by the morning’s heavy snowfall and black ice, which made it hard to walk. Nonetheless, I made it in time to meet with Ruben Vardanian at a traditional Armenian restaurant not far from the Kremlin. It offered warm respite from the cold; traditional ornaments and paintings hang on the walls, creating the sense of home. We sat down at the table near a window, both of us with Armenian lineage; both of us the descendants of survivors.

In the age of refugees, conflicts and causes are hotly debated. What is never left in doubt, however, is that the children of refugees hold onto the narratives taught them, and the tales of sorrow told at hearths.

This year marks 100 years of what Armenians refer to as the genocide of its people by the Ottomans. It is an emotional issue for both Armenians and Turks who contest the use of the term “genocide” to describe the number of people killed between 1914 – 1923. The number too is contentious but estimates range from 300,000 to two million.

The Turkish-Armenian events of 1915 have left a profound scar on an already troubled region. “Yes, it was a tragedy; yes, it was horrible,” he says, “but despite what happened to us, we are alive, we are successful and we live in all parts of the world contributing to all spheres of life.” He speaks as if though it were part of his own present; a vivid reminder of how closely held to his heart families hold onto their lived memories. “Our slogan is ‘Be Armenian. Be Alive.’”

Hotly contested even today and the source of diplomatic conflagrations, the mere discussion of 1915’s events in the region has led to heated academic affray, protests and the death of diplomats and journalists. Merely publishing on the subject from the region itself is no easy feat.

There is no question however, that at the time, thousands had fled in all directions. Armenian families were scattered and displaced across the Middle East, wrenched apart from their homes and homesteads. In response however, and across Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, doors were opened to these refugees.

One hundred years later, the descendants of 1915 are gathering to express their gratitude to those who sheltered their ancestors during those troubled times. The centenary has moved Russian-Armenian entrepreneur and philanthropist Vardanian to co-found 100 Lives, a charitable initiative intended to recognize those who came to the aid of refugees in New York, alongside the actor, George Clooney, who chairs its selection committee. According to the charity’s founder, Armenians survived because families from other nations helped them. It’s very critical to Vardanian to offer his thanks to those nations. Clooney is often quoted as saying that he’s “honored” to be associated with 100 Lives, which brings global attention to the impact of conflict.

The initiative offers a global award, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, given to those risking their lives to save others. The award was named after Aurora Mardiganian, who as a child witnessed the events of 1915, including the deaths of her own father and brothers. Against all odds, little Aurora survived to tell her story to the world.

Vardanian broached the subject with great difficulty with his own son. The businessman told Newsweek Middle East that he relied on a century-old story his grandfather used to tell him. His grandfather was rescued by American missionaries and a Turkish coachman from modern-day Turkey. Ordering matzoon [Armenian yoghurt], Vardanian took a deep breath as he said: “I don’t know any Armenian family, which does not have a story about what happened 100 years ago.” Vardanian’s grandfather and his siblings found sanctuary with American missionaries in Armenia, where he grew up to be a history professor.

One of his efforts, the Near East Foundation, provides scholarships to children from the Middle East. “Because of what is going on in the region today, especially in countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq, we have created a scholarship for 100 children who lost their families,” Vardanian said.

These children will be provided with free education at a United World College Dilijan (UWC Dilijan), an international co-educational boarding school in Armenia, thus given a second chance for a better life. “This is exactly what we got from Arab families hundred years ago,” he added. 100 Lives plans to give away $1 million-worth of awards to individuals, as well as institutions, as part of its awards ceremony that will take place on April 24, 2016 in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

Amal Clooney, the international human rights lawyer, also launched an annual scholarship for Lebanese female students under the organization’s banner on December 17.

Armenian Narratives

Anna Karamardian’s story is another tragic tale. Karamardian, 81, a grandmother, was born in Kessab, Syria. Her parents walked nearly 200 kilometers to Jisr Al Shughur, a city in northwestern Syria, to find sanctuary. Fleeing the conflict, the Karamardians lost both their sons. “The older son died of exhaustion and was simply left next to the bushes among other dead bodies,” she told Newsweek Middle East, speaking of her own brother.

“My mother was so tired and could no longer breastfeed her younger son so he died of starvation and was also left next to a bush. I still remember my mother would say that she always wanted to go back to them, to bury them properly. But what was the point, there were so many like them!”

Once they reached Jisr Al Shughur, her mother was so ill that her father had to beg for food from local residents.

“One day, an Arab lady came by and asked my father to pray for her sick son,” Karamardian said, adding that the lady came back later with food. Out of nine siblings, Karamardian’s father was the only survivor. According to her, they had built five small houses where they lived in Kessab, of which only one remained standing.

Later, her father learned that his niece was registered in an orphanage in Aleppo. “He was overwhelmed and went to see if it were true. When he asked to see the little Karamardian girl, to his surprise he was told that there were two Karamardians,” she said.

Overwhelmed by mixed emotions, Karamardian smiled as she told Newsweek Middle East that it turned out that the girl’s brother was also registered there, “but the boys’ and girls’ sections did not coordinate, hence no one knew the other was alive.”

Needless to say, her father took them both in and raised them as his own.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Armenians share similar memories of past suffering. Armen Orujyan moved to the United States nearly three decades ago from Armenia. Orujyan’s grandfather was born at the turn of the past century, in Hadjin, Ottoman Turkey and was the only person, from his family of eight, to survive the 1915 events. “In search of safety, he had journeyed throughout the Middle East until finally settling in Lebanon where he had served as a colonel in the French Army until he had moved his family to Soviet Armenia in 1946,” Orujyan said.

“Try thinking about that for a second. A huge web of people is missing from my life. These could have been my uncles, aunts, cousins,” he went on.

According to Orujyan, the Armenian diaspora in the U.S. is very strong, as it has become what he calls a “natural part of the American fabric.” To the question whether Armenians are giving back enough to nations which once helped them, he replied: “We should extend our hands not only because they were there for us 100 years ago, but also because that’s the most humane and logical thing to do and we should not be afraid of migrants. This wonderful nation was built on that premise and on that promise.”

The stories shared by these people have one thing in common: their Armenian ancestors were saved by ordinary people, who extended a helping hand, unwilling to remain indifferent.

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