Social Interaction and National Pride

The following piece is the second excerpt of Nina-Nevart Minassian’s Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) entitled ‘How The Armenian Genocide Of 1915 Affected The Identity Of The Armenian Diaspora Today’. Nevart will commence her university studies at University College London from 2015, reading for a degree in History.

The attitudes of the host nations towards the Armenians has played a key role in the both their integration ability to preserve their sense of identity.  Sources suggest that certain diasporas have been greeted with greater tolerance and hospitality than others, for example those residing in France and the Middle East. On the other hand, Armenians who fled to Turkey had a very different experience. Whilst the genocide directly caused the dispersion of the people, arguably the attitudes of the host nations both strengthened and weakened certain aspects of the identity.

Friendly relations between the Armenians and the French can be dated back to the times of the Crusades.  Till this day, both counties have preserved their alliance and support as France is considered the European hub of the diaspora. An impressive 65,000 Armenians entered from Marseilles after the genocide, which is the greatest influx of Armenians compared to the other host-nations. French Attitudes towards Armenians varied from pity to admiration to prejudice- due to the mystery surrounding the Armenian homeland. Unlike other minorities residing in France, the Armenians left a country that no longer belonged to them due to the Ottoman take over. The French welcomed a proud people, whose resilience and strong will was unexpected. Charles Aznavour is a renowned Franco- Armenian singer-songwriter, famous for his philanthropic contributions. Aznavour said, “Ancestry and religion are important; But if you’re Armenian, then help Armenia, as the Armenians of France and the USA do”.

Aznavour’s statement highlights the importance of the role of the host nation in supporting the ability to preserve one’s identity outside of their homeland. It is for this reason that the French Diaspora has been successful in maintaining their faith, language and other cultural characteristics despite their displacement. The loyalty of the French towards the Armenians is signified by the events of 2011, where the French Senate passed a bill stating that France “criminalizes denial of acknowledged genocides, which includes both the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.” The sense of pride and social status in Franco-Armenian relations is prominent due to the weight of the modern Armenian lobby in France. In his book, ‘Global Diaspora’s: An Introduction’, Cohen argues that the strength of the Armenian identity in France has only came about due to the influx of the Armenians from Lebanon after the civil war who infused drive into the community. The fact that the Armenians had settled in France many years before was argued by Cohen to have caused the assimilation of their identity due to their “desire to reaffirm…a Franco-Armenian identity”.

On the other hand, the Armenians in Bulgaria had a rather different experience, owing to the influence of the Soviet Russia on the attitudes of the new wave Armenians from the new Republic. There is clear difference in attitude between the Armenians who migrated in the 1920’s and those who arrived a few decades later. Not all Armenians have held their identity dear to them and the Armenians from the Soviet Republic of Armenia who immigrated to Bulgaria in later years are a prime example of this. The Hiastancis- (Armenians from Armenia), came to Bulgaria primarily due to economic reasons and so their sense of identity differed to the rest of the diaspora who felt it their duty to preserve Armenian ethos. A divide was drawn between the new wave of immigrants and the old who had different views on what it is to be Armenian. On the other hand, the wave of immigrants in the 1960’s from the Middle East into the western world did the opposite as suggested by Eduard Melkonian in his account of ‘The Armenian Diaspora- the Spuirk’. Melkonian argued that “the new immigrants infused a greater zeal for community life into the Diaspora, revitalizing the cultural institutions.” Under these circumstances, the Armenian community in the Middle East experienced prosperity and were able to turn their dire economic state into a prosperous one. Khachig Tololyan argues that their “thriving economic and social lives” was due to their belief that one day they would return to their homeland- a theory he called “exilic nationalism”. For the diaspora in the Middle East (as well as the communities all around the world), Armenia became a reference point in their lives, a cause to work for.

To a great extent, the Armenians living in Turkey post- 1915 faced the greatest threat to their sense of identity. The Turkish population were scornful of the Armenians and were perhaps hostile towards the fact that they ”had undergone a ‘Renaissance’ and ‘emancipation'”. To a Turk at the turn of the century, the Armenian was a sly, evil man, summarised by the following stereotype by a German traveller, included by Stephan Astourian in the book, ‘Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide’ by Richard G. Hovannisian when said, “One Greek cons two Jews, and one Armenian cons two Greeks”.

The Armenians in Turkey have suffered from stereotypes and prejudice for many years and are till this day looked down upon and seen as second-class citizens by the Turks. This is a reality that has affected many people in the diaspora whose tie to their homeland has been affected by the takeover of contemporary western Armenia, which at present forms part of Eastern Turkey. The genocide destroyed western Armenia by issuing their take over as areas of modern day Turkey. Areas such as Van, Dikranagert and Erzerum have been emptied of their Armenians in 1915 with very few, if not any Armenians living their today. Sources suggest that in Turkey today, there are around 75,000 Armenians with the majority concentrated in Istanbul.

Many supporting organisations were founded in aid of the various sectors of society and have been instrumental in preserving the identity of Armenians in diaspora. Charitable organisations have played an important role in assisting and educating the diaspora and supporting the cause as means of educating Armenians range from Sunday schools, organised sports events and Scouting- Institutions which appeal to all ages. Under the regime of the Communists, community organisations were tightened and only one remained unaffected. The diaspora in Bulgaria is rare and different to that of America or the Middle East in that the Bulgarians were highly supportive of the Armenian identity however the consequences of the communist regime was out of their control.

One of the Armenian organisations that operates till this day and is present throughout many Diasporas is Homenetmen- a youth Scouting and Athletic Organisation originally founded in 1914. With over 25,000 members, Homenetmen, also known as the ‘The Armenian General Athletic Union and Scouts’ has worked to provide the Armenian Youth with the tools to strive for excellence, both as an individual and part of their community.  Homenetmen was created to unite all youths, no matter where they reside in the Diaspora, under one organisation. Undoubtedly, Homenetmen has contributed to strengthening the identity of Armenians by teaching the importance of patriotism, courage and enthusiasm which has been successful to a great extent. It is largely due to organisations of this nature that the youth of today who are second or third generations of genocide descendant’s feel a strong tie to the homeland. Without these organisations, being Armenian would have become merely a part of someone’s origin, not a way of life. Over the years, Homenetmen has organised many scouting and athletic events with jamborees that unite hundreds of scouts from all over the world.

Another organisation that has supported the community is HOM, the Armenian Relief Society who work to meet the needs of the people. HOM is driven by the female members of the diaspora who see it their duty to financially and socially support Armenia. This organisation has grown immensely since it was founded in 1910 and operates in 27 countries today with as many as 15,000 members. Those who benefit from HOM’s work include refugees, the sick, orphans and disabled members of society.

Furthermore, another organisation that has been active for over 100 years is AGBU, short for the Armenian General Benevolent Union, which has worked to support Armenians from all over the world and educate the youth on national duty and goodwill. Formed in Cairo in 1906 by Boghos Nubar, the mission of AGBU, alike to that of other Armenian organisations is to preserve national identity. AGBU grew into a worldwide recognised organisation with 142 chapters in four continents. However, the genocide disrupted its activity, causing a loss of its 80 chapters in Ottoman Turkey.

— Nina-Nevart Minassian

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