The family lived in an “immigrant milieu,” Krikorian recalls. Their existence was defined less by the cities that his itinerant father, a chef and restaurant manager, settled the family in — New Haven, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston again — than by the community formed in the Armenian churches they attended. “I didn’t even intellectually understand that there were old people who didn’t speak without an accent,” he recalls.
Immigrant narratives comprise the family lore. His grandfathers came to the United States in the years before World War I to escape repression in the Ottoman Empire. His Armenian grandmother survived the carnage of World War I, only to be captured and sold into slavery and later to find her way to Marseilles, France, as a servant girl. An arranged marriage, held in Havana so she could legally enter the United States, sprung her from that life.
When Krikorian was 3 months old, he lost his right eye because of a retinal blastoma. As a child, he once plucked his fake eye out of the socket and tossed it into a produce bin, according to a favorite family story. The little boy was delighted when a store manager announced a search over the loudspeaker and shoppers scrambled to locate the missing orb.
Krikorian would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Georgetown and a master’s at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, but he was more interested in “goofing off,” he says, than starting in a profession. He studied for two years at Yerevan University in Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. On his return to Washington, he dawdled with a job waiting tables at Au Pied de Cochon in Georgetown and was at “loose ends,” he says, when he finally caught a spark.
Paradoxically, the boy who couldn’t speak English before kindergarten found himself furious about the national trend toward teaching school courses in more than one language. “The whole idea of bilingual education teed me off,” Krikorian says.
In 1987, he tried to get a job at U.S. English, a group that advocated making English the official language of the United States. But his pitch — “Hi, I have no skills” — left something to be desired. The U.S. English folks had nothing for Krikorian, but they must have seen something in him. They sent him upstairs to another organization that was looking for a newsletter writer. That group was called the Federation for American Immigration Reform, known as FAIR, and the next year they hired him.
Krikorian was about to join a crusade.
Seven years later, CIS was looking for a new director. Three of its board members sifted through candidates at the exclusive Cosmos Club in downtown Washington. Krikorian was familiar to his prospective employers because he’d spent a year working for FAIR writing newsletters before moving on to stints as a writer and editor at the Winchester Star in Virginia and trade publications in Washington. George Grayson, a William and Mary government professor who serves on the CIS board, saw a candidate that day whose values aligned with the group’s. “He’s quite committed to having a reasonable level of population in the country,” Grayson said of Krikorian in an interview.