On Saturday, the annual day of remembrance for the 1.5 million victims of the genocide, Gregorian would probably have asked the same question that he posed in the March 2018 interview: “What is our duty as Armenians . . . to prevent others [from] facing the same thing we have faced?” How do we show our compassion for those who are mistreated today, as our ancestors were?
Armenians around the world surely will rejoice in Biden’s planned announcement. They will celebrate the affirmation of justice and truth after so many decades of Turkish denial of the horrific events of 1915. But I hope they will also think, as Gregorian would have, about how to build bridges now to help Turkey escape from the horrors of its history.
Saturday ought to be a day when Turks, too, are liberated from the past. Denial of the genocide has wounded Armenians, but it has also damaged Turkey. Historians have long affirmed the truth of what happened, including Turkish scholar Taner Akcam in his detailed study of Ottoman sources, titled “A Shameful Act.”
Denial of these facts has been a dead weight around Turkey’s neck, as if dragging the past into the future. Turkey’s continuing anger has been manifest, too, in its support for Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Time to let it go, in Ankara and Istanbul, and the ruins of towns and villages of Anatolia that are haunted by the ghosts of 1915.
My father’s family came from one of those towns, a place called Kharpert in what’s now northeastern Turkey. My great-grandfather attended Euphrates College there, founded by American missionaries, and then migrated to England and the United States, where his daughter met my grandfather, who had come to America from that same town in 1903. But other relatives stayed, and they experienced the terrible events of 1915: Men were separated from women and children and, despite resistance, slaughtered; women and children were sent on a death march across the desert toward Syria in which many perished.
Gregorian said that when he was a boy in Tabriz, Iran, in the 1930s, people didn’t discuss the genocide that had happened two decades before. Iran was friendly with Turkey, and so it “was not spoken about,” Gregorian said. Armenians talked simply of “the dead,” and the refugees who had streamed into Tabriz, Beirut, Aleppo and a hundred other towns where they made new lives.
The past is always with us. We never forget, even when we try. But Gregorian was part of a movement that sought to use the experience of the genocide not to fuel bitterness and revenge, but to look outward and celebrate the spirit that had allowed the Armenian people to survive and prosper, and eventually rebuild an independent nation.
This movement is called the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. It was co-founded in 2015 by Gregorian, Noubar Afeyan, a businessman who co-founded the biotech company Moderna, which has produced a coronavirus vaccine, and Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian Armenian businessman and philanthropist. It takes its name from Aurora Mardiganian, an orphan of the genocide who became a symbol of suffering and survival. The group’s motto is “gratitude in action” — celebrating the heroes in our time whose humanitarian actions have saved others.
Each year, Aurora honors laureates who struggle against genocidal violence in our time: Burundian activist Marguerite Barankitse won the award in 2016; American physician Tom Catena, who runs a clinic in the desolate Nuba Mountains of Sudan, won in 2017; Rohingya human rights campaigner Kyaw Hla Aung received the prize in 2018; Yazidi activist Mirza Dinnayi won in 2019; and Somali women’s rights activists Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman were honored last year. I have served as master of ceremonies for five of these award ceremonies in Yerevan.
Justice is often denied and suppressed, as we know from the United States’ centuries-long struggle against racism. But there must be an eventual reckoning with the past, as we saw this week with the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — and then, hopefully, we move into the future, sharing the blessing of truth and justice with others.