Approximately 11 million people in the world originate from the first Christian nation – Armenia. Of those 11 million, only 3 million actually reside in Armenia. The Ottoman Empire, on the onset of WWI, began mass deportations, massacres, and the capturing of traditional Armenian homelands, which resulted in large scale migrations across the globe. Since then, Armenian refugee communities abroad have had only immediate family relations, private schools, and the Armenian Apostolic Church to pass on the customs of their people.
Saint Mary Armenian Church
This summer, I sat down with Father Moushegh Tashjian of Saint Mary Armenian Church in Costa Mesa, California, to discuss the current condition of the Armenian diaspora, the Armenian state, and the church. Having immigrated from Lebanon to California to begin his parish, he believes that churches like his own continue to hold the fabric of Armenian culture together. He also recognizes that holding onto Armenian culture would be impossible without the aid of various non-profit organizations and private Armenian schools. He views the assimilation of Armenians into American culture as an inevitable outcome of immigration, while stressing the importance of maintaining the long-standing cultural heritage of the Armenian people.
Armenians March on the Turkish Consulate
On April 24, 2017, 102 years since the onset of the Armenian genocide, thousands of demonstrators marched together in solidarity towards the Turkish Consulate in downtown Los Angeles. Despite the relative acceptance among American citizens that the Armenian genocide occurred, the Turkish government officially denies its existence in history. The United States is reluctant to recognize the Armenian genocide due to its strategic relationship with Turkey as an economic and military ally in the Middle East. Turkey, on the other hand, fails to recognize the Armenian genocide, in part, because it would mean large-scale land reparations for the Armenian government and its people.
Men, women, students, children, politicians, and clergymen fill the streets of Wilshire Boulevard. Many have descended from the initial wave of refugees that immigrated to the United States seeking political asylum from the Ottoman Empire. For them, there is no debate as to whether the Armenian genocide occurred. This argument is similar to those who deny the Holocaust. The mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers of Armenian-American immigrants share the same narrative: they were uprooted from their homes in the Ottoman Empire, murdered in mass, and driven in exile from their ancestral homelands. In fact, southern California is home to the largest population of Armenians living outside their homeland. Arguing the historical existence of this event is nothing more than a red herring meant to take the attention away from the past wrongdoings of the Ottoman Empire, and present-day Turkey, to further undermine the Armenian people's right to their land and their influence in international politics.
Further than just denying the historical existence of the Amernian genocide, the Turkish government and private donors fund anti-genocide and anti-Armenian propaganda in counter protest. Turkey's white star and crescent soar behind planes while banners yell "Stop Armenian Lies!" with a link towards a well-curated genocide denial website. If you guessed the extent of the tension between Armenia and Turkey stops here, you guessed wrong. Turkey has imposed an economic embargo on Armenia since April 30, 1993, due to Armenia's involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Turkey's ally Azerbaijan. Is it a coincidence that the embargo began merely six days after the anniversary of the Armenian genocide?
Unlike other ethnic minorities in California, Armenians have very few monuments and structures to showcase their culture, history, or presence. The most prominent sign of the culture of the Armenian people reside near Orange County, California, other than small churches, is the Armenian Genocide Martyr's Monument in Montebello, California. The monument towers above a local golf course, standing at a whopping 75 feet, with a marble pedestal sitting beneath its belly. If you are searching for a symbol which represents the strength and resilience of the Armenian people in southern California, there is no better symbol around.
"I born Armenian. I grew up Armenian. And I will die Armenian...Maybe we forgive but we never going to forget. Myself, I never [will] forgive."
In June of 2017, I created an online survey and shared it to forums and groups based in Orange County to measure the awareness of local residents about Armenia. Surprisingly, most residents were aware of Armenia, and have met a person of Armenian descent. On the other hand, less than half of those people had ever experienced an aspect of Armenian culture such as the food, music, or dance. The primary piece of information transmitted about Armenia to the general populace in Orange County is the darkest piece of Armenian history: the genocide.
Keeping in mind that California has the largest group of Armenians living outside of Armenia and that many of the original immigrants arrived due to the genocide, it makes sense that the Armenian genocide is common knowledge in southern California. It is sad, however, that this is what comes to mind when Orange County residents think of Armenia. The culture is rich as any other and has historical significance that many Americans would find fascinating. For instance, Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its national religion. If this bit of information were more widely known, perhaps Christians in the U.S. would be more enthusiastic in contributing financial resources to aid social issues and infrastructure development in Armenia. Maybe, also, they would be inspired to travel to the ancient churches in the countryside, some of which are well over a thousand years old. An increase in tourism could provide a much-needed boost to Armenia's economy to help raise it out of its post-Soviet slump.
Despite having an Armenian-American Governor from 1983 to 1991, as it stands in Orange County, the Kardashians are the most well-known public figures of Armenian descent. In a way, these pop culture celebrities have become American figureheads for Armenia. Except for one short televised visit to Armenia during the 100th anniversary of the genocide, their motherland and the culture are rarely addressed in their show Keeping up with the Kardashians, revealing a void of popular content being produced relating to Armenia and Armenian culture. In contrast to this finding, 44% of Orange County residents are interested in learning more about Armenia.
To download, view, or use the results from this survey, click the file below.
My Armenian great-grandparents lived in the Ottoman Empire until they were forced to flee during the Armenian genocide. Unfortunately, they passed away when my paternal grandfather was only nine years old. He ended up in an orphanage and lost all of his connections to his Ottoman-Armenian origins. I carry his surname, yet my family has very little knowledge about Armenia or its culture. As I unearth my roots, I will continue to share stories here. Please join me on my journey of self-discovery.
If you are interested in learning more about Armenia, add your name to the subscriber list below.