Sitting beside the sociologist, Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian at the NAASR gala on Saturday evening was fortuitous. Throughout the evening’s agenda, I peppered him with a few questions asking him where he’s from, why he was there and what he would be doing during the rest of his trip. It’s not often you can sit beside a person who doubles as a consolidated historical Armenian reference and ask them questions to your heart’s content. I knew he had returned from a youth forum at Yale earlier that day and quickly learned that on Monday evening he would deliver a lecture in New Jersey on the topic of Armenians in Turkey – something I admittedly have never thought about.
As if to frame the discussion, I began asking him such questions as how many Armenians we had living in present day Turkey, what conditions were like and how many churches remained there. I was pleased with the delivery of his answers, but unfortunately it was not the appropriate place to go in more depth. Could I make it to New Jersey on Monday evening to further educate myself on this important topic? Yes!
I walked into New Milford, New Jersey’s Hovnanian Armenian Elementary School around 6:50PM, well ahead of the scheduled start of the lecture. Unbeknownst to me, I was greeted by the principal of the school, Shakeh Tashjian, as she directed me upstairs to where the lecture would take place. An intimate classroom with a small capacity would later be filled with coffee, cookies and an eager audience of two dozen Armenians. The event was sponsored by the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of New Jersey and Hovnanian School.
Dr. Tchilingirian began with a piece of video. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” he said, “unfortunately the reality today is that many Armenians are seen as the equivalent to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK.” The video portrayed an Armenian widow, crying over her husband’s casket during his burial ceremony. Another man is heard shouting anti-Armenian rhetoric, proclaiming that Armenians are part of the PKK. “These PKK are Armenian and are hiding the fact, but we know it. I am a Muslim Kurd, but I am not Armenian,” translated Dr. Tchilingirian.
It was clear to me that Armenians are being demonized and what little we have left of our identities was being further blurred and ground to dust. Dr. Tchilingirian argued that an isolationist mentality, whereby the remaining Armenians continue to live in their own enclaves as minorities is not sustainable any longer. The reality is that they have been discriminated against in this land for over 100 years, and they continue to be discriminated against. They are denied a voice, a position of office or other influential positions within society.
The sociologist presented the population figures since 1914, but what struck me as most interesting were the downward trends over the past 30 years of all minorities. Tchilingirian’s research based on census data demonstrated that Greeks, Armenians and Jews have decreased their populations since 1990. In other words, all minorities are being marginalized in Turkey, not just the Armenians. In 1990, there were 29,000 Jews. Now, there are 16,000. The Armenians were 67,000 strong at that time, and they stand at far less than 50,000 today. Some have been entangled in conflict and killed or those who were able to have fled their homeland.
It is difficult as a diasporan population to make an impact on Turkish policy, offered the Oxford professor. What we need to do is enable the Republic of Armenia to unite and continue the discussions with the Turkish government directly because they are an entity within themselves. He argued that while the diaspora is strong, it is not a recognized entity. I believe that this is a powerful message. It forces us to think of how, as diasporans we can get involved in Armenian government, how can we unite and become one with them so that we may further defend our people inside and beyond our homeland? This should be our objective to protect the humanity of our people and of others who are being oppressed persistently.