Raffi Bedrosyan

Different Kinds of Hidden Armenians


By Raffi Bedrosyan

Over the years, I have met many hidden Armenians from different regions of Turkey. Each one has a unique story which can become an article or even a book on its own. Some stories can be shared, most cannot. Some are funny, most are sad. Many hidden Armenians decided recently to return to their roots, culture and language after they discovered their Armenian origins and the forced Islamization/Turkification/Kurdification of their grandparents, who were orphans and the living victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide. As you know, I organized trips for dozens of them from Turkey to Armenia in 2014 and 2015, in cooperation with the Diaspora Ministry of Armenia. In past articles, I have shared the stories of some of these ‘no more hidden’ Armenians. In this article, I will tell some stories of the still-hidden Armenians, names withheld for obvious reasons.

Let me start with a memory from my days in the Turkish army. Although I was living in Canada at the time, I had to do the compulsory military service in the Turkish army, in order to be able to travel back to Turkey to take care of my elderly parents. On top of the drills and other military activities during the day, the conscripts were also required to attend lectures in the evening, with titles like “Who are the enemies of Turkey?” After discussing the assorted bad deeds of all the “enemy” neighboring countries such as Soviet Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Bulgaria and Greece, the instructor would inevitably conclude that the worst enemy was the Armenians, as they had massacred the Turks in 1915 and they were still after the Turkish diplomats. After these lectures, a few fellow conscripts with Turkish or Kurdish names, especially from the eastern Turkey provinces, would approach me and confess that their grandmother is Armenian, that they live in a house left behind by the Armenians, that their village was Armenian before 1915 but had converted to Islam…

When I started writing articles about the hidden Armenians and the Surp Giragos Church reconstruction project in Diyarbakir (Dikranagerd), an elderly Armenian lady from the United States made contact with me. She was an orphan of 1915, had found her way to the US but her brother had to remain in Turkey and ended up Islamized and Turkified. This brother prospered and became a successful builder in Turkey, with cement plants in many provinces. After some research, I tracked his grandson in Turkey, a man in his early 30s, who had carried on the family construction business, building luxury condos in Istanbul. He was aware of his Armenian past, but obviously unable to reveal it publicly and risk losing his wife, business and status as a successful Turkish builder. But he made contact with his grandfather’s Armenian sister in the US and visited her. “My grandfather’s sister had one request when I travelled to the US to see her, to lie in bed with her, just as she had done with her brother when they were little, so that she can smell the scent of her brother…” he recalled. And that is what they did, the 85-year-old Armenian woman hugging a 30-some-year-old Turkish condo builder she had just met in her bed so that they could remember their long lost family ties…

There are many stories of orphans torn apart in 1915, some brought to orphanages under the control of the victorious Allies after the First World War, eventually finding their way to the diaspora or Armenia, while others were placed in Turkish orphanages and becoming Moslem Turks or Kurds. We witnessed a few happy reunions when hidden Armenians travelling with me to Armenia found their long-lost relatives for the first time. We brought together a 65-year-old hidden Armenian from Diyarbakir with his cousin, a 70-year-old villager from Armavir. One didn’t speak Armenian, the other didn’t speak Turkish, but they just held hands and hugged each other continuously for three hours during a dinner…

Hamshen (or Hemshin) is the name given to people living in the eastern Black Sea coastal region of Turkey. There is strong evidence that they are Armenians who have migrated to this region after Seljuk Turks captured the city of Ani in the eleventh century, followed by more waves of Armenians settling in the region in later times. Soon after the region was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, Hamshen Armenians were forced to convert to Islam. Most of them did convert, but interestingly enough, they kept the Armenian language — to this day.  Although they still speak a dialect of Armenian, with constant indoctrination from the government they were made to believe that their ancestors migrated from Central Asia and their language is a branch of Central Asian Turkish. Until recently, most Hamshen people had strongly nationalistic even racist allegiance to Turkey. In conversation with a Hamshen woman, I was amazed to hear the following: “Yes Hay chem, yes Turk em,” meaning “I am not Armenian, I am a Turk.” But she is stating this in the Armenian language.

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Since the early 2000’s Hamshentsis have started to search for their real Armenian roots. Here is the story told by an elderly Hamshentsi how people in the region first got the clue that the language they speak is Armenian, and not a Central Asian Turkic one. In 1982, ASALA commandos carried out an unsuccessful attack at Ankara airport. All were killed, except Levon Ekmekjian, who was captured, tortured and then put on trial. His trial was aired live on Turkish TV, with Levon giving his testimony in Armenian, which was then translated to Turkish. People all over Turkey, including the Hamshentsis, were glued to the television watching the trial. The Hamshen people were surprised to discover that Levon spoke their own language, kept wondering if he was a Hamshentsi, and eventually realized that their language is Armenian like Levon’s. As a postscript to this story, the trial was just a formality and Levon was executed in January 1983, buried in an unmarked grave until 2016, when the heroic Turkish human rights lawyer Eren Keskin succeeded in having Levon’s remains transferred to France to re-unite with his family.

On a happier note, one of the hidden Armenians from Hamshen who travelled to Armenia with me, met a hidden Armenian woman from Diyarbakir, and they are now married.

In the mid 1990s, I had joined Hayastan All Armenia Fund as a volunteer participant in reconstruction projects. One of the projects was the reconstruction of the Spitak church damaged during the 1989 earthquake, financed from an account in Switzerland administered by lawyers on behalf of an anonymous donor. The anonymous donor turned out to be the hidden Armenian grandmother of a very wealthy and high-profile Turkish family, with news and pictures about them regularly on Turkish TV and high-society magazines.

In 2013, I was fortunate enough to accomplish one of my “bucket list” items by climbing Mount Ararat with my son, Daron. The starting point for the expedition was a town named Dogu Bayazit, the former Daroynk in medieval Armenian Kingdom times, now entirely populated by Kurds, except for Turkish security forces. One of the roads is built with the contents of the Armenian cemetery, with Armenian scripted gravestones and bones still visible on the road shoulders. I will relate the family history of one of our Kurdish mountain guides. His grandmother was Armenian, and he fondly remembered how she kept praying as a Muslim five times a day, while still keeping a cross and Bible under her pillow. The guide had 18 brothers and sisters, most of them married to other Kurds with Armenian grandmothers and each brother and sister had at least five children themselves. He wished his children would go to a university on the other side of the mountain, in Armenia, instead of a Turkish university.

Hidden Armenians have complicated lives, full of emotional turmoil and psychological scars. They are shunned by Muslim Turks and Kurds on one hand, and by most members of the Armenian community in Istanbul and the Armenian Patriarchate on the other hand.

When the grandchildren of forcefully Islamized Armenian orphans find the courage to come out and return to their Armenian roots and identity despite all the risks, discrimination and abuse that they will receive in their neighbourhood, at workplace, even within their own families who wish to remain Muslim Turks and Kurds, these people must be encouraged, not rejected. Sure, there may be opportunistic pretenders with Armenian claims for personal gain who should be investigated and scrutinized.  But I have come to realize that through my network of hidden Armenians and their links, it is surprisingly easy to uncover the pretenders. For example, when someone claiming to be Dersimtsi Armenian approached a cleric here in Toronto, I was able to determine the truth about him and after some questioning and investigation in his Dersim village. When I took hidden Armenians to Armenia and some of them wanted to become Christian by baptism, it was easy to determine through family ties back in Diyarbakir whether they really had Armenian roots. The obstruction of some clerics preventing them from becoming Christian Armenian is unreasonable when a trustworthy Armenian godfather (Gnkahayr) is vouching for the truth. Being born as an Armenian is not a choice, and if someone chooses to return to his/her roots after discovering his/her Armenian origin, no one, no cleric, no government official has the right to prevent that. Whether someone adopts a new religion or not, is a choice that comes later. There are many differing viewpoints on the subject of “who can become an Armenian.” Of course, there is freedom of thought and expression but if someone in power or influence makes a decision that infringes on others’ freedom, this is unacceptable.

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