The two speakers with their plaques at the end of the event (Photo credit: Aram Arkun)

Dink Commemorated in Watertown

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN, Mass. – On Sunday, January 21, St. James Armenian Church’s Armene and Veronica Tarvezian Hall was packed, with standing room only, for a program sponsored by Friends of Hrant Dink commemorating the 11th anniversary of Dink’s death. There were two main speakers, Ohannes Kıliçdağı, and Gaye Özpınar, and a special guest.

St. James pastor Fr. Arakel Aljalian welcomed the audience and introduced Herman Purutyan who served as master of ceremonies. Purutyan in turn introduced the speakers.

First was Ohannes Kılıçdağı, a graduate of Getronagan Armenian High School in his native city of Istanbul. He has a doctorate from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and taught the social and cultural history of Turkey at Bilgi University, again in Istanbul. He was a research fellow at the University of Michigan in 2012-13, and at present is a visiting post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He is a columnist for the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, which Hrant Dink helped found.

Kılıçdağı acknowledged the Kurds and Turks in the audience, and seemed to focus much of his talk on them. He suggested that they moved to the US as part of an accelerating trend of emigration from Turkey among the middle and upper classes because, he said, they thought that “they were not living in a just and free society. They could not see a secure and happy future for themselves nor for their children. As for Armenians, this has been the situation not just for a few years, but for 150 years or more.” In other words, he stressed, in Turkey today everyone has the potential of turning into Armenians, though they are luckier because they are still alive. Sooner or later, he said, anybody in Turkey, unless a just and free society were to be established, might decide to emigrate.

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Hrant Dink’s primary concern, Kılıçdağı said, was the democratization of Turkey and the peaceful cohabitation of its peoples. Dink, he said, was fighting for a free and just society for all, not just for Armenians. If Turkey did not face the mass violence of the past, including the Armenian Genocide, it could affect anyone in the future.

Hrant Dink was killed, Kılıçdağı explained, because he succeeded in opening people’s eyes to this, and this made him particularly dangerous to the rulers. He said, “What was special about him was his skill in communications. … He could make even those who had hostile feelings toward him to listen to him.” He built bridges between peoples or different segments of Turkish society which were living in isolation from one another, Kılıçdağı said.

Turkish Armenians reacted in various ways to Dink, who had suddenly led to much more attention being directed at them in Turkey. They had previously been used to living almost invisibly, in silence, even if their rights were being violated, but Dink encouraged them to demand their rights and justice. Kılıçdağı said, “Hrant Dink saved their dignity and gave it back to them. After all, you can’t keep your honor, as a human being, if you cannot object whenever you face an injustice or oppression.” They began to act as if they were equal Turkish citizens, not just a minority.

Kılıçdağı proposed that leaving Turkey does not mean leaving the struggle for democracy and justice there. This is a common struggle for Turks, Armenians and others. He suggested that one way to continue is by supporting the most important heritage of Dink, the newspaper, Agos. Kılıçdağı stated: “Agos still tries to defend the rights of all oppressed groups or identities and to give voice to them. It also tries to protect the Armenian heritage in Turkey, to remind [about] what has been forgotten, as well as to defend and demand Armenians’ rights vis-à-vis public authority.”

The second main speaker, Cambridge-based Gaye Özpınar, was born and raised in Bursa, Turkey. She earned her Juris Doctor degree from Suffolk University Law School in Boston in 2006 and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brandeis University in 2002.  Before starting her own office in 2010, she worked with the Boston immigration law firm Barker, Epstein and Loscocco and the American Consumer Law Group in Waltham, Massachusetts.  She also served as ‘Of Counsel’ to Exemplar Law Group.

Currently her practice is focused on US immigration law, and she has helped many individuals and businesses solve their immigration problems.  She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), National Lawyers Guild (NLG), Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education, Inc. (MCLE), and Political Asylum/Immigration Project (PAIR). She is also an active member of BostonBul, a nonprofit group focusing on human rights violations in Turkey.

Özpınar’s talk was very emotional and moving. She declared that sometimes literature helps us in dealing with pain. In particular, she said that In the Ruins, Zabel Yesayan’s book on the 1909 Cilician massacres “describes my feelings, of what I feel when I need to talk about the Genocide as a Turk, and about remembering Hrant Dink, commemorating him, that grief, that pain that causes physical, debilitating pain.”

Özpınar said that she had a dream at night prior to her talk, and in the dream asked Hrant Dink what she should say. He responded that she should speak from the heart. Indeed, Özpınar spoke openly and passionately, and told the audience about her own path of coming to grips with the Armenian Genocide, which did not happen overnight, in order to help Armenians in the diaspora understand how this is possible.

She said that she should like to think that the majority of the people in Turkey who do not know about the Genocide “are people who could see things if shown, they are people who keep their hearts open…”  However, they grew up in Turkey, regardless of their politics, with a nationalist educational system which taught that talk about genocide is simply an attack on Turkey.

Özpınar went back to her own childhood to give examples. She grew up in a privileged family and thought, like many children, that she could change the world. She said that she wrote a long essay in fourth grade, in which, she said, “I was holding hands with Atatürk and we were going to save the country. I was very well aware that we were a backward country…I don’t know if it came from a dream or I made it up, but I still have that image in my mind, holding hands, walking with him, knowing that we will make this a better country.”

When she was 11 years old, her parents sent her to an international camp in Italy, and she felt obliged to act as a “mini-diplomat,” and “act as an exemplary Turk to show everyone else that Turks are good people.” In this camp and another two years later, she defended Turkey against all sorts of criticism and asserted that it was progressive.

She made her first shift in attitude after coming to the US. She came to Brandeis to study, and there was a Turkish-Armenian dialogue event in the year 2000, but she stayed away, because, she said, “I was not ready.” She thought that perhaps somebody would attack her. Instead, she tried to become more American than a Turk.

However, by 2006, she read a book by the novelist Yashar Kemal, who talked about what happened to the Armenians in a few places. She said to herself that something happened here, and decided “I have to read about this. What happened—what happened to the Armenian people? What did they teach me? They did not teach us anything.”

In high school her history teacher announced that the students who were going to go abroad for their education should come to her office to get a folder of information. The students would get attacked while abroad, and the folder contained the answers which they could use. Özpınar however never went to the office to pick up this file, thinking that she would on her own eventually look into this.

In America, she met Armenians who, she said, “affected me, who bettered my life in the United States.” She said that she felt that such human interactions “is what Hrant wanted—for Armenians and Turks to meet, in spaces like this, to share their stories, to continue to fight for justice, to continue to fight and ask for democracy wherever we are.”

She concluded, to great applause, that “Changing the laws, fighting for democracy, getting into office, asking for resolutions for Genocide recognition, I would say that is only one part of the job. The other part is for us to open our hearts, to share our individual stories, to tell people our own stories, to share pictures, because I think that is how it starts, and that is the most valuable part. And Hrant, they couldn’t stand him because he started that, as Ohannes said. They were scared of him because he started that. And I am here, and my Turkish friends are here with you today sitting, listening, and sharing because of Hrant Dink. And we will continue to do it.”

Harry Parsekian of the Friends of Hrant Dink organization then introduced a guest in the audience who only a week ago arrived in Boston: Ayşe Kadıoğlu, who was a professor of political science at Sabancı University in Istanbul and on the Hrant Dink Foundation board. Parsekian related that she is a graduate of Boston University, where she obtained her doctorate, and was a student of Howard Zinn, and now has come to Harvard. He exclaimed, “She is a mobile, global Hye–she is a very dedicated Armenian.”

Dr. Kadıoğlu said that Hrant Dink was a friend of hers, and went on to tell an anecdote about the 2005 icebreaking conference in Istanbul on Armenians during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, where a woman was screaming periodically that “you are traitors, what you are doing is an awful thing for this country,” despite the efforts of panel chairs to quiet her. After Hrant finished speaking, Kadıoğlu looked around to find him and suddenly saw him being hugged by that woman who was screaming. Hrant shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, I don’t know why—she is the one hugging me.

Kadıoğlu said, “He could talk. He could convince people. Maybe that is why they thought of him as dangerous. He could really communicate. Maybe that is why he was shot.” Kadıoğlu said that Hrant wrote in his last piece in Agos about feeling like a pigeon looking to the left and right in anxiety, and “that is a feeling we all share right now, living in Turkey…we all feel threatened.” She said she always thought of Hrant as trying to establish bridges between people, and “on the day of his funeral, there were hundreds of thousands of people who went out there to guard that bridge, in his name. I always thought he would have loved to see that.”

Parsekian thanked Kadıoğlu for her talk, and in Turkish thanked all the Turkish friends who came. Finally, he declared, “To me, Hrant Dink was a humanist, and as far as that is concerned, I consider Hrant a Mandela…a great humanist and human rights person who cared for everybody, not just Armenians or Turks, but humanity.”

After a break for refreshments, Zadik Özcan gave some presents and mementos on behalf of the Friends of Hrant Dink to the two main speakers, Kıliçdağı and Özpınar.

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