Stephen Kurkjian (David Medzorian photo)

April 24 Gathering at Heritage Park Takes on Global Flavor

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BOSTON — About 150 people gathered on Wednesday, April 24, at the Armenian Heritage Park to commemorate the 104th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, braving an unseasonably cold and blustery evening.

Speakers Stephen Kurkjian, Dr. Pamela Steiner and Ekhlas Ahmed addressed the crowd.

Kurkjian, a retired reporter who won three Pulitzers at the Boston Globe, spoke from the heart, as a descendent of a survivor of the Genocide. He tied history to the present, presenting it in a bright light. He said that from the loss of more than a million people, to the dispersion of many others, and their uprooting from lands “they had occupied since the Bronze Age,” their descendants are alive and well, halfway around the world, in a park named for them.

Dr. Pamel Steiner (David Medzorian photo)

He then spoke about visiting his ancestral homeland, Keghi, with his father, a quarter-century earlier. Once, he said, the Kurkjians were among the 3,000 families living there. His father, Anooshavan, survived the 300-mile trek to safety as a 3-year-old.

Kurkjian wrote about this trauma in a cover story for the Boston Globe Magazine, titled “Roots of Sorrow.”

In spite of the many plaudits and awards that he has received for his great body of work exposing wrongdoing, he said that Boston Globe article is his favorite. “That was the most important, inspiring article I wrote,” he said. He added, however, that he has since realized that the headline needs to be expanded to include the positive changes that have happened.

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“We need to continue to insist on and demand recognition,” he said, adding, “the arc of the universe bends slowly but it does bend toward justice.” Standing on the spot called the Armenian Heritage Park in Boston was a reason for optimism.

He also touched on the city of Boston and its history of immigrants, from the Italian and Irish to the Haitians, Cambodians and Brazilians who make up so much of the more recent immigrant population.

“It is the immigrant experience that makes our city richer and more diverse,” he said.

Members of the Sayat Nova Dance Company perform. (David Medzorian photo)

In addition to speaking about immigration, he stressed the importance of the free press, noting that the administration of President Woodrow Wilson had ignored the cables from US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Robert Morgenthau spelling out the government treatment of the Armenians, and it was not until a frustrated Morgenthau shared those cables with the New York Times that the story exploded.

“A free press is a predicate for a functioning democracy,” he said, before reciting the motto of the Washington Post, “Democracy dies in the dark.”

Next, he praised the Velvet Revolution in Armenia, citing that it was won by a reporter, Nikol Pashinyan, and his wife, Anna Hakobyan, also a reporter.

He urged those present to help Armenia. “Bring your energy and idealism to Armenia.”

Since leaving the Boston Globe, he has also written the book Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, about the perplexing robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, during which 13 priceless works were stolen, never to surface again.

The next speaker was Dr. Pamela Steiner, a Senior Fellow with the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, as well as a therapist in private practice in Massachusetts. She is also the great-granddaughter of Ambassador Morgenthau.

Steiner spent the duration of her talk comparing and contrasting two books which have not been part of recent discussions, Deep Mountain, Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide (2010), by Ece Temelkuran and There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond (2014) by Meline Toumani.

Members of the clergy at the commemoration (David Medzorian photo)

Both books made a lot of noise when they were published. In both cases, the writers were journalists trying to present their understandings of history. Neither book received much support in its native group.

Temelkuran, a veteran journalist, wanted to explore why Armenians hated Turks and how the Turks could be so ignorant of their plight and impassive toward them.

Toumani, a reporter for the New York Times, left her job and moved to Turkey for two years, fed up with the anti-Turkish sentiments of her community. She wanted to see for herself what the Turks were like and how they would react to her, knowing she was Armenian.

Steiner praised the efforts of the two journalists for engaging in a dialogue with the other group, helping her on her journey of understanding.

In addition, both were written in anticipation of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and both knew the assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, she added.

“Each traveled outside their country to the other,” she said, adding that both writers found being Armenian or Turkish full-time exhausting.

She also noted that only Toumani went on her journey with the acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide while Temelkuran did not.

While “Each book is flawed, and in some regards, painfully so,” Steiner said, each writer tried to “free herself from preconceived notions,” she said.

Steiner was an early proponent of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission of 2001, supported by the State Department, which ostensibly sought to bring together Armenians and Turks to start a dialogue. The effort received a lot of negative feedback as the group started off with the premise that an impartial organization needed to analyze and reach a verdict on the events of 1915. The commission found that a genocide had been committed and the Turkish government quickly pulled away.

Ekhlas Ahmed (David Medzorian photo)

During her talks she praised David L. Phillips, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, who chaired the commission, also known by its acronym, TARC.

“He was excoriated for bringing Armenians and Turks together. They [the Turkish government] particularly failed the fact test and respect test,” she said.

The third speaker was Ekhlas Ahmed, a survivor of the Darfur Genocide, who lived as a refugee in Egypt before her family was able to move to Portland, Maine. From the 12-year-old Sudanese refugee who could not speak English, she went on to graduate high school with honors and has since received her master’s degree in education from the University of Southern Maine, and even found herself on the “Ellen” show.

Ahmed was particularly moving, reciting a poem titled “Sounds of Gunshots,” which captured her hometown in the wake of the genocide.

“I wrote the poem to tell the story of my motherland,” she said. “I love my homeland. I needed to protect my family and my stories.”

She thanked the organizers and the Armenian community for reaching out to her, noting that what the two genocides have in common is that neither is really spoken about in the mainstream media.

“I am bringing the voice of the voiceless to the young children. Our voices are the best weapons we have. We need stories of justice and peace. We must not forget our history and our roots and peaceful ways,” she said.

The crowd, whose members were dazzled by her poem and speech, all recited without consulting notes, erupted into a thunderous applause at the conclusion of her talk.

Also on stage that night were members of the Sayat Nova Dance Company, performing two numbers, “Giligia” and later the high-energy “Nareh-Nareh.”

Marine Kavlakian, a piano teacher, performed twice, once playing the piano solo, while also accompanying the young students who sang the Armenian and American anthems.

Master of ceremonies for the program was Sevag Khatchadourian.

Michael Demirchian offered closing remarks, thanking all the young committee members and urging the community to remember their canonized martyrs and to celebrate their heritage.

“Being at the Armenian Heritage Park makes me feel inexplicable gratitude that we are a nation that survives,” he said. He urged more united programs for the community.

 

 

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