Remembering a Genocide: A Monumental Educational Trip to Turkey and Armenia

It was the last day of traveling. We had begun the morning in Istanbul with a typically decadent breakfast buffet of bread, cheese, olives, and tomatoes. The 14 of us – UC Irvine students, faculty, and administrators – continued with a tour of the old city Sultanahmet, its ancient walls filled by three thousand years of empires and republics.

Now we were at our final destination: the Hrant Dink Foundation. Here, we talked and had copper-colored çay with Rober Koptaş, newspaper editor, and Delar Dink, daughter of Hrant Dink, Turk-Armenian and former Agos editor who was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist. Our visit included a stop at the site of Dink’s untimely 2007 death, marked by a plaque in the sidewalk. The foundation has carried on Hrant Dink’s mission, including hosting dialogue programs between Turks and Armenians.

Dialogue. This word had followed us on the two-week tour through the South Caucasus countries of Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia where we studied the genocide of 1915. A dictionary would define “dialogue” as an “exchange of ideas” and “discussion … aimed at resolution.” But our many conversations never reached a resolution and were unsettling, uprooting generations of pain in our own group.

Was peaceful resolution ever possible? Was justice within reach?

Photo: Claudia Cheffs

Months earlier, I had signed up to join the UC Irvine chapter of Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), naively to learn more about the Armenian Genocide. After a friend, Yolanda Espiritu, told me about her trip (she was in the first South Caucasus cohort), I applied, writing:

The Turkey-Armenia conflict seems particularly interesting to me because it is a linguistic and religious conflict. Linguistically, in what ways does the recognition of one word – ‘genocide’ – validate a people’s pain? In what ways does that same word cause discomfort among those who refuse to say it? Religiously, in a world fraught with conflict between fundamentalism and mysticism, how can Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims move forward in understanding each other as allies, not enemies?

It was an honor to be accepted as a student diplomat. Most of our group were of Armenian heritage, two were Turkish, and the rest of us (like myself) were what we called “third parties,” with neither Turkish nor Armenian ancestry. Under the leadership of Political Science professor Daniel Wehrenfennig, our group met weekly to read and discuss articles on the genocide.

However, what we learned wasn’t straightforward; our program never directly addressed a historical timeline of 1915. Nor was it easy; our conversations with Turkish and Armenian academics and politicians left some of us in tears. Even within our own group, there were bitter moments where we dismissed each other.

Understandably, this is a bitter topic. A denial of a genocide is not just a political omission, but also a denial of identity for many of our Armenian-diaspora students. As Ruben Safrastyan, a Yerevan State University professor, told us, for Armenians “the genocide is not merely a political problem, it’s part of our identity.”

When I returned from our program, there were few words to describe the experience. The border is still closed. Hate speech still exists. As Turkey continues to restructure its parliament, they “strenuously” insist that “the deaths were the result of a civil war in which Turks also perished.” In fact, due to travel concerns, the 2018 trip to South Caucasus “could not travel to the region” at all and met instead with representatives from the Turkish and Armenian governments in the U.S.

In other words, same old, same old.

With time, we learned that even the most peaceful of dialogues did little to resolve the deeply-rooted pain of genocide. As Vicken Cheterian wrote in a recent Agos article, “Are we as human civilization capable of learning ‘lessons’ of genocide?” Perhaps not. Yet I find there have been lessons in my own experience.

For one, I understand the importance of naming the events of 1915 a “genocide.” As a resident of Los Angeles, it has become important to pay my respects at the local Armenian Genocide Memorial.

For another, there continue to be glimmers of hope such as Turkish voices arguing not only for recognition of, but also reparations for, the genocide. And recently, the prime minister of Armenia has discussed reopening the border between the two nations.

Problematizing the Image of Study Abroad

As a study abroad coordinator, people ask me, “Where did you study abroad?” Most who ask this question may imagine a semester in London or a summer in Florence. As the Institute of International Education tells us every year, that is the reality of study abroad: mostly short-term programs in England, Italy, and Spain (Open Doors 2018).

Despite a lifetime of travel, this program singularly shifted my expectations of what international education could look like. Five years later, I point to this summer as the time I understood that study abroad could be meaningfully challenging. We embarked on difficult dialogues, even if no resolution existed.

Images frequently used to market study abroad as tourism – for instance, a student with arms outstretched in front of the Eiffel Tower – didn’t apply to our experience. Nothing fit this model of international education, because nothing else demanded as much. We visited sites of mass killings and spoke with problematic academics and government officials who sanitized their words to protect their jobs. Little demands that emotional challenge.

Upon my return to California, I called up a friend to go for coffee. He wanted to know what I had learned. I was still feeling stunned, unsure what I would say when asked: “How was it?”

“Well, I wouldn’t call it ‘fun,’” I began as we sat in the outdoor patio. I told him about the people we had seen, the food we had tasted, and how similar Armenians and Turks were. The same coffee, the same cheese, the same bread. Yet, with so much shared, they were still distinctly separated. I shared photos of a hike we had taken in Ani, the former Armenian capital and now Turkish ghost town. There, we took photos of the destroyed bridge. A broken border.

The Solace of Mourning and Remembering

Years later, I am still at a loss for words, unable to see a way forward for resolution.

So I find solace in the act of remembering. As Hasan Cemal wrote, quoting Milan Kundera:

The struggle of the individual against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Each November 1st, altars are decorated with fragrant marigolds and freshly-baked sweet bread, to commemorate Día de Los Muertos, a day of the dead that honors and celebrates the lives of those who have graced us with their light. And each April 24 in Yerevan, thousands of visitors place red and white carnations on a memorial, remembering those who died over a century ago. Both are poignant acts of remembrance.

So it is that I find another lesson in our OTI program: the importance of mourning and remembering. These acts unite us and keep us aware that we should never be complacent in our struggle to find a resolution, whether or not one exists.

OTI South Caucusus, Cohort 2 (Google Maps).

Cover Image: “the bridge between turkey and armenia” (Martin Lopatka, 2011)

Interested in supporting Olive Tree Initiative sending more students abroad to Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and other sites of conflict? Their donation link is here.

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