Dear President Obama.
Last Sunday I, along with thousands of other Armenians from across the globe, sat in St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican City and listened to Pope Francis call the Armenian Massacre of 1915 the first Genocide of the 20th century. Words quickly heard around the world; words that have brought about discussion; words that pushed humanity a step closer to understanding and acknowledging the truth. I attended the Holy mass because I’m a second generation Armenian-American and, having been raised knowing the truth about the Armenian genocide, I wanted to witness the Pope’s historical pronouncement.
In the 1890s, my maternal and paternal grandparents were born in Ankara and Malatya, Turkey, and in Van, Armenia. In the early 1900s, as young men and women, they lost family members, their homes, their country, their right to worship their Christian religion, and their freedom to speak the Armenian language—tongues would be cut out by the Turks for doing so. But what my grandparents never lost was their dignity or the memory of those terrifying acts committed against the Armenian people under the rule of the Young Turks.
Because young Armenian men were the first to be taken into the Turkish Army, and few if any returned, in 1908 at the age of 16 my maternal grandfather, Rouben Kashishian, and his twin brother, Benjamin, left Malatya, Turkey, to live in the United States. My great grandfather, a school Principal in Malatya, had previously visited the United States, and decided to send his eldest sons ahead of the rest of the family to live with their uncle in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The plan was for the entire family, 10 in all, to follow them to America the next year. Instead, one evening, while seated at the dining room table in their home in Malatya they were all massacred. This was 1909 and, apparently, my great grandfather was one of those intellectuals that the Young Turks wanted out of the way. Only because of destiny, and an astute decision on my great grandfather’s part, did my grandfather and his twin brother survive. Only because of that decision am I here today. Therefore, it is my duty as an Armenian, and as an American, to tell you this story.
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, one by one, my other grandparents immigrated to the United States, too. They set up small businesses in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. They worked hard and they never asked for a hand-out. My grandfather Rouben became a tailor, and often pressed or repaired military uniforms for U.S. soldiers. He was a religious man, and received a letter from President Truman thanking him for the notes of inspiration, slips of paper, which he left in the soldiers’ uniform pockets. He loved America as much as he missed his family and his mother country. He held on tight to his faith and to a democratic way of life and thought. He died in the late 1960s never having heard a single country recognize what he knew, that his personal losses were indeed due to genocide.
But my grandparents looked to the future and sent their children, my parents, to public schools. My father John Ohanesian joined the Navy and fought in WWII, and then became a Los Angeles County firefighter. As a single woman, my mother Martha Kashishian Ohanesian worked as a secretary to Naval Officers in Philadelphia. After she married and until she retired, she worked for the County of Los Angeles in Health Services. Now, at the age of 90, she is the most democratic Democrat I have ever known. She raised me and my siblings to honor our Armenian culture and to love and believe in the United States of America. Because of the atrocities suffered by our ancestors, we understood how fortunate we were to live in a country that gave us liberty and opportunities. A life 1.5 million other Armenians never had.
Mr. President, though I live in Italy, in 2008 I enthusiastically and tirelessly campaigned for you with the grassroots group Americans in Italy for Obama and by volunteering my time phone banking at your campaign office in Norristown, Pennsylvania, while in the U.S. on vacation. Then, again, in 2012 I helped organize and campaigned for you with the Venice, Italy Chapter of Democrats Abroad. I did this because you were the best candidate I had ever had the honor of voting for. I believed in you, as I do today. I have supported you every step of the way, and I traveled to Washington, D.C. for your second Inauguration. I was there, in the audience, proudly celebrating your victory. However, during both campaigns, many of my Armenian-American family members and friends weren’t as convinced to vote for you as I was. So, while doing my small part campaigning, I worked with them, spoke with them, and debated with them. I posted on social networks, and I organized the “Gondoliers in Venice for Obama” YouTube video which received more than 175,000 views. Yet the matter which convinced most of those Armenian friends and family members to vote for and not against you was your promise to formally recognize the “Armenian Question” as Genocide.
As you are well aware, April 24, 1915 marks the start of the mass killings of Armenians. A day when several hundred Armenian intellectuals were rounded up, arrested and later executed. There were also earlier massacres of Armenians, including that of 1909 when my family members were victims. At last, one hundred years later, the words “Armenian Genocide” are being expressed by influential and revered countries and leaders of the world. Since Pope Francis spoke them on Sunday, they have occupied International headlines. I ask you, Mr. President, isn’t it time to make good on your promise?
I understand that today’s Turkish population is not to blame for their forefathers' horrific actions and that many Turkish scholars and civilians would more openly address the truth if allowed to do so. I also understand that Turkey is a strategic ally to the United States and Europe. However, how trustworthy is any relationship if it is threatened by the recognition of an uncomfortable truth?
On behalf of my great grandparents and my grandparents, on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the United States and beyond whose families have stories like mine, on behalf of the populations who are now enduring similar atrocities around the globe and those who, because of our silence, risk the same in the future, I implore you to address this most solemn 100th anniversary with the singular word which honestly describes the events that followed April 24, 1915. That word is genocide.
With respect and admiration,
Marie Ohanesian Nardin