By Ian McFeat, Special to the Outlook
From 1915-1923, more than 1.5 million Armenians were taken from their homes and businesses and systematically annihilated by the then Ottoman government.
The sheer number of deaths is enough for us to pause and reflect. Of the 2 million Armenians living under the Ottoman Empire, 1.5 million were massacred — 1.5 million lives, taken forever.
The number is impossible for me to conceptualize. Usually, the murder of one person’s life mobilizes systems of justice to ensure that the wrong is righted. When one life is taken, society responds. Amazingly, this is not the case with this tragedy. While many countries around the world and 45 states in America have classified the systemic killing of Armenian peoples as “genocide,” the United States and Turkey have not.
I recently finished Chris Bohjalian’s novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” a piece of historical fiction written from meticulous investigation and documentation. It follows Elizabeth Endicott, a recent graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, who travels with her father to Aleppo, Syria, to provide humanitarian relief to Armenians.
The story of the genocide is straightforward: Armenian intellectuals were killed, followed by the forced march of Armenian men, and women and children into Deir ez-Zoir, the desert, for days without food or water to refugee camps. Women were repeatedly violated. Children died of thirst and babies died in the arms of their mothers.
Fortunately, educational talks about the Armenian genocide have led to action. In 2016, the Armenian Genocide was finally recognized by the California Board of Education as part of the curricular framework for history and social science standards in California. Teaching the Armenian genocide will now be a requirement.
The legislation asks students to think critically about the causes and key facets of the Armenian genocide, while simultaneously asking teachers to provide information about the relief efforts in 1915 that saved more than 1 million refugees.
The new law also asks that other genocides be included in the curriculum. Including these experiences is a good starting point for teachers and students. To teach about such horrors is no easy task. The genocide can certainly be considered a cautionary tale, a story remembered for the atrocities. But it can also be remembered for massive relief efforts.
In response to the race extermination, and at the urging of Henry Morgentheau, the then-U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, U.S. citizens raised $117 million in assistance. This aid agency, which still exists, provided food, clothing, shelter, refugee camps, clinics, hospitals and vocational centers to help victims of the genocide.
After I read “The Sandcastle Girls,” I happened upon a training workshop put on by the Glendale Unified School District. The two-day course was filled with practical teaching methods, historical analysis and expert lectures.
Glendale did a fabulous job bringing in experts, including Cal State Northridge Professor Vahram Shemmassian, who gave a powerful talk about Musa Dagh: In the early years of the genocide, as the Ottoman Turkish forces converged upon the town in this region, a small group of Armenian people retreated to Musa mountain. There, they fought off the assault for 53 days before being rescued by a French warship. Some of these survivors resettled in Anjar, Lebanon. In the epilogue of “The Sandcastle Girls,” author Bohjalian travels back to Anjar for some research. There he found a mural on a column that read, “Let them come again. We are still the mountain.”
April 24 is widely regarded as a day of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. The reality of the Armenian Genocide is that almost three-quarters of Armenians live in the diaspora. Yet despite the attempts to erase them from the Earth, they are survivors who have retained a national identity. “We are still the mountain,” is a message of hope and solidarity, a message burned into the collective consciousness of a people scorned.
Yet, even in the face of injustice and heartache, of unspeakable suffering, we have the capacity to stand together as a community. That is a message of inclusion, one that all of us can get behind, especially in a community as diverse as ours.
Ian McFeat is the principal at La Cañada High School