Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide and is a remembrance day for the victims. I am half Armenian, my other half being mostly a mix of Irish and French ancestry. My grandfather was born on a boat off the coast of Cairo, Egypt while his mother and maternal aunt were displaced in the diaspora. His aunt had survived an ax wound to the back and survived by playing dead, actually enduring being on a cart full of bodies till she had a chance to escape. My great-grandmother was pregnant when she fled, there was never any mention of a father. I know the Turks made it a habit of raping the Armenian women, and believe that both my great-grandmother and aunt bore the tattooed faces of women that had been enslaved.
I remember being haunted by this story and their strength. It left a huge impression on me. Strength and survival in the face of extreme hardship, violation, stigma and loss have been a theme women in my family. Years later, I saw pictures taken during the genocide, and I was horror stricken. They were images of torture, crucifixion, starvation, misery and death. I felt compelled to face what my ancestors went through and tears were just flowing down my face, especially for the children.
I recall the sadness I felt and still feel and it hurts my heart to know this type of thing is still happening in countries all over the world, especially in the Middle East today.
Later, when I grew up, I learned of what a beautiful country Armenia is. It’s located in the beautiful mountainous country surrounding Mount Ararat, bordered by Turkey to the West and Iran to the South. Armenians have a rich cultural dance tradition as well with beautiful medieval looking native costumes covered in lace, beadwork and embroidery. The Armenian language is complex and rich, and sharing some similarities to Greek. Armenian food is delicious, ripe with the flavors of the Mediterranean. I have fond memories of my mother’s delicious stuffed cabbage leaves (dolmas).
Armenians were the first Catholic country and genocide was declared on them for their faith and they were branded infidels. When my family emigrated they took on Americanized names and they chose the surname “Swords” which they translated to mean “Cross”. I was raised Catholic, my mother from her Armenian side, my father from his Irish one. I no longer consider myself a Catholic, but some things have stuck with me: my fondness for angels, the somber and beautiful religious iconography, and St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and children.
I just wanted to share my family’s story to honor their memory today. Turkish people today object to the term “genocide” used to describe what they did. An estimated 1.5 million people died. Whether or not that’s an accurate number, I don’t know what else you can call that but genocide! I think of the ax in my great-great-aunt’s back, and all the other named and nameless victims and have no patience for their continued denial of it. It happened. Their lives mattered and they deserve to be honored.