BY SEARAN SALIBIAN KILEDJIAN AND TALIN SALIBIAN BAHADARIAN
Yevnige Aposhian Salibian lived 101 full years of life on earth, and was coronated with her heavenly crown on August 29th, 2015, when she entered her eternal rest. Yevnige was one the few remaining survivors of the Armenian Genocide at the time of her death.
Born in Aintab, Turkey in January 1914, she was the third of seven children of Aposh and Esther Aposhian. She has vivid memories of her life in Aintab, where she recalls hearing the cries of children in the streets as they passed her family’s house in their death marches into the desert. Peering through cracks in her wooden front door, she observed Armenian children being whipped by the Turkish police…images that remained seared on her mind. Their own family was spared due to her father’s friendship with the city’s mayor, who managed to protect them for a time. Yet there came a day when even they had to escape. One night in 1921, the family fled Aintab in two horse-drawn carriages…a trip she nearly didn’t survive.
The family thankfully escaped, but not before indelible sounds and images of the innocent being driven to their deaths were engrained in her mind. The Aposhians then traveled to Aleppo, Syria and later moved on and settled in Damascus, Syria where Yevnige attended the Armenian Evangelical School there. After some time, however, they were forced to flee when Muslim mobs began searching for Armenian Christians to kill. So Yevnige’s father gathered widows and orphans from Damascus, and they all traveled together by train to Beirut, Lebanon, where he continued offering aid to the widows and orphans, helping them find safe harbor.
In Beirut, they took refuge in government shelters but were soon obliged to leave when Muslim pilgrims needing shelter on their way to Mecca and Medina arrived. The family then settled in Ghermeze Ghazekh, “mosquito-land.” Many were bit by mosquitos and contracted malaria. While helping the local doctor take care of the ill, and refusing medication for herself for the sake of others, Yevnige’s mother’s life was claimed by malaria. Yevnige lost her precious mother at the age of 13, which is when, she says, the Lord Jesus became her comforter and best friend as she knelt by her dying mother’s bedside and prayed in faith to accept Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Her youngest sibling was not yet even age one at the time. From that point on, Yevnige helped raise her siblings, carrying on her mother’s work by praying with them and teaching them the Bible.
A few years later, Yevnige graduated from the Armenian Evangelical School for Girls in Beirut, receiving her high school diploma. In 1935, she married Reverend Vahram Salibian at age 21. With a chuckle she would share that although Vahram didn’t have hair on his head when they married, she was attracted to the fact that he had Jesus in his heart. The young couple moved to Ghazir, where Vahram was hired as a chaplain of a Swiss benevolent institution for the blind. As Vahram’s compassionate and dedicated partner, they worked there together helping orphans who had been left blind, deaf, or crippled because of the Genocide. In Yevnige’s words, these were young people who had “tasted the horrors of the Genocide…walking under the burning sun in hunger and thirst through deserts, mountains and valleys, without shoes, running from the enemy’s sword and from persecution.” But she and Vahram spoke to them of the hope of Jesus Christ and the freedom of forgiveness, and as one blind girl named Nazelie told her, “The world was dark for me, but my heart is now filled with the presence and joy of Jesus.”
They went on to be blessed with six children: Armine, Araxie, Norair, Shoushig, Samuel and John, raising them while serving in various Armenian Evangelical churches in Lebanon, including Zahleh, Eshrefieh, and Amanos. They also planted a new church in Dora, named, “Emmanuel,” which still thrives today.
In 1960, their son Norair was tragically killed at age 17 in a bus accident, along with 21 of his high school classmates during a field trip to Ainjar – a story she recounted frequently, each time with fresh tears. Vahram and Yevnige grieved deeply for the loss of their first-born son, but found strength in the arms of their Lord, who carried them through, comforting them, and in turn allowed them to comfort others who also faced similar loss.
In 1976, the family fled Beirut in the midst of Civil War and immigrated to the United States. Having escaped from one scene of devastation to another four times, they finally settled at length in San Jose, CA, where Yevnige happily tended to her garden and her growing number of grandchildren. She and Vahram continued to serve the Lord in San Jose together, ministering to families and serving people in homes. Wherever they went, they shared their faith, passing out Bibles and Christian pamphlets. After Vahram passed away in 1995, Yevnige continued to serve people and passionately share Christ.
At her home in San Jose, you would find Yevnige keeping herself busy by cooking, exercising, crocheting, writing, reading, singing, creating laughter and spending time with family and others in the community. She spent much of her time in her garden and in the kitchen, preparing meals and feeding loved ones delicious food made from scratch.
In 2006, The Lord called Yevnige to Ararat Home, an Armenian retirement home in Los Angeles. From age 55 she had dreamt of one day living amongst and ministering to the elderly. Indeed, she lived at Ararat Home the last decade of her life, praying with the residents and staff, leading Bible studies and devotionals, doing visitations, encouraging the elderly, and making everyone laugh with her sharp wit and humor.
Despite all the pain and challenges Yevnige faced in her life, her love for God is what carried her through the difficult years. Her faith developed in her a deep heart for reconciliation, as God’s forgiveness granted to her through Christ taught her to forgive her enemies and love those who had done harm to her, her family, and her people. Yevnige would tell whomever she spoke with: “God has been good to me, He has been my Good Shepherd and has led me all my life, and has given me a wonderful husband, six children (one of whom is in Heaven), 12 grandchildren, many great grandchildren and even some great great grandchildren.”
Yevnige was an unassuming woman, very humble and never seeking glory, but at age 101 she was unexpectedly thrust into the limelight and revered as a Genocide survivor; sought out as one of the few remaining who could clearly remember, coherently communicate, and vividly describe her eyewitness testimony and story of escape. Because of this gift, Yevnige was interviewed during the last year of her life by many reporters for countless articles published in the U.S., England, France and around the world and was asked to speak at various events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
During these Genocide Centennial commemorations, Yevnige was able to share about her journey of faith with thousands of people, including clergy, county and state leaders, the L.A. mayor, celebrities and even the most famous Armenian woman on earth: Kim Kardashian. During these events, she did not want any honor or glory, but continually pointed people to her Savior, Jesus Christ. Anyone who met Yevnige immediately noted how she was bold, strong, fearless, and confident in her faith, asking all she met: “Do you know Jesus?” She would encourage even passing strangers to read their Bible, call out to Jesus and pray to accept Christ as their Savior. She loved others fervently and sought to passionately share these beautiful truths with them. Yevnige would always say to everyone she met, “I hope to see you in heaven, believe in Jesus, and you will.”
Her faith was incredible. Her perseverance through trials was inspirational. Her love and compassion was genuine. Her devotion to the Lord and the Bible deep and profound. Her passion to forgive was astounding. Her ever-smiling face and joy was vibrant. Her presence was extraordinary, despite her tiny stature.
She was a sweet, jovial, and remarkable woman. A blessing to countless, touching the hearts and lives of all she met – impacting profoundly even those she came into contact with ever so briefly. She was a bright light in this world, bringing laughter and the message of hope and forgiveness. For her to “live was Christ and to die was gain.”
In the end, though still strong in spirit and mind, she yearned to go “home” to heaven, eager to meet her Savior and reunite with lost loved ones. She passed away on Aug 29, 2015 in Mission Hills, CA. She left behind many who celebrate her life, yet deeply grieve her loss.
Yevnige’s life continues through all who she served and mothered, emotionally, physically and spiritually. She is survived by 43 descendants; five children, 11 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren, and 3 great-great-grandchildren. Her constant prayer and cry of her heart was that all of her descendants and their spouses love Jesus as their Savior. Many of them now serve as missionaries, pastors, chaplains, and ministry workers.
Yevnige, the Salibian matriarch, was and is precious, beloved, and dear to her loved ones. Her family’s hope is that they live out her legacy through their lives and love for Christ.
Her Memorial Service will be Sunday, December 27th, at 4pm, at Ararat Home’s Sheen Chapel, in Mission Hills, CA. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Ark of Hope, c/o Christian Aid. 100% of donations will go directly to needy Armenian children in Yerevan and surrounding villages. Contact Christian Aid at # (434)977-5650 or mail checks payable to Christian Aid Mission, to P.O. Box 9037 Charlottesville, VA 22906. Please include giving code “464ARK”, or reference Ark of Hope stating gift is in memory of Yevnige Salibian.