Let’s Not Forget Armenians Were Once Refugees in Syria

Armenian refugee children in Syria after fleeing Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey (Image: The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute)
Armenian refugee children in Syria after fleeing Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey (Image: The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute)

Armenian refugee children in Syria after fleeing Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey (Image: The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute)

BY HARUT AKOPYAN

I had written this right after Trump won the elections. The sentiment expressed here is hardly changed but even more poignant now that Trump is in the process of blocking Muslims and Syrians from entering the United States, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time.

Recently, Syrian refugees became a topic of debate on a friend’s Facebook post (I know, most things on Facebook are a topic of debate.) The initial post was essentially a critique of those Armenian-Americans who consider themselves American nationalists and make light of the fact that our then, soon to be President, Donald Trump, was making unwelcoming statements about Syrian refugees. Trump promised that “If I win, they’re going back,” referencing a little over 13,000 Syrians that the United States has taken in 2016(as of November). In retrospect, we were all skeptical about the reality of his intentions. My friend boldly reminded our fellow compatriots of their hypocrisy in light of the fact that at one point in their people’s history, Armenians were driven by the Turks in a genocidal campaign to the Syrian desert where Syrians took them in as refugees. Naturally, many of us agreed. But to my surprise, there were many still who were quick to claim that this statement is false on the grounds that they are mutually exclusive events and should not be compared. I was astonished that Armenian-Americans can exercise their politics in a wholesale manner of self-interest and self-righteousness that might sound like it’s coming from the Alt-Right movement. Although I cannot dismiss their genuine fears, this is my response to what I think is a faulty logic, not just reserved for Armenian-Americans.  

There were two main arguments in variable fashion as I understood them. One was that among other things, Syria was a part of the larger Ottoman Empire and didn’t exist until 1920 under a French mandate; that Armenians were forced in the Syrian desert without permission from the Syrian people (who were mainly Arabs but also included Armenians, Assyrians, Druz, etc.) Furthermore, the argument goes that European missionaries were much more instrumental because some Syrians may have helped, but others abused the Armenian refugees by selling them into harems and the like. The second argument was that national security is threatened by not just accepting these displaced persons, but also giving them a permanent refugee status. Moreover, we Armenians should not support accepting refugees based on our own somewhat hazy history with Arabs and Syrians, but rather the allegiance to our host country, the United States (assuming that allegiance can be approached unilaterally in such a topic).

I’ll start with the first argument by asking what is it about suffering that cannot be contextualized? I use suffering because that’s what it was 100 years ago in 1915 and that’s what it is today. Surely the very simple notion of seeing swaths of people, evokes some comparison? Quantifying and qualifying the good deeds such as taking Armenian orphans in and later helping them reunite with families against being sold into harems, is not just impossible but also minimizes the records that show many Armenians actually received help. Why does the issue of the Armenian Genocide comparison to another group of suffering people, albeit under very different circumstances, provoke a rejection on taboo grounds? Realizing the ugly differences does not make some of the similarities and truth any less similar or true.  

Of course, there is also that nagging issue that many Syrian-Armenians have been displaced today. We are fortunate to have a Republic of Armenia that has taken in roughly between 15,000 to 17,000 Armenians as well as some Yazidis and Assyrians and we are proud of that. Given the fact that it is a small country with less than 3 million people and resources that do not match any other neighboring state, shouldn’t the United States as well as other resourceful countries also pitch in? Wouldn’t we want all our fellow Syrian Armenians to be safe? Why must Armenia be responsible for a group of people that identify with them based on their ethnic roots alone? How are they less vulnerable and any different from any other Syrian? Furthermore, Canada has a friendlier refugee policy than the US and many of them are going there. Should Canada allow only the Armenian Syrians because they are Christian and not considered a threat to their national security? Or should we call it by any other name, as Trump has, by declaring that “religious minorities” will not be affected. Is this the draconian road we really want to take?

To the mutually exclusive arguments, I concede that I am first and foremost arguing for helping refugees based on the fact that a group of people, Syrian nationals, are suffering.  Should it matter that Armenians are reminded of their history and does the personal reminder gain some leverage over that decision making? Or should any other people’s history suffice? And here, we’re back to the point, namely isn’t all human suffering in such calamity deserving of some comparison and similar attention?  

If they still persist that helping Syrians without contextualizing the Armenian case is the only moral argument and counter by making the argument for the ever simplifying national security versus refugee status, then we are at a crossroads.  To this second argument, I wonder if they would take that same principled approach if the shoe were in the other foot and Armenians went near and far as I mentioned earlier.  Because if I may contextualize once more, many Armenians who escaped the Genocide also ended up in Ellis Island, as well as some other countries.

In the comment section of his post, my friend pointed out that although he understands that a careless “open borders all the time” policy is not pragmatic, he asked if there was no middle ground that could be found? The “security vs. refugee status” cohorts offered no solution. The answer was that the best interest of our host country, the US, is the only thing we should be interested in and our history should not play a factor in that decision making. To that, I’d say that it’s simply inhumane to ignore the very tangible human lives at stake simply because they were born “over there” and not “over here.” In 1939, The United States rejected a ship called the “St. Louis” of just under 1000 Jewish passengers headed to the US via Cuba, forcing them to go back because of a fear of Nazi spies slipping through. Three months before that, Congress denied a bill that would have allowed another 20,000 Jewish children from Germany. The tide was turning against accepting refugees and both the Cuban government and FDR didn’t respond to “St. Louis’s” pleas for help. A few years later, they placed our own Japanese-American citizens in internment camps for fear of national security and it is one of the more uglier times in our history. When Trump talks of Muslim registries, he’s baiting on the same fears. However, this country is also the same country that had the Displaced Persons Act after World War 2, allowing many refugees all over Europe to come through, even against red-baiting and the argument that communists might slip through.

A little over 13,000 Syrians is an iota of a problem (regarding the security vs. refugee status argument) and to call for a wholesale refusal of such status is something I’d have a hard time living with.  Now then if the argument evolves into “if we give status, how and where do we stop?”  I’d say I don’t know.  I’d say there are already vetting practices in place that should be trusted and still no easy decisions when it comes to who you let in your country and who you don’t during such a screening process.  Given there are approximately 13,000 people in limbo right now however, it would be a political and moral disaster to force them to go back. Any notion of comparing it to a tragic “but what if terrorists…” scenario and calling it an equal disaster if you let them stay would be disingenuous at best.

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8 Comments

  1. Arman Kaymakcian said:

    Armenia has taken in mostly Christian refugees for a reason. Can you Imagine if Armenia opened up its borders and allowed azeris and Turkish muslims to come flooding into the country. This article and its attempt at factual acrobatics to prove that The United States is somehow obligated to take in any and every person who wishes to enter our Country without extensive vetting, Was exhausting. I would say brow beating Armenians Americans who grew up with survivors of a genocide perpetrated by muslims and comparing Armenian Christian refugees assimilating into the United States with the current Islamic influx into the west is a pretty far stretch wouldn’t you say. I don’t think Armenians were coming to the defense of muslims during the last caliphate while they were throwing our babies off of cliffs and ships and raping our women after murdering thief husbands in front of them. You want to experience the peace of islam pick up an Armenian history book and read it, or better yet travel to syria right now and watch them burn our churches to the ground and torture and kill Christians like they are disposing of trash they have traveled back to the Middle Ages and are chopping off heads and you are worried about hurt feelings and airport delays. cry me a river. Imagine our ancestors homeland being taken over by a massive wave of Islamic migration i.e. The seljuks only to be slaughtered by a genocidal campaign, still unrecognized by many many muslims. Being displaced to all parts of the globe including the United States struggling to make a life for themselves and survive by the grace of God not a false god but the one true and living God Jesus Christ. Now picture their children a generation later being nieve enough to trust the muslims yet again and watch a massive wave of muslim fanaticism threaten to hurt them and thier wives and children yet again in their new home the United States. That akhberis takes a special kind of ignorance. Islam is not nor ever has been peaceful there is very clearly a problem With thier religion there always had been and there always will be. It is a temporary ban designed to examine and revamp our current broken system. a country without borders is not a country. Why do I never see protests for Christians? Where was the outrage when Syrian Christians were having trouble fleeing persecution. We really need to wake up! I can’t believe what I’m hearing from family members and articles like this it is a scary kind of blind kumbaya, rediculousness I have never encountered. you are a gavur to them dimi haskatsar? You are less than you are insignificant as far as shariah is concerned! And you always will be. I am so blessed to be an American citizen with a president who gets it, God bless the United States and God bless our president!

  2. Raffi said:

    Times and conditions are not the same, it is not compared apples with apples, open the borders and you will have immigrants and refugees 200 million Chinese, 200 million Hindus, 200 million Latin Americans, and …..the list goes on, where do you draw the line?, besides Armenians already have on their plate more than they can chew, the impact of the Armenians on this issue with the US government is almost zero, if they couldn’t get enough financing aid for the refugees already in Armenia, how can somebody pretend to change governments approach on this issue, it will be better and practical for Armenians to spend their energy on getting funding from the US government so that Armenia can take more refugees.

  3. Jacque said:

    With all thu respect to your opinion and understandingly the pararalls to hour Armenian history, the Syrian refugee is no ones problem but the Arab nations.
    Humane or not these refugees have many other countries, specificly Arab countries to go to and no one is pushing them out of their homes like the Turks did to Armenians .
    So please don’t compare the Syrian refugees to the systematic desplasement of the Armenians in 1915.
    You’re sounding more like the liberal Americans who think we should have oppen borders and a home for every refugee and asylum seaker in the world. I’m not saying we should not help these people, but we should think about the cost as well and I don’t meen financially. Look at Europe and the flux of emigrants that came from Muslim countries, what you think is going to happen in 20 years, you would be lucky if Christianity remains a dominant religion all over Europe .
    If for you all that maters is saving few people? For a lot of people preservation of their country and heritage maters as much.
    So I understand if Trump or other Americans don’t want the refugees, would you blame them, after what the muslims have been doing all over the world.
    Muslims today are doing what theire ancestors couldn’t do by force, taking over the world one refugee at a time .
    If you ask me they should not be alowed to leave the Middle East, send them all to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, UAE they will be more at home and why not we should help them in the move until the matters in Syria are resolved and then they can go back to their homes.
    We Armenians had no home to go back to after the genicide, so no I don’t see any similarities between the Syrian refugees today and our grandparents back in 1915, in exception to the Armenians and other minorities in Syria who are caught in a war that has nothing to do with them.

  4. Diane Kupelian said:

    This is a brave statement, and I appreciate this thoughtful article.

    I would like to see more compassion for these refugees. I understand the hesitance, and I also have difficulty trusting Muslims –but I have met some Muslims in this country that are very thoughtful, reasonable people. The genocidal Turk, and the continuing denial of the genocide they conducted, does not typify all Muslims.

    Please remember, ALL refugees are vetted, extensively, even extremely, before they are allowed to have entry papers. The stay in a refugee camp for two years or more, while they are interviewed, everyone they know, their relatives and networks are interviewed, and the digging is extreme. We know the people who are allowed entry are cleared through a rigorous process. The comment above about unvetted people allowed entry is just wrong.

    If we live our values, we will remain the shining example of justice in the world. If we don’t, we won’t. And that will be a boon to those who want to paint us as hateful, and help them radicalize more impressionable people.

  5. Serop Andonian said:

    Shame on you Harut for comparing Armenian refugees of genocide to those who come to this country to kill innocent people in San Barnardino, or to blow up a peaceful marathon in Boston. Should I go on?

    Have you sunk so low to jump on the Trump bashing bandwagon without considering the facts?

    If you are truly concerned with the fate of the Armenian refugees coming from those 7 majority Muslim countries, as we all are, then let me help you with the facts. This is President Trump’s executive order with regards to refugees:

    “Friday, January 27
    Executive Order: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States

    This is perhaps Trump’s most controversial executive order to date, leading to weekend protests at international airports across the country. Trump promised to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the country, largely though a ban on entry from seven countries for 90 days. Those countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) are all majority Muslim, and the order allows an exception for religious minorities, which Trump said was to protect Christians there. The order was subject to immediate action in three federal courts in the 48 hours after its signing, in order to protect people who were caught in legal limbo when they arrived at U.S. airports.”

    If you read the whole paragraph you will notice that the President have put in place an exception for Christian refugees (such as Armenians) coming from those 7 countries.

    What’s next for you Harut, joining those lunatics who are destroying properties in Berkley and other locations? I guess I’ll see you on TV!!!

    Harut Agopian’s article is not the first baseless attack on this issue. Ara Khachatourian wrote a similar article that was published in Asbarez on January 30th.

    Ara Khachatourian started his article with the following paragraph and I quote:

    “Imagine for a moment that an executive order, similar to the one signed by President Donald J. Trump on Friday that curbs the entry of foreigners into the United States was in effect in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide.”

    Again, Ara if you have taken time to read the executive order you probably wouldn’t have written that, right? You probably would have noticed that there is an exception to Christian minorities.

    WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU GUYS? ARE THESE OUR PRESENT AND FUTURE INTELECTUALS? My fellow Armenians we are in deep trouble!!!

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