When Home is Gone and We Live On

Planting of the memorial forest has already begun in Talin, Armenia
Planting of the memorial forest has already begun in Talin, Armenia

Planting of the memorial forest has already begun in Talin, Armenia

Memorial Forest of Talin dedicated to the Armenian Community from Azerbaijan


The 29th anniversary of Baku pogroms against Armenians came and went and the heaviness remains. Right around that anniversary, I spoke at the Gould Academy, a preparatory school up in the mountains of Maine. It’s an idyllic place where young Olympic hopeful skiers and snowboarders train while going to high school. The Academy assigns my book “Nowhere” for reading in one of its classes and this is the second time I spoke to this unique school about my writing and my public life. After my presentation, the most memorable question came from a tousle-haired teenage boy, apologetic and unsure about his question. “What is home to you?”

“Wow,” I thought to myself, “Kid, if only you knew how central that question is to my life!” How strange that a child living in United States with no worries of ever being thrown out of his home, would be so perceptive to find that nugget about home in the last chapter of my book and ask me what it was and if I found it. After decades of life in this country, home can only be described as what it isn’t. It can’t be explained in simple words, especially if you’re uprooted permanently and abruptly, without any emotional or physical preparation. Add violence and profound loss to this equation and being displaced is a nightmare I would not wish upon anyone.  At that point home becomes an elusive dream, a daydream with a longing for a past that will never return. Home is a concept, an unrelenting feeling, a yearning for the belief that you are a part of something bigger.

Home is not a house, an apartment, familiar furniture or a street, a comfortable bed or broken-in slippers waiting for you at the end of the day. Home is not the smell of your favorite dish simmering in the kitchen or the sound of a train passing by in the distance that you’re so used to. All those things can be replicated anywhere on the planet without achieving “Home,” and Lord, have I tried.  Home is never a place, nor is it only the people around you. Home is a complex network of confirmations that you are whole, that you belong, whether to a group of people or to experiences identifying you and tying you to them.

The author as a child with her mother in Baku before the Azeri pogroms forced them out

The author as a child with her mother in Baku before the Azeri pogroms forced them out

When one is uprooted from home, there is a profound sense of detachment for decades, if you’re lucky, and perhaps permanently if you’re like me. This experience is similar to perhaps sensory deprivation on a monumental, fundamental, and spiritual level. I often describe it as floating around your life, never grounded. As an Armenian leaving Baku suddenly at 11 and 1/2 years old, I wrote about returning home for months in my diary. We really thought we would come back. The return was what hundreds of thousands of us expected, and we only realized after massacre upon massacre of our people it would never happen. I believe, perhaps, that those who left before the massacres, those that sold their apartments and never expected to come back, they may have had an easier time adjusting. All I know is that we never said good bye. We were purged out of the only home we knew with such hatred that this lingering sensation of limbo is a profound experience of many of the Baku Armenian refugees, all over the planet, I talk to daily.

I spent years of my life trying to compartmentalize this detachment and find that normalcy which comes so naturally to others. For two decades I hid away from the past, modeling the cookie-cutter life of a typical American with high school, first heartbreak, law school student loans and internships. I made friends and I made an impact; I succeeded in everything I wanted to do. My parents bought a house and I had an apartment. I have a good job and a beautiful home filled with laughter and love. Yet nowhere I went, nowhere I laid down my head to sleep, even in my parents’ house, nowhere have I felt grounded to whom I have become. I always feel like I am visiting; as if everything temporary and at any moment, I will move. It will be 27 years of living in United States this January 31st, and I oddly still feel this way. The only way I ever feel “Home” is if I’m hugging my husband and my children, or if I’m in the Armenian mountains.

Home is also an extension of yourself in time. You are the continuum of who you were and who you will be, with everything in between. You are also who your children will remember when you pass.  Sometimes my husband drives by his childhood elementary school and tells our children, “Hey kids, this is where daddy went to school.” I can never do that. Imagine the very natural experience of visiting your grandparent’s grave. I haven’t been able to do that since the mid-1980s when I was 9 years old and walking into an Armenian cemetery was not a death sentence. Now that my grandparents were literally bulldozed over in Baku, as were all Armenian grave sites, I cannot ever do that again. Who I am chronologically is broken into pieces of then and pieces of now with no opportunity to connect them or them. That profound loss of who I was, that disconnect to who I come from and who I became, cannot be replicated no matter the places I live in and how happy I might be there.

And that’s the loss that the Baku Armenians never talk about because, first, no one listened or cared, and then because we simply have no words and no more strength to describe it. This is where the idea to have a physical place to go and touch the land and memorialize who we were and who we became came to me. I have thought for a while that perhaps a memorial would do the trick for my community to heal, something big and beautiful. After all there isn’t such a place in Armenia for the atrocities committed to the Sumgait, Kirovabad, and Baku Armenians. Yet the memorials for atrocities against Armenians in Azerbaijan that I’ve visited in my travels around United States were not a place I could ever imagine I can come back to just to reconnect. They were tombstones to our past. They are not representative of who we are but just a glimpse into our heartache, the thing that made us broken and that is not what defines us.

While having this internal back and forth with myself about how to commemorate, I was traveling to Seattle to speak about the 30th anniversary of Sumgait massacres invited by a large Armenian community of Washington State. During that trip Armenia Tree Project’s executive director Jeanmarie Papelian reached out to me to ask how ATP can help commemorate Sumgait. I was thrilled but I told her that because the anniversary just passed perhaps the next anniversary, Kirovabad or Baku, would be appropriate to commemorate.  In our conversations the idea was born: a forest commemorating what we were and what we are. It was a perfect idea – a living, breathing forest to dedicate to those killed, to the destroyed cemeteries and to serve as a celebration of survival, tenacity and success of every Armenian that escaped Azerbaijan, wherever they are in this world.

In this forest, I can see how I can connect to the pieces scattered in the broken timeline of my life. I can see myself coming back to it to ensure that it is growing, to lean on the ground, to the roots of the trees and remember my grandparents, celebrating their life and our life, no matter where it is. This forest will ground us from that floating feeling of detachment that haunts so many in my community.

After talking with a few friends from the Baku Armenian community, I was reassured by them this is the best way to commemorate us, a living memorial that also benefits the deforested community it’s planted in, Talin, which is located an hour north of Yerevan. Talin is a small community with irrigation issues that haven’t been resolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenia Tree Project is working with the municipality to ensure that not only are the trees planted but the irrigation is improved. And with that Armenia Tree Project set the goal and began planting trees last November, while I began energizing my community and friends around the world to begin brainstorming how they can contribute, many organizing fundraising luncheons.

The responses I received were overwhelming, both in their passion for the project and aggressive comments against it. Many organizations responded to my request to help with silence, and the silence was hurtful, while others jumped at the opportunity to build us up, even just by spreading the news.  In responses to public calls to donate, I’ve heard a number of strong criticisms. While these are, unfortunately, very natural for our community, they are stunningly insensitive and ignorant.  Some living in Artsakh asked why we chose Talin and not Artsakh. Some wondered why the forest is not called “Sumgait Forest.” Others were upset I initially named my fundraiser on Facebook, “Baku Memorial” for simplicity and clarity, even though the forest itself is actually named the “Memorial Forest of Talin,” because I anticipated a heavy backlash against the word “Baku” in the diaspora and in Talin itself. Others, Baku refugees living in the U.S., asked that instead of planting “useless” trees, why don’t I help the Baku refugees living in poverty in Armenia. Ironically these same critics chose not to donate toward my earlier project helping elderly Baku refugees living alone in Shushi and Stepanakert. Back then I was met with silence.

My response to these types of critics has always been that they present a false choice; one project should not negate the other, and if you don’t like a specific initiative of mine, maybe you will like the next one. Because I will make both happen.

In questioning the focus of the initiative, I heard interesting and grandiose questions such as the one posed to me by an individual from Philadelphia. “Was any international effort made towards justice since that massacre took place? That’s where I’d like to see resources dedicated.”

And wouldn’t that have been nice. We, the Armenian refugees from Baku, would have loved to have seen that justice for our community and for and Armenians of Azerbaijan in general to be a priority for the diaspora over the last 30 years. Unfortunately our White Knight never arrived. He never even mounted his steed, let alone left his castle. And now that we, a group of banished and traumatized people without a home, are fundraising for a modest amount to plant a forest in the memory of our dead grandparents, our stolen homes, our demolished cemeteries, and our community that survived, the suggestion is posed in response to us that we should probably scrap that idea and instead concentrate on getting ourselves that good old elusive “justice.” Imagine telling an Armenian Genocide survivor, “You know, it’s nice that you would like a memorial for your loss, but instead of healing, as I’m sitting here on my couch doing absolutely nothing, you should probably go out there on Capitol Hill and advocate for your own justice! It would make more logical sense!”

Why can’t we do both? We can, and it’s time for the diaspora to stand behind us. Next January is the 30th anniversary of the Baku Pogroms and there are no actions on the part of the Armenian government or the many diaspora organizations to even acknowledge this fact. They wonder why Baku Armenians aren’t as involved as they would like us to be.  Acknowledge our loss, embrace our initiatives, fight for us!

But at the end of the day, all these naysayers were overshadowed by the positive wave of support for our project. In the first seven days of the fundraiser on Facebook,  we raised nearly $8,000 on Facebook alone.  Various communities also began pitching in to ATP directly. Saint John Garabed Church of San Diego raised over $1,000 toward the project simply by hosting a speaker and a luncheon honoring their Baku Armenian community and our history. And that is why they don’t struggle with the church attendance by the Baku Armenian community.

I have seen a lot in my life, but I am genuinely blown away by the support from perfect strangers. Many non-Armenians donated because it was the right thing to do. Some people wrote to me that they are donating because their daughter is named Talin. One woman donated generously and wrote me about her cousin named Talin that perished in an airplane accident along with her two young children flying from Tehran. So many Baku Armenians wrote me that they wanted to honor their perished and their lost cemeteries. So many of them wrote to me of severe psychological toll the atrocities still had on them and the life they might have had if the horrors didn’t happen. This forest is like a light at the end of that tunnel.

The coming together to make this forest happen inspires me that all is not lost and I am driven to do so much more. I am traveling to Talin this May to check on the planting and visit the local community that will benefit from this wonderful gesture of love. The people that have donated to this cause will be updated on the forest this entire year and the official opening of the Memorial Forest of Talin will take place this January for the last and final atrocity against Armenians in Azerbaijan. We Armenians, have all suffered in some way or another and there is nothing more human and more beautiful than planting a tree together. Planting a forest together might make us a united community, no matter where our home might be or where it might take us.


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