BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
On my train ride to Gyumri, where I was planning to stay for a week to look back to the devastating earthquake of thirty years ago, I sat next to a young mother with her two small kids, traveling to Gyumri to stay for the weekend with family.
Her name was Tamara. I started a conversation with her. I wanted to know about her experience during the earthquake. She was born and raised in Gyumri. She gave me a piece of information that I was not aware of. She said that three years after the earthquake, Great Britain built a school in Gyumri where she attended. The school was named after the poet Lord Byron.
A historical side note: The school was named Lord Byron, because Byron had shown affection for the Armenian culture. In 1816 at the age of 28, Lord Byron had arrived in San Lazzaro Island in Venice, Italy, where the Armenian Mkhitarian fathers had established a prominent center of Armenian studies and culture, and he had plunged into the study of the Armenian language.
Tamara added, “The school was built with the latest technology of the time. It had solar power and during the years between 1991-94 known as the dark years, when Armenia was the throes of the Karabakh war and there was no electricity, and no school in all of Armenia had power, only the Byron School enjoyed electricity.”
Following the 1988 earthquake, all kinds of help from all over the world poured into the country. However, Britain was the first country to erect a school in Gyumri. Later French and German governments rebuilt schools with their respective language emersion.
Schools in Armenia have language inclinations, meaning some are taught Russian as second language, some French or German and so on. Also the schools are known by numbers. The Byron school which originally was the #20 school in Gyumri, had English as the language emersion.
During the earthquake the original #20 school was hit hard and had toppled, killing 40 students and staff. However, there were a few other schools which had lost three or even four hundred souls.
The five million sterling Pound to build the school was provided partly by the British government and partly by donations raised by the British people and the Armenian community of England. The entire fundraising activity was coordinated by Mr. Kyurkdjian, an Armenian benefactor living in England.
I visited Lord Byron school with my host, Varduhi. There I had the chance to meet with the principle of the school. He gave me a thorough history on the school.
Schools in Armenia are built on multiple levels, however the Byron school, contrary to the norm, was constructed in a single level. At the entrance of the school, the bust of Lord Byron was placed with an inscription.
The principal said all the building material, the furnishings, the computers, the books and the labor were exported from the United Kingdom. He described how everything had been shipped by boat to the Persian Gulf and from there via land, through Iran, to Armenia and then to Gyumri.
The Byron school opened its doors on June 10, 1990. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, Margaret Thatcher, attended the opening ceremony. It was her first trip to the Soviet Union. They named the street that the school was on, Margaret Thatcher.
On the same day on August 20, after visiting the Byron school, I visited the Terchoonian orphanage in Gyumri. There I met with Sona Simonyan, who has been the director of the orphanage since the day the facility was re-opened fifteen years ago.
I found the orphanage extremely organized and very well maintained. It was a few days before the start of the school and the fresh smell of paint indicated that the school was newly painted and about to open.
Although I had not made a prior arrangement with Sona Simonyan to meet, she welcomed me and allocated enough time to go over the details and answer all the questions I had about the school.
The site of Terchounian Orphanage, which in Armenian is called “Home for Kids,” is steeped in history. Originally the building was built in 1830 to serve as a base for the Russian Army. In the early 20th century, the Near East Relief chose the site to operate an orphanage. Later the building reverted to a military headquarter for the Soviet army.
During the 1988 earthquake, the building was heavily damaged. Thanks to Mr. Terchoonian’s bequest, and the hard work and dedication of men such as the late Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian and Romen Gozmoyan, the orphanage was revived.
The Terchoonian Orphanage of Gyumri, re-opened its doors in the fall of 2003, fifteen years after the earthquake. This was made possible by the generous donation of $350,000 by the family of the late Vahan Terchoonian, to establish a “home for Kids” in Gyumri. Today the orphanage is sustained by the Herman Khenderian Foundation in Detroit.
This was the same orphanage that Mr. Terchoonian as a child had found refuge after escaping the massacres of the Ottoman Empire. He eventually immigrated to the United States.
The name Terchoonian can be translated into “Not having an owner.” Mr. Terchoonian had chosen that name for himself because he had no one in the world.
At present, the orphanage caters to 90 kids— 50 kids stay overnight. There are 53 staff and 27 teachers.
Today there are two more orphanages in Gyumri. One is for handicapped children and the other is managed by the Catholic Charities.
The Armenian Genocide, which took place at the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early years of 20th century, sent waves of refugees from Turkey towards the East. Gyumri is within a close proximity—only 10 miles— East of the border of Turkey, in Armenia, thus a large number of victims fleeing from the mass killings could reach Gyumri and find refuge there. The orphanage was operated by the Near East Relief.
The Near East Relief (NER) was founded in 1919 to raise necessary funds to take care of people who had flown mass killings from the Ottoman Empire.
The NER produced many posters, through which the organization could reach people and raise awareness about the misfortunes happening to Armenian people during those days.
Fortunately, the collection of those posters still exists. One of the iconic posters is a photo of the Terchoonian orphanage, in the early 1900s, where the students have lined up on the grounds of the orphanage and have spelled out the words: “AMERICA WE THANK YOU” that was captured in an aerial shot.
On the walls of the school/orphanage, I saw many pictures from the early 1900s. One of the pictures was that iconic picture that depicts “America We Thank You.”
This humanitarian effort of Near East Relief gained momentum when the American ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, wrote a report detailing the genocide of the Armenian people in Turkey. On October 22, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson urged the American people to make contributions to help Armenians in distress.
The Near East Relief saved the lives of 132,000 orphans who were placed in different facilities.
The NER also mobilized the American people to raise over $116 million, in today’s dollars equivalent to $1.25 Billion.
This research about the earthquake expanded my knowledge and I learned facts that I was not aware of. I did it with love, and I hope you enjoyed reading my reflections.