BY ANNA ASTVATSATURIAN TURCOTTE
“As we walked through our patio, the neighbors said goodbyes and the sight was so sad that I wanted to leave this place as fast as possible. I kissed Papa goodbye. He wasn’t coming with us to the airport bus stop once again because he looked too Armenian.
We hurried to the bus station, on foot, trying not to attract anyone’s attention. Grandma accompanied us, helping Mama carry one of the bags and holding Misha’s hand.
Baku looked at me and sighed, I felt. I looked at Baku and cried.
As the bus raced through the city, I wondered when I’d see it again. Maybe in a few months, I thought, that would be the most. We hadn’t gone out into the city much after we came back from Armenia. The streets shocked me. They were so different. Lenin Square, pride and joy of the city, was a deserted lot, grimy with soot, dirt and debris left behind by violent mobs. Clean up and repairs were in process; even the pathway to the stairs leading into the government building and the base of the Lenin monument seemed burnt to a pitch black in several places in the heat of repeated bigoted conflagration.
The airport was filled with people. It seemed like the whole city was leaving. We stood in line, and after a while waved Grandma goodbye. “I love you,” I said to her. She smiled and kissed me. And then my Baku was gone.” – Excerpt from “Nowhere, a Story of Exile,” by Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte
I wrote these lines as a teenager, just learning English, sitting in a small bedroom of our Section-8 apartment we called our first home in United States. In this small North Dakota town, this was the first room I was to call my own. It was small and warm, a clean escape from the stresses of adapting to America and missing my relatives. These lines, which I wrote by hand, were meant to describe an emotional day of my life, September 18, 1989 – in a sense a love poem to my birth city. Now, with the foresight of the last 30 years I can say without hesitation that this was the most important day of my life, the day that shaped me as a human being for the next three decades and more, the day that shaped me as a mother, and propelled me to be an active and vocal member of the society. September 18, 1989 was the day I became a refugee.
But then, at the age of 11 and a half, this was simply a day I was leaving my beloved hometown, my house, my sweet grandmother, and my childhood friends. With the separation of time, and much reflection, we are able to see the important events in a different light, together with other components of our personality and our inner drives. Perhaps these important events eventually dull in the influence they have on who we are because we grow and change. But, time and time again, no matter how much I’ve survived or achieved in my life, I come back to this day, in my dreams, in my writing, in the art that I make, in the home that I create for my family, and in the things I value the most. Time and time again I reevaluate myself against this day: asking who am I, and who am I supposed to be?
Then, there are days when I doubt if I am who I was meant to be if it wasn’t for that fateful day, that fateful year. And, with that constant self-reflection, my friends will be the first to tell you, that I am many different things and they wouldn’t want me any other way. My garden in my home in Westbrook, Maine, is reminiscent of my garden in Baku – which I treasured as I child. I would hide underneath the grapevine-covered canopy and read the books from my father’s library, the library of 2,000 books, many of them antiques, that he was forced to leave behind.
Today, in 2019, I observe my children read under the grapevine that is growing in their backyard in Maine, and I smile. In that way, I take the good of my early childhood and combine it with the strength that the pain of fleeing my home created in me. Similarly, I see this in the work that refugees do across this country. My father, for example, a renowned Armenian repoussé artist, takes the skills of metal embossing he learned in the Soviet Baku and applies it to beautiful and ancient Armenian imagery, all while listening to duduk in his workshop. The refugee families across the country take the successes of our difficult lives and apply them to help others and, in turn, define who they are.
Only a refugee can understand this dichotomy. Only a violently displaced individual can fully comprehend the constant longing for that place, that state of comfort, and almost never finding it. And when the refugee accepts their fractured sense of home, when they embrace themselves and stop placing so much pressure on themselves to find it, the empowerment can be seen from a mile away in the things we create. Just a few hours ago, I completed a fundraiser for a 3D printer and computer lab for Stepanakert School #8 – collecting a total of $10,000 in less than two weeks. Majority of the donors were Baku Armenians with no ties to Artsakh. They wanted to help me commemorate the 30th anniversary of Baku Pogroms of January, 1990 in Artsakh by helping School #8 obtain state of the art 3D technology. There is strength in these projects from humanitarian perspective: we are helping Artsakh children. But there is so much more to this – we, as refugees, take our pain, our built up strength, and our vision for the future, and we create a new home for ourselves and everyone around us. Thirty years later, we survive, and we still question who we are meant to be. But in the end, we create. We create as our ancestors did and only that way we find peace.
Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte is an Armenian-American writer lecturer, city councilor, businesswoman, and a former refugee from Baku, Azerbaijan.