- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

ANDOVER, Mass. (AP) - Four generations of Susan Hazarvartian’s family know the story of Verjene Masherejian.

When they were in grade school, Hazarvartian told her two boys about the night the world changed for their great-grandmother, who lived in Armenia.

The gunmen stormed into the house. Her grandmother, then 3 years old, was pushed into a cabinet under the kitchen sink. When she came out, she was an orphan- alone, having lost her mother, father and six siblings in a brutal killing.

“She would tell how she’d hear the guns going off,” Hazarvartian, 52, of North Andover, recalled. “The people coming into her house and taking her parents. She told us stories about the orphanage and how she was told stories about what happened.”

Her grandfather, a World War I soldier, was hit with shrapnel in 1920. It barely missed his heart.

“They have the bullet,” Hazarvartian said.

Hazarvartian’s sons are now in middle school, and about the same age that she was when she received formal education about the Armenian genocide. It began April 24, 1915, the day authorities from the Ottoman Empire- now Turkey -arrested and eventually executed 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. What ensued during World War I and beyond was the Ottoman government’s attempt to exterminate its minority Armenian citizens, with most estimates of the death toll reaching 1.5 million people.

Today, Turkey has recognized that there were killings during the war, but denies genocide took place. Armenians like Hazarvartian find such a denial unacceptable. She and other Armenian Americans argue that Turkey’s refusal to own the Armenian Genocide is the equivalent of Germany denying the Holocaust.

For these people, the Armenian Genocide was their Holocaust.

Here in the Merrimack Valley, a large Armenian American community has mobilized to raise awareness about its history. The Armenian National Committee of the Merrimack Valley erected a monument commemorating the Armenian genocide in Lowell. Around the region, numerous Armenian churches are hosting events this week to mark the anniversary of the genocide. In schools, the Armenian Genocide Education Committee of Merrimack Valley is educating students about the genocide.

Many Armenians here say that they only learned of the genocide through family members and their church, which points to a woeful lack of general education related to the genocide. Some say Turkey should make reparations that amount to tens of billions of dollars to the Armenians.

Greg Afarian of North Andover spoke about how his grandfather was forced to leave their village and walk through the desert to Syria for refuge. He was only 5 years old.

“I guess the problem is that our people have suffered from this and there has been no acknowledgment,” Afarian said, adding there is no recognition even in the United States.

Afarian’s frustration was echoed by the Rev. Vart Gyozalyan, pastor at the Armenian Church at Hye Pointe in Haverhill.

“Genocide by Turkey is not recognized,” Gyozalyan said. “They are denying it ever happened.”

Supportive calls have echoed from the Vatican to Hollywood. This month, Pope Francis recognized the World War I-era slaughter as the first genocide of the 20th century. Kim Kardashian, who is Armenian, used her celebrity status to raise awareness by visiting Armenia with her husband, Kanye West.

The support is welcome, Gyozalyan said.

Haverhill hoisted the Armenian flag to acknowledge the anniversary April 24. The city has also issued proclamations for 12 years.

“You never want to forget the terrible incident and I was happy the pope recognized it,” said Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini. “They’re a wonderful community. They’re a significant presence in Haverhill and I’ve known them all my life.”

More than 100 people from Hye Pointe Church in Haverhill and St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in North Andover plan to attend a march in New York City to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. They are expected to march with thousands of others.

Afarian, along with Joe and Brenda Tavitian of Haverhill, are among those going.

“I am marching for my mother’s grandfather and mother-in-law,” Brenda Tavitian said.

She said both she and her husband have parents who survived the Armenian genocide. She doesn’t blame the Turkish people, but rather the government of the time.

In fact, her husband might not be alive if not for the generosity of a Turkish woman.

Joe Tavitian’s grandparents were forced from their village to march through the desert with their children- one of whom was Joe’s then-5-year-old mother.

A Turkish woman took pity on the little girl.

“The last thing she remembers (her mother) saying is ‘take good care of her’ to the Turkish woman,” Brenda Tavitian said.

The Red Cross eventually came to town, put Joe’s mother in an orphanage in Greece, then France, and then a new generation settled in the U.S.- her generation.

Brenda said she’s ready to move on, but she wants acknowledgment about what happened.

“I would like Turkey to admit it and us to move on and there to be peace and tolerance,” Tavitian said.

Hazarvartian wishes much the same.

“I don’t know that this generation knows what happened 100 years ago,” she said. “I would really love to see some equality among the Armenian and Turkish people. I think the younger generation is where you need to start because there is no anger.”

Gyozalyan said progress is being made.

“We have a generation who are looking to the future in a way like not before,” Gyozalyan said.

___

Information from: Eagle Tribune (North Andover, Mass.), https://www.eagletribune.com

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