President Biden’s recognition comes 106 years after massacre
RHODE ISLAND — The acknowledgment was far overdue, but President Joe Biden’s long awaited recognition of the Armenian Genocide carries significant meaning for the local Armenian community.
On April 24 — Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day — Biden became the first United States President to officially recognize the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
The recognition comes 106 year later.
For the Armenian National Committee of Rhode Island Co-Chair Stephen Mesrobian, the long awaited recognition brought on a tidal wave of emotions, as well as tears.
“I started thinking about my grandmother, who survived a deportation march through the Syrian Desert, and managed to make her way, eventually, from what was Armenia, or the Ottoman Empire, to Damascus, Syria, to Marcé, France and then Providence, Rhode Island,” Mesrobian said.
The atrocities that his grandmother endured, and the stories she carried with her for the rest of her life, are what inspired Mesrobian to become politically active as a teenager, and what’s pushed him to remain active in Armenian political activism ever since.
“One of the things that always drove me was that, basically, the Republic of Turkey was saying my grandmother lied about what happened to her, her story and the other million and a half martyrs that had survived the genocide,” Mesrobian said. “That there was no such thing to attempt to wipe out the nation. That the killings were just something that happened during the course of war — which they weren’t.”
His grandmother was haunted by the loss of her young son, who was taken by Turkish soldiers and thrown in a lake to drown. Although he’d managed to make it back to shore as Mesrobian’s grandmother watched, horrified, they threw him back in and stoned him until he drowned in front of her.
“She carried that story for the rest of her life,” Mesrobian said. “And when it was passed on to me, I thought, ‘They’re saying she’s lying about that. That it didn’t happen.’”
For decades, presidential hopefuls have pledged to finally recognize the Armenian Genocide, only to walk back that promise once in office, out of fears of alienating Turkey. Although other nations and leaders have recognized the mass killings as genocide — including Germany, Canada, Russia and even the Pope — Turkey has long maintained the stance that the killings do not meet the definition of a genocide.
According to Turkey, Biden’s recognition that “one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination,” is a misrepresentation of history.
While Turkey continues to contest and debate the number of Armenians killed during WWI between 1914 and 1923, Mesrobian views the denial as an attempt to avoid paying reparations or giving back lands.
“They’re denying the crime of genocide because they don’t want to have to pay the penalty for having committed it,” Mesrobian said. “What’s terrible is that the United States, for geo-political reasons, was enabling that. They wouldn’t call it a genocide because they didn’t want to anger Turkey, and that angering Turkey wasn’t worth the price of telling the truth.”
At last, having a president recognize the Armenian Genocide brings a sense of relief and satisfaction to many Rhode Islanders.
Because of mass, forced deportations, Armenians “were scattered like seeds in the wind,” according to Mesrobian, and are now found all over the world — including right here in Rhode Island.
The Ocean State is home to about 15,000 Armenian-Americans, according to Mesrobian, as well as three Armenian Churches and one of the world’s largest monuments to the Armenian Genocide. The local Armenian community includes many prominent Rhode Islanders — including former City of Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, former Lt. Gov. Aram Garabedian and Alex and Ani Founder Carolyn Rafaelian.
Rhode Island also boasts one of the nations strongest federal delegations when it comes to support for Armenian political activism issues.
Sen. Jack Reed came out in strong support of the president’s recognition last week, commending him for “affirming this historical truth.”
“This official recognition of the Armenian Genocide at the highest levels of American government is long overdue and a victory for truth and justice,” Reed said. “Rather than be a bystander to the denial of genocide, President Biden’s official action today helps restore America’s moral credibility.”
“To prevent future acts of genocide, we must recognize past atrocities, educate the public and uphold human rights,” he continued. “We must stand up for persecuted people everywhere and recognize atrocities as they actually happened to ensure they don’t happen again. Finally acknowledging the facts can hasten the healing process. And it brings the United States in line with other nations such as Canada, France and Germany that have already recognized the Armenian Genocide.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse called the acknowledgment “long overdue,” and stated that “papering over unpleasant truths is rarely good.”
Similarly, Congressman Jim Langevin lamented words of thanks to the president, and expressed that he’s “proud to fight for the Armenian-American community today and every day.”
Congressman David Cicilline specifically recognized Rhode Island as being “home to a vibrant Armenian community.”
“A lot of folks here and across America are grateful President Biden officially recognized the Armenian Genocide today,” Cicilline tweeted. “It shouldn’t have taken America 106 years to do so. But once again, he is leading where others failed.”
Here in Rhode Island, statements were also made from Gov. Dan McKee, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea and House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian (Dist. 63 – East Providence) — who is Armenian herself and has introduced resolutions to have Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day recognized year after year.
“Even a hundred years later, accountability matters,” Kazarian shared in a post to social media.
Finally having recognition is an emotional thing, according to Mesrobian, and it does carry significant meaning — but they are still just words on a page.
“What President Biden did is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be backed up or it’s not going to matter in 20 years, because we’re going to be gone,” he said, referencing mounting tensions in the Middle East, and recent bombings that continue to threaten Armenia’s boarders.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the human race has learned a lot in its thousands of years of existence, because we’re still terrible to each other,” he added. “So whenever things like this are happening, we’ve got to stop racism and stop persecution — whether it’s religious or ethnic.”
One of the most important things we can do, according to Mesrobian, is educate ourselves on the Armenian Genocide, and the ongoing issue. While Rhode Island has a rich, vibrant and active Armenian community, too many people are still unaware that a genocide took place.
The National Armenian Committee of Rhode Island is currently working with the Rhode Island Department of Education to form a Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Education Commission, which will help implement curriculum for secondary students so that more school children will know this history.
In the president’s recent words, remembrance of such human rights atrocities helps “recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring.”