In Search of Freedom: Armenian Immigration to America

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In Search of Freedom: Armenian Immigration to America

By Lucine Kasbarian

Cobblestone Children’s Magazine

May 2000

The Armenian people were first mentioned by name as early as the sixth century B.C. Today, more than half of the world’s approximately seven million Armenians live outside their historic homeland. More than one million of them reside in the United States. Who are these people with ties to ancient history? And why have so many left their homeland and settled in America?

Armenia is situated in the South Caucasus region between Europe and Asia. Strategically located at the crossroads of an important trading route known as the “Silk Road,” ancient Armenia became a battlefield and prize for competing empires. More than three million Armenians currently live in the landlocked Republic of Armenia. It is surrounded by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Georgia.

Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in A.D. 301, and Armenians bean using their own alphabet in A.D. 406. Both developments allowed Armenians to remain distinct from neighboring peoples. An industrious and determined people, Armenians and their culture survived despite many invasions and occupations of their homeland. For centuries, Armenians lived under harsh foreign rule or were forced to flee to safer areas to escape persecution. In the eleventh century, Seljuk Turks invaded Armenia. Other conquests followed, In the fifteenth century, Ottoman Turks took control of the area. This ended brief periods of Armenian independence and set the first wheels of immigration into motion.

Although some Armenians migrated to America beginning in the 1600s, they were the exception rather than the rule. Greater numbers of immigrants did not arrive here until the 1800s. By then, life in the Ottoman Turkish Empire had become quite severe. Non-Turks were often treated as second-class citizens within the Ottoman Turkish Empire, of which Armenia was a part. Armenians were not permitted to vote, testify in court, or bear arms like their Turkish neighbors.

During this time, Protestant missionaries working in the Ottoman Empire described America as a great land of opportunity. Handfuls of Armenians migrated to the United States. They hoped for a better chance to further their education and earn a living. Most emigrants were men who planned to earn enough money to go back to the old country and improve their families’ living conditions there. By the end of the 1800s, however, few had returned. In fact, conditions were worsening, and thousands of Armenians fled their homeland.

Armenians still living in the Ottoman Empire heard about native people in faraway lands who were claiming their national independence from colonial rule. This inspired the Armenians to petition the Turks for equal rights. The demands infuriated the Turkish government. Between 1894 and 1896, it ordered full=scale massacres of the Armenian population. During this time, thousands of Armenians who were able to escape found freedom in America. Armenians who had settled in America helped the exiles gain admission to the United States, cope with tragedy, and start over again.

During World War I, the Turkish government plotted to expand Turkey’s borders and rid itself of its Armenian population. Armenian leaders were rounded up and massacred. Cities and villages were looted and torched. Properties were confiscated. Armenians were driven from their land on forced marches into the Syrian Desert. About one and a half million Armenians died in what is referred to as “the first genocide of the twentieth century.”

The Armenians who survived the massacres and displacements sought safety in any country that would take them. Those with relatives in America were permitted to enter this country. During the years following this genocide of 1915, about twenty-five thousand Armenians entered the United States. Most had no parents, money, belongings, job prospects or knowledge of English.

The Armenian word for refugee is kaghtagan (kagh-tah-GAHN). Just as their ancestors did in the previous century, kaghtagans had the determination to survive a tragic past and begin again in a new country. They settled into communities – such as Troy, New York and Worcester, Massachusetts – where they could be with countrymen who spoke the same language and practiced the same customs.

Some immigrants continued in the occupations they had held in their homeland – grocers, rug dealers, fruit growers. Others took what jobs they could obtain. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Therefore, many manual labor jobs were available for non-English-speaking immigrants.

Kaghtagans took advantage of the educational and economic opportunities offered in America. They also practiced good citizenship, worked hard, and obeyed the law. They saved much of their earnings to establish better lives for themselves and their families. And their strong sense of personal dignity surfaced even in the harshest of times (such as the Great Depression): Armenian Americans considered it shameful to accept relief aid or welfare assistance.

Many kaghtagans earned enough money to move to suburban areas and open their own businesses. It was common to see Armenian Americans in dry cleaning, tailoring, shoemaking and photo-engraving trades. And as they began to prosper in the New World, Armenian Americans shared their successes with one another. They built churches, schools, organizations, and community centers where they could preserve customs from their homeland. Unlike their parents, the children of kaghtagans grew accustomed more quickly to life in the United States. Many obtained college degrees and became doctors, lawyers and educators.

After being scattered to other countries following the genocide, Armenians once again became uprooted because of civil war, persecution and poverty. Armenians from Greece, Turey, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan have landed in America. And in the past decade, economic and energy blockades imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan have prompted hundreds of thousands of native Armenians to emigrate as a means of survival. The combination of old traditions and new energies newcomers bring cause the Armenian American community to develop and diversify in many ways. Armenian Americans face a challenge in this millennium – sharing a simultaneous appreciation for their adopted homeland and the land of their ancestors with the next generation.