The New Armenians of Western Europe

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David Zenian

BRUSSELS — Sirnak and Silope are nothing more than small dots on the map, but Armenians rehabilitated from these Kurdish villages along the Turkish-Iraqi border are changing the fabric of Armenian communities in at least two European cities.

In Brussels and the St. Jerome neighborhood of Marseilles, the so-called Kurdish-Armenians are seen as the “guardians” and “backbone” of the local Armenian Apostolic churches.

Their children fill the Armenian language classrooms, often helping their Kurdish-speaking parents communicate with social workers and community leaders.

“They have introduced major demographic changes into our communities,” says a second-generation Belgian-Armenian. “The new-comers are in the majority now and it is no secret that they have altered the face of the Armenian community here. These people are unique because of where and how they preserved their faith and Armenian heritage.”

But who are the Kurdish-Armenians, where did they come from, how did they settle in Europe and are they integrating into their new homelands.

There are no historical records about their past, but through interviews and informal conversations with their elders, and observing them in their own environments, it is obvious that they are as Kurdish as they can be in their manners, language and customs, but nevertheless, fanatic Armenians when it comes to their Christian faith and roots.

Most of them, and interestingly enough the older generation, can recite the Lord’s Prayer (Hayr Mer) in Armenian along with sections of the Divine Liturgy (Holy Badarak), but that’s as far as their “knowledge” of their ethnic tongue goes.

At home their language of communication is Kurdish, even with their very young children. Apart from church-related gatherings, they socialize only with fellow refugees and the ethnic Kurdish communities of their immediate neighborhoods.

Mesrop Afshar is one of the pillars of the Kurdish-Armenian community of Brussels. “I think I am 57,” says Afshar, who looks more like 67, if not a few years older.

He remembers growing up in fear in a small town in southeastern Turkey where 40 Armenian families had no choice but to keep a very low profile among a predominantly Kurdish population of 7,000.

“I believe we are originally from the city of Van, but I am not sure,” he said through an interpreter, a younger member of the “Sirnak clan” who had the opportunity to study at the boarding schools of the Armenian Patriarchates of Istanbul and Jerusalem.

Afshar also remembers with a deep sense of awe his grandfather’s Bible and tales from his grandmother relating to their roots in the Armenian town of Van only 150 kilometers to the north in Turkey.

“Fear and a sense of pressure were constant companions. The pressures were great, but our elders constantly reminded us that we were Armenians despite the loss of our language,” Afshar said.

“Our elders used to say they survived the first massacre of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans in the 1890’s by escaping from Van south to Sirnak where 40 families settled,” he said.

Up until 1908, there was an Armenian school and church in Sirnak.

Sirnak’s Armenians had relatively few problems until the 1915 Genocide when most of the local population and Armenians living in a number of other villages in the area were wiped out. Some were forced to convert to Islam while others escaped across the border to Iraq.

Those who made it to Iraq settled in the Kurdish town of Zakhu, where 70 Armenian families reportedly still live. While no Armenian is being taught, the Armenian school and St. Mary’s Church are still open.

Zakhu and Sirnak are only 50 kilometers apart, but in a sea of Kurdish population and with the long-standing feud between Turkey and Iraq, communication between the two Armenian minorities has been minimal.

“We were kept apart because of a multitude of complex demographic and geo-political reasons. We lived in a cocoon,” a Sirnak elder said.

Those who survived the 1915 Genocide and somehow remained in Sirnak under the tutelage of local Kurdish chieftains did not know if there were any other Armenians left on the face of the earth.

They were alone, isolated, and surrounded by Kurds in the region of southeastern Turkey which the Kurds call “Kurdistan”.

They lost their language, took on Kurdish surnames to “camouflage” their identity and for more than 50 years struggled against total assimilation into the Kurdish landscape.

“I was born in Sirnak and the only Armenians I knew were those in and around our small town. We did not know if other Armenians had survived the massacres,” Afshar said during a recent interview conducted partly in fragmented Turkish or through interpreters — other Kurdish-speaking Armenian immigrants who had learned Armenian since leaving Sirnak nearly 15 years ago.

“We could not go around trumpeting our heritage. You might find it difficult to understand, but for all practical purposes, we lived quietly as Kurds of Armenian descent by adhering to our Armenian Christian faith. It was this faith that kept us together as Armenians at a time when we had lost everything else. We were cut off from other Armenians. Our language was gone, so was our literature and history, but our faith was intact.”

An Assyrian Orthodox priest came to Sirnak from nearby villages under the cloak of darkness to baptize the newborn, sneaking out before daybreak to avoid attracting the attention of the town’s Kurdish population.

Weddings and funerals were done in the same way.

“Among ourselves, we were Armenians. As our children were baptized, we gave them Armenian names like Sarkis, Tavit, Noubar, Kevork and Saro but out on the streets we were like the rest of the town’s population. We had Kurdish surnames like Euz, Yalik, Odemish, Yajir, Birgin,” Afshar said.

One fateful day in 1965, however, the isolation of the small Armenian population of Sirnak was broken. As if by fate — or sheer accident — an Italian missionary working with the region’s Assyrian Christian minority was informed of “these other Christians” in Sirnak.

“This papaz (priest) came and talked to us and later went to Istanbul and briefed the late Patriarch Shnork Kaloustian of our existence.

“It was not much later that we saw the first Armenian priest since the Genocide. In time, his visits became more and more frequent. Our teenagers were taken to the Armenian Patriarchates first in Istanbul and then Jerusalem for education and finally, thanks to Patriarch Kaloustian, the entire population of Sirnak and Silope began evacuating in 1980 to Belgium, France and a small group to Holland,” Afshar said with an emotional voice.

By 1986, the entire population of Sirnak and Silope were out ... saved from imminent annihilation as Armenians.

Today, this peculiar “branch” of the greater Armenian family numbers several thousand citizens clustered around Armenian churches in their adopted homelands.

Testimony by first generation Armenians in Brussels and Marseilles is overwhelming. “Their faith in the Armenian church is very strong. For them, the church is not folklore or tradition. It is treated as a national treasure and that’s why the presence of these Kurdish Armenians has given a new lease to our religious life,” says one Marseilles resident.