Long History of Sarkisyan: From Antalya to Canada
Source: Aurora Humanitarian Initiative
"You cannot be free until you know who you are and until you know your history. Only when you find out, can you find peace," says Greg Sarkissian.
It's a maxim as clear as the winter sun streaming through the window of his Toronto office. It has served him and the people of Armenia well. One day soon, he hopes it will do the same for the people of Turkey.
Sarkissian is co-founder of one of the foremost international centres devoted to the research of Genocide, notably the Armenian Genocide. Through the Toronto-based Zoryan Institute, established in 1982, he has gathered the largest collection of oral history of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. The institute has also published 40 books based on original Turkish and German sources.
"I want to use scholarly reseach to show the worls what happened and to enable Armenians and Turks to come to terms with the past through shared history and to reconcile."
Sarkissian’s life and outlook changed dramatically in 1967 when he left his birthplace of Beirut for the first time to study in America. He realised that while Americans could trace their roots back to the War of Independence, "I didn’t even know the name of my father’s father or mother. Although Armenian was the language spoken at home, my ancestors had lived, for over a thousand years, in Cilicia the South Eastern part of today’s Turkey. It made me think who am I? How did I become who I am?"
Searching for his identity became his life journey. He discovered that while his father’s family had been wiped out, his mother’s family had survived as Armenian ‘Anne Franks’.
"My grandmother’s husband, Krikor, had a business partner called Haji Khalil. When the Genocide began in 1915 Krikor was hanged in front of his family. "Khalil, a righteous Turkish Muslim, had made a pledge to protect my family, no matter what. He took enormous risks to save my grandmother and six other members of the family. Two of the family’s children died in the nine months that they were in hiding. Khalil was so fearful of being caught harbouring Armenians that he buried the two infants at night. Khalil finally somehow managed to get the family on a train to freedom in Aleppo, Syria, where the late Krikor’s brother, Gevorg, was living."
Sarkissian’s discovery of the role of Khalil spurred him to co-found the Zoryan Institute, using funds from the businesses he had set up in Toronto, where he moved in 1986. Sarkissian told his family’s story at the institute’s first conference in Yerevan after Armenia seceded from Soviet Union.
Sarkissian told his family’s story at the institute’s first conference in Yerevan after Armenia seceded from Soviet Union.
"I thought this was the perfect place to tell people about humanity. And to use the example of men like Khalil to extend my hand to Turkish people, saying: 'At one point, some tyrant, some terrible people may have taken over control of your country and committed this Genocide but there were also people like Khalil'."
The speech worked better than he could ever have imagined. "When I came down off the podium, this guy came in and he was sobbing and hugged me. He was a Turk called Taner Akcam, a descendant of one of the most respected writers in Turkey. He was so moved by what I had said."
An even more emotional incident took place the next day.
"We went to a church for the commemoration of the victims of the Genocide. I took Taner’s hand and we bought candles. I said: 'I want you to light this candle in memory of my grandfather and I want to light this candle in memory of Haji Khalil because these two people are united.’ We embraced each other and we pledged to commit ourselves to the unearthing of our shared history, to create a dialogue that will change the hearts and the minds of our two peoples.' The movement says: ‘Our enemies tried to kill us but they did not succeed. Not only through our own resourcefulness and determination but also thanks to some darn good people in the world who came to help us'. When somebody puts their life at risk to save another, we should celebrate them."
He is putting his money where his mouth is. He is the largest contributor of funds to Zoryan Institute’s projects that include the summer school in Toronto where students from Turkey are invited to study the Armenian Genocide alongside Armenians. The Institute pays their tuition, travel and lodging costs. Eleven of the Turkish students who have attended the course have chosen to do their doctoral degree on issues related to the Armenian Genocide.
Sarkissian is convinced that, thanks to the work of the Zoryan Institute and movements like 100 Lives, the truth and reconciliation will come. "The truth will out and when it does both Armenians and Turks will be free to look forward. We have no choice. Geographically we’re neighbours. We have to find a way to live together. One hundred years after the Genocide is a very good time to start."