By Daron Bedrosyan
Like many young adults in this country, I am a first generation Canadian. My parents both left their native Turkey as lonely teenagers immediately after completing high school to pursue higher education and wider opportunities in Canada. But migration is nothing new to my family – each generation since the start of the 20th century has gone through major re-settlements. My family’s story spans from rural villages in Eastern Turkey, to the urban heart of Istanbul, to the freedoms we now enjoy in Canada. It is a story of ongoing persecution, resettlement and hard work that is certainly not unique to refugees. I owe my parents a great deal for focusing my family perspective on important goals our ancestors passed on to us. We have tried to keep these goals consistent throughout each generation of migration:
- The importance of family for basic survival and health;
- The pursuit of a quality education by any means necessary;
- And the ambition to integrate, advance and be involved in the progress of whatever new society we are settled in.
These are migrants’ goals for settlement and betterment that we all share as Canadians and as human beings. To this day, I remain grateful to my grandfather for instilling this perspective in us after his unlikely survival of the First World War in the Ottoman Empire, in modern-day Turkey.
My grandfather Haig was born in 1915 in a small village in Eastern Turkey named Lice (pronounced Lee – jeh). During his mother’s pregnancy, his father was taken from their Lice home by Ottoman officials. Beginning in April 1915, all Armenian men in Armenian villages were marched on deportations to unannounced locations where they were supposed to be resettled as labourers. In the years that followed during the war, Ottoman soldiers began deporting the remaining Armenian women and children of these villages as well. It was during these state-ordered deportations that the deaths of the majority of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire occurred at the hands of Ottoman soldiers – events that have been characterized as the Armenian Genocide.
Haig was fortunate to survive this tragedy as a refugee in his own homeland. His mother had to send him to live with her surviving relatives in Diyarbakir, the nearest city in Eastern Turkey. She instructed her relatives to ensure Haig would receive a high school education (not common at the time) and involve him in rebuilding what was left of their community after the war. Although Haig began his life in Diyarbakir like a refugee, he grew into a business owner and community leader with the help of his extended family. As a young adult raising his two sons, he realized that their opportunities to advance in Diyarbakir would be limited. Being Armenian and living in Eastern Turkey meant that they would face both religious and economic persecution. Haig wanted better for his family and his community.
Haig decided to move to Istanbul shortly after the birth of his first daughter, my mother Joy. Although he was starting over with his business and his family, he also dedicated as much of his time, if not more, to lead an organized effort to send Armenian children from Eastern Turkey to boarding school in Istanbul, with the hopes of easing the path for their families to move westward for better economic and educational opportunities. It was the same vision that ultimately motivated both Haig’s daughter and my father to each pursue their higher education in Canada. As members of the Christian Armenian minority in Turkey, they were essentially closed off from the public sector and corporate job markets. Without the capital to start their own businesses in Istanbul, they embraced the opportunity to earn a degree and a professional living in Canada.
Nearly half a century later, my brother and I face no such obstacles at the start of our adult lives. My mother and father have worked hard to make the most of their opportunities in Canada after they earned scholarships to the University of Toronto in the 1970s, thanks in large part to the quality education their parents worked hard to afford them in Istanbul. We are proud of our family’s history of resettlement just as much as the next Canadian, whether it spans from country to country, province to province, or town to town. It is this pride that inspires us to appreciate and contribute to a better Canada.