“Newton? That’s not a very Armenian surname.” This is what people usually say to me when they discover my Armenian heritage. My great-grandfather, Newton Mesrop, was born in Harput, or what is now modern Eastern Turkey. His father was a teacher at the American missionary Euphrates College and they lived a comfortable life as part of a large Armenian community that had lived for many centuries in Anatolia until 1895. According to the accounts of my family, the Ottoman Gendarmes entered their village with intent to arrest and execute intellectual “subversives.” However, an American missionary brought out an American flag and stated that if they harmed anyone they would face the full might of the United States. This act of heroism bought my family enough time to flee to America, where my grandfather changed his name to Mesrop Newton. Many others were not so lucky; 20 years afterwards they were subjected to what has been deemed by almost all the states in the Union and many countries around the world as genocide.
Though these horrific events remain firmly in the past, the genocide has continued to affect my entire family. After all, our family name, a core piece of anyone’s identity, was completely altered by those events.
This time last year, I was in Montreal with a good friend of mine and the topic of my family origin came up as I met his McGill friends. As I told the story above, I noticed one listener start to fold his arms and furrow his brow. Just as I finished, to my astonishment, he said, “It didn’t happen. It’s not true.” I told him that this is my history, not the Government of Armenia’s. After disclaiming that he was Turkish, he retorted that the facts are not clear and that the genocide should be put up to debate.
There is not only a substantial lack of knowledge around the world of what happened, but also an absence of will to try and understand it even 100 years later. While the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum stands next to the National Mall as a fitting tribute to those who died at the hands of the Nazis, the planned site for the Armenian Genocide Museum of America at 14th and G Streets languishes as a former bank with boarded up windows. President Obama has still not honored his 2008 election pledge to recognize the genocide in an attempt to curry favor with Turkey amidst the crisis in the Middle East. Even the visit by the Kardashian family to Armenia, to raise awareness about the events of 1915, has been overshadowed in the media by Kanye’s absurd mid-lake concert on April 12, 2015.
America’s reluctance on this issue is perplexing. The United States was previously very active in 1915 in condemning the Ottoman Empire’s actions and in sending humanitarian aid to those affected. America has also been at the forefront in recognizing and condemning other events of ethnic cleansing such as the Holocaust and the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia. Yet 100 years on, I cannot help but feel that most Americans outside of the Armenian community would not conjure up the same reaction to the 1915 Armenian Genocide as they would to the Holocaust.
Armenian Genocide remembrance day is April 24, which also happens to be Georgetown Day this year. I don’t ask people to give up a day of fun – that is not the point. We need to remember for more than just one day a year. The opening quote in this article can be attributed to Hitler, in his justification for invading Poland in 1939. We should strive to prove him wrong, further the efforts to recognize the genocide and always remember those who suffered because of who they were. I remember and demand.
Michael Newton is a sophomore in the School of Foreign service.
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