“We are not dead yet”

Armenian orphanage memories

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After the Armenian genocide of 1915, thousands of children were left orphans. On of them was a boy called Vahan, who later got the last name Terchoonian. He was brought to Gyumri in northwestern Armenia and raised in one of the orphanages founded there by American missionaries (Gyumri was once called “the orphan city”).  With the help of the orphanage, Terchoonian, when he grew up, became an American citizen and moved to the United States. The orphanage later on became a military headquarter for the Soviet army. In 1988, the building was heavily damaged during the Spitak earthquake and left in ruins. Before Terchoonian’s death, he expressed a last will: to help the orphanage that saved him from starvation and illness and donate all his savings in order to rebuild it. A commission, led by Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian and Romen Gozmoyan found the orphanage and purchased the building. The process of rebuilding it began and, after long and arduous work, Terchoonian Home Orphanage opened its doors in 2003.

One of the members of the commission was the late Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2007. Dink had a similar childhood to Terchoonian: he spent an important part of his life in the Kamp Armen orphanage in Tuzla, Istanbul. The orphanage was expropriated by the Turkish state in 1983, after a four year long battle against a law from 1936, preventing minority foundations to own property. In 2011, the government made a historic decision to return such property but Kamp Armen, along with many other premises, was left out. Hrant Dink’s early reaction to the closure of Kamp Armen, where he was brought up and also met his future wife, Rakel Dink, was: “We are not dead yet, we will take our orphanage back!”. In 2015, the new owner announced plans to demolish the orphanage, which led activists and many from the Armenian community to protest the demolition. The demonstrations became a symbol of the continuing struggle for minority rights in Turkey. In the end, Kamp Armen was returned to its Armenian owners. Unfortunately, Hrant Dink did not live to witness this.

Places carry memory. When a place is destroyed, its memories are carried away, along with recollections and people’s identities.

In 2015, as a photographer I took part in “Acting Together”, a project with Turkish and Armenian participants taking a joint trip along the routes of the 1915 genocide. At the same time, there was growing unrest and anti-Kurdish violence in the east of Turkey, and the government declared a state of emergency in the eastern provinces. Interestingly, these events resemble much of what took place in Turkey exactly 100 years earlier. During the trip, I had the chance to visit the Kamp Armen orphanage, which was in the midst of fighting against the demolition. That was when I realised that Kamp Armen and Terchoonian Home Orphanage share the same memory, and that there even is a link between the two: Hrant Dink.

Places carry memory. When a place is destroyed, its memories are carried away, along with recollections and people’s identities. Terchoonian, Dink and many others are among those who did not let their past be taken away.

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These photos were taken at Terchoonian Home Orphanage and Kamp Armen, in the summer of 2015.

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