by Gonca Sonmez-Poole
We are approaching another April 24, the day when Armenians around the world remember the lives lost during the massacres of 1915, otherwise known as the Armenian genocide. The significance of this day, coupled with the official denial of this event by every single Turkish government since 1923, makes April a very taxing month for those involved in strengthening Armenian-Turkish relations. Every April, as the official national narratives of Armenia, Turkey, and lobbying groups on either side get circulated with vigor and force, another more unique narrative gets sidelined, one in which the style and structure arises from the bottom and moves up, instead of descending from the top down.
Whether it is called dialogue, rapprochement, or track-two work, in every method of conflict resolution relating to Armenian-Turkish relations, the expression “the elephant in the room” is used and abused repeatedly. The reason is simple enough: the 1915 Armenian genocide, or the events of 1915 (as recently elevated from the “so-called Armenian genocide” by the Turkish government) is a sensitive subject over which the countries involved have been fighting for almost a century. Hence, the elephant—whether the word “genocide” is uttered or avoided by Turkish people—is deeply important for the majority of Armenians around the world.
But there is another way to spark engagement between Armenians and Turks: organizing grassroots efforts to bring Armenian and Turkish individuals together without a predetermined agenda. One such example is TAWA (Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance), an entirely grassroots group I started in Boston in September 2012. I sought out a diverse group of Armenians and Turks, looking for one very basic commonality—simply being female. I made clear at TAWA’s first meeting that I had no particular agenda, but that I would ideally like to arrive at a “shared purpose” to put our various backgrounds and skills (as artists, educators, engineers, academics, activists, and fundraisers) to some good use.
Following our first meeting, I asked members of TAWA about their future expectations regarding our group. Here are some of their comments:
Tsoleen Sarian: “I can’t change other people’s minds, I can’t explain centuries of history… but if I myself can learn a little bit more, and if I can grow in my understanding, then excellent.”
Zeren Earls: “I haven’t really made an effort to get to know Armenian people, just because I’m not near them usually, and this gives an opportunity to find out who they are and what they’re doing in an environment that I feel would be useful.”
Laura Bilazarian-Purutyan: “I am coming here as the granddaughter of survivors… I’m trying to hold on to their experience and honor it, but there is a problem on the table: you know, it’s an ongoing problem of lack of recognition… am I at risk of losing something in this conversation… honoring my grandparents?”
The more I talk to group participants and the more they talk to each other, the more I realize that we do not have to speak about the “elephant” in order to communicate. We simply have to acknowledge one another and be curious about what makes each one of us who we are: the unique product of our background, our upbringing, our education, and our social environment.
What does this mean on the official policy level? Turkey is currently mired in a controversial domestic policy issue regarding the Kurds and the definition of citizenship under the Turkish constitution. With only 40,000 to 70,000 Armenians living in Turkey today, in contrast with the 12 to 15 million Kurds, it may be naïve to think that the country will be tackling the 1915 issue anytime soon. The border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed, and Turkey has made it clear that its efforts at normalizing relations with Armenia cannot be separated from the relationship between Azerbaijan (Turkey’s ally) and Armenia, two countries at war over the Caucasian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Notwithstanding, making an effort at reconciliation and dialogue, through initiatives like TAWA, is better than simply accepting the status quo.
It is time for grassroots stakeholders, whether Turkish or Armenian, to begin investing their energy and resources in efforts that are humanizing, rather than polarizing. So I suggest this strategy to any community leaders and organizers out there: exit elephant, and enter dialogue— as the TAWA women have been doing for the past eight months. At this early stage, it may be too soon to tell whether the efforts of our civil society group will translate into agreement on certain basic facts about our shared history. With nearly a century mired in top-down narratives, any discussion of history needs to be handled gingerly, with both eyes open, and away from the perils of doom saying and hate mongering. If we can avoid falling victim to such traps, we can find ways to make small, yet substantial inroads into what naysayers keep calling an “intractable” conflict.
About the Author
Gonca Sönmez-Poole is a TV producer, filmmaker, and writer. She has spent two decades working for WCVB-TV’s Chronicle program, followed by thirteen years managing her own nonprofit organization, Mediation Way, Inc. Gonca is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s mid-career MA program. For the past seven years, she has dedicated her free time to Armenian-Turkish dialogue work around Boston, Massachusetts.