Escaping to Sanctuary


How many young people in America today have actually met a survivor of a war or massive, oppressive, hostile takeover?  Moreover, how many people can say that a refugee from the middle of the Syrian desert was living across the street from them?  I can.  It was a stroke of genius to pursue my neighbor and ask her to share her incredible story with me and my community.  As you will see, she earned her place in the sun.  I decided that Mrs. Mannig Keshkekian would be an excellent person to interview about the Armenian genocide and have her story be told.  I gave her a call and she gladly accepted.  I was invited in to the humble yet elegantly decorated home, which seemed to have a worldly quality to it. There were African figures on the shelves, there were Egyptian paintings on the walls, and many priceless collectibles scattered throughout the home.  All of these items were all too familiar yet begging for their story to be discovered.

I sat at the kitchen table across from a small woman with a slight build who kept herself neatly manicured and her hair dyed light brown.  She and her daughter, Shake, greeted me with a big, traditional Armenian embrace and proceeded to feed me as was custom when visiting an Armenian household.  I know her as Tantig Mannig, which means “Aunt” Mannig in Armenian. (I refer to her daughters as my Tantigs too even though we are not truly related).  I began my conversation with her by asking her permission for her to tell me her difficult yet fascinating life story.

I began by saying, “I asked your daughter Shake once how you all came to America?”

It was then that Ms. Shake, one of her two daughters with whom Mannig lived, replied with the origin of the whole event.  In her very thick Armenian accent, with a hint of English accent, Ms. Shake began saying that their story was because of the Armenian genocide.  She started by telling me that “The Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century that took place on April 24, 1915.”  This genocide was instigated by the Ottoman Turks.  Their main purpose was to annihilate the whole Armenian population living in Turkey.

I asked Ms. Mannig if this line of questioning was too painful, but she said not at all and insisted that I listen carefully to a story that was very important to her, and she felt an urgency to be sure someone else knew about this genocide.  To all Armenians, it is their duty to pass on stories so that none of this history will be forgotten.  She often said, “Now listen to this!”  She too had a very thick Armenian accent.  During this difficult time, Mannig said that, “One and a half million Armenians, men, women and children, were stripped of all of their possessions and slaughtered or cast out into the deserts with only the clothes on their backs and without food or water.”  All the academicians, scholars, and priests were driven from their homes at night and all hanged.

I asked what were some of the other atrocities that Ms. Mannig had witnessed. She said that many of these people were tortured in the most heinous manners, such as raping and kidnapping the young girls to be sold at the market as slaves.  They were also forcefully converted to Islam.

I then asked her. “What is one thing that stands out in your mind that was particularly gruesome?”

She said that “Even though I was only five years old at that time, I will never forget what the soldiers did.  They took unborn babies from their mother’s womb, tossed them in the air, and impaled them with spears as a sign of Turkish bravery.  Many women took their children and ran and threw themselves off the cliff to avoid meeting such a brutal fate.  Of the remaining Armenians, any adult males who accompanied their families were shot on the spot.  Also, any families who were seen as being a burden were thrown into the river and shot systematically.”

I shared a family story with her.  I told her that I too, being from 100% Greek decent, have a similar story in that many Greeks were tortured by the Turks, and many women took their children and jumped off mountain cliffs to their deaths to avoid torture.  Some even ran to the hills to avoid capture.  There are many Greek songs which talk about these events.  I told the story that my physical qualities of light skin and light eyes come from my ancestors being very good runners.  My mother tells that story a lot because she has blonde hair and blue eyes.  We both laughed at that comment.

Mrs. Mannig Keshkekian is a survivor of the Armenian Genocide who, at that time, was only five years old and witnessed many of these atrocities committed by the Ottoman Turkish soldiers, and it is because of her courage that these true recounts of history are able to be told today.  It was at that time, while living in the desert with her aunt, that her mother died during childbirth of her younger sibling, and she was then raised by her aunt.  I asked Mannig if she ever thought that her temporary family didn’t want to deal with her, if she ever felt like a burden?  She said that, “My uncle considered me a burden because he had his own children to worry about, but my aunt refused to leave me behind as my uncle wanted to do.”

I then wanted to know what games, traditions, or lessons she was taught to ensure survival of her culture after she was thrown into the desert. She stated that “Some of the ways the women kept their children educated was by reciting the alphabet and writing in the sand to teach us the Armenian ways so as to not forget our heritage.  We read bible stories to pass the time and to preserve our Christian faith; we were the first nation to accept Christianity as the religion of the state.”  Mannig’s aunt made her repeat, daily, her father’s name, Sahag, and her name, Mannig, over and over so that she would not forget in case she survived and would be reunited with him; Mannig’s father left his family for Egypt just before the genocide in search of a better life for them.  Her aunt became very sick and ultimately died. Twice, her uncle tried to get rid of Mannig. He eventually gave her away to a Turkish soldier to work as a maid for a doctor, but the doctor returned her to her uncle because she was too fragile.

“How did you get to safety?”  I asked.

Mannig said, “After crossing the Syrian desert, I ended up in an American orphanage in Aleppo, Syria, with a large number of other Armenian orphans.”  Once the war was over, she said, “Many people set out in search of any of their surviving, Armenian relatives.”  She said it was a miracle that her father, Sahag, found her in the orphanage and brought her back with him to Egypt.  I asked her what she did after her father found her and rescued her?  She stated that, “I spent most of my life there and attended an Armenian school run by Armenian Catholic nuns.”  She later met her husband in Egypt.  The British colonized Sudan, and all of the displaced Armenians ultimately moved to Sudan.  I told her that I wondered if education was something women were able to obtain during that time.  She said that “In other parts of the world, it would be unusual to have women be educated, but we knew that education was the key to survival and thus was very important to us.  Education for all was embraced.  Thank God.”

Mannig married in 1926 in Khartoum, Sudan.  She and her husband had two daughters and lived a very good life.  After a while, the Sudanese wanted independence from British rule, and tensions rose.  Because of the unrest, they were forced to move from their country to the United States in 1967 due to a Sudanese civil war.  They settled in California where both daughters lived and worked.

“How easy was it to get American citizenship after moving to America?” I asked.

“After the transition to American life, it was fairly easy to get citizenship because both of my daughters had gone to American schools.  Because the people in America were so friendly and helpful, we were able to heal from the emotional scars of the pain we had endured throughout our lives,” she said.

“Today, do you feel any trace of loyalty to the Turks?”

She abruptly answered, “In reflecting upon any traces of loyalty to the Turks, I have absolutely none!  In fact all Armenians, to this day, passed on their prejudice to their children on purpose, but there is a lot of loyalty still to the Sudanese; they welcomed Armenians into their country and were good to us.”  The Turkish government thrives on oppression and cruelty.  The Turks still to this day won’t acknowledge that the genocide even occurred; until there is acknowledgement of this event, the Armenians will continue to nurture the hatred for the Turks for generations to come.

Mannig glared at me with her steely eyes and paused to be sure I heard her urgency about the fact that there has not been any acknowledgement until very recently.  There is proof in many, many textbooks written by foreign scholars that this genocide did in fact happen.  Progress is being made, but it is very slow.  Just this year, 2012, some of the texts are introducing the Armenian genocide to the high school curriculum.  Also, the French president just announced in March of this year, that whoever denies the Armenian genocide will be jailed.  This is huge and widely celebrated progress for the Armenian community.  United States historical archives also contain factual witness accounts, texts, and films that describe and are proof of this genocide from Americans, Swiss, and Swedish backgrounds.  Some of the major pieces of proof are telegrams sent by Henry Morgenthau, the American Ambassador to Turkey, begging the U.S. to stop this horrendous event.

I asked next, “What’s happening today in terms of what the Government is doing with the Armenian genocide knowledge?”

She was proud to say that “Today, there is a massive movement for Turkey to force the Turks to acknowledge this event, and it is even in the Turkish government archives.”  Her voice got louder and more insistent as most Armenians do when discussing politics or anything to do with this genocide.  Today, however, these sections of the archives are not accessible to the general public.  There are still Christians in Turkey, however, who are still being oppressed and abused because of their religious beliefs.

One note worth mentioning that during the time of Hitler, he justified his reign of terror by saying, “Who, after all, remembers the Armenian genocide?”

This fight for peace is far from over.  I thanked Mannig for reliving some of these very difficult memories and for sharing them with me.  I had a better understanding and appreciation for her strength.

Sadly, Ms. Mannig has passed away, as has her eldest daughter Susan Keshkekian.  I dedicate this story to my Tantigs Shake and Susan in honor of their amazing mother, Mannig Keshkekian.