Sometimes, we have to take pause, to remember why we are here

Michael Zeytoonian Perspectives

We took a break from our weekly blog entry in April to celebrate the Easter & Passover holidays. Personally, I took an extra week’s pause because my parents were visiting us from Wisconsin. And today, as I sat down to write this week’s blog, I recognize, as every Armenian undoubtedly does, that this day is Armenian Martyrs’ Day.

April 24 is a day of commemoration and remembrance, on which Armenians all over the world take pause to remember the tragic loss of 1.5 million Armenians killed senselessly in an act of failed Genocide by the Ottoman government early in the 20th century. It is a historical fact that touches every Armenian family, each with our own oral and written history of how the massacres impacted our families. Each family resettled in places all around the world and began what is now known as the Armenian “Diaspora”, a network that powerfully connects me with every countryman of mine, wherever he or she may live.

Today, we recommit ourselves to joining forces of conscience with others who have suffered as victims of genocide, holocaust or ethnic cleansing. In some small way, each of us works to make sure that this kind of atrocity and human tragedy never happens again. Each of us is ingrained with the values of accountability for one’s actions, reconciliation, and perhaps the hardest but valuable acts of acceptance and forgiveness. 

On this day, we also honor the spirit and will of those who survived the Genocide, who settled in new lands and started over, carrying the torch of Armenian ethnic and religious tradition in their hearts and minds. We honor their accomplishment of replanting the essence of what it is to be Armenian in every corner of the world. Even in an unspeakable tragedy, there have been remarkably positive by-products. Today, my people are an international community, exchanging our culture, heritage, tradition and religion with other ethnic groups and nations, creating new Armenian communities wherever we settled. As the Armenian writer William Saroyan wrote:

Go ahead, destroy Armenia.  See if you can do it.  Send them into the dessert without bread or water.  Burn their homes and churches.  Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again.  For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.  

For me, in my professional life as a problem solver in the field of dispute resolution, two of the unintended by-products contribute to my vocation, as well as to the person I am. One is the appreciation I have for a person’s ethnic heritage and culture, for his or her ethos, which is different than my Armenian-Irish-American soul. With that appreciation comes respect for our differences, the antithesis of discrimination and prejudice. It is no accident that I work as a lawyer and mediator to prevent discrimination, working to reach deeper, more meaningful resolution of discrimination and harassment disputes.

The other by-product has taught me what connectedness and interdependence is all about. The 1915 tragedy suffered by my ancestors connects me with those who suffered from apartheid in South Africa, from the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, from the Holocaust under Hitler’s tyranny and from Stalin’s great purges. From South African culture, I learned of the spirit of “Ubuntu” or connectedness that links each of us with each other. And so I am connected with my Irish kinsman who suffered from the great famine and from British domination, with the members of the “First Nations” who were driven from their lands by North American settlers, to every family whose history included the story of slavery and bondage, to Japanese interned in the U.S. in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and to Jews and Palestinians alike who have been uprooted or killed senselessly because of who they are or where they live.

And yes, I share a connection even with those of Turkish descent, some of whom had grandparents whose acts saved the lives of many Armenians and some of who are caught up in a dispute that is not of their doing. And while there remains a need to acknowledge the acts of a prior Turkish government, there is also a need for reconciliation, because while we have different religious beliefs, the truth is we look the same, we eat the same foods, we listen to the same music, our cultural history has come from the same piece of this earth, and we are fellow human beings.

On this day of April 24, 2009, 94 years after the Armenian Genocide of 1915, I need to give pause, reflect on why I am here and how I have become who I am. On this day, I honor the martyrs and survivors in my family by acknowledging that this past contributes in large part to my professional “ministry”, inspires the way I practice law and energizes my work helping people resolve conflict.