Vox Pops: Life as an Armenian in Turkey

Al Jazeera spoke with Armenians born and raised in Turkey about how they define themselves within the broader society.

Armenian church
A resident sits inside an Armenian Protestant church in Istanbul. Estimates of the number of Armenian Turkish citizens living in Turkey range up to 70,000 [Huseyin Narin/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul – The population of Armenian Turkish citizens living in Turkey is unclear, with estimates ranging up to 70,000. With a legal minority status in Turkey as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 for all non-Muslim minority groups, they are entitled to “an equal right to establish, manage and control at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use their own language and to exercise their own religion freely therein”.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the 1915 mass killings of Armenians – defined by Armenia as genocide, a claim the Turkish government denies – Al Jazeera spoke with Armenians who were born and raised in Turkey about their lives, experiences, and how they define and place themselves within the broader Turkish society. 

Arman Duraduryan, 42, dentist, Istanbul
Arman Duraduryan [Al Jazeera]
Arman Duraduryan [Al Jazeera]

Armenian and Muslim families are both protective in terms of mixed marriages. I am married to a Turkish Armenian and my family did not want me to marry a Turkish Muslim. I could convince them, but it would take a lot of effort. The same is valid for Muslim families most of the time. I don’t feel any difference between my Armenian or Muslim friends. I have more secular Muslim friends than Armenians. 

Under the Justice and Development Party government, the state institutions got much better in delivering cultural, religious and educational facilities to Armenians. They regularly renovate schools and churches. This was really hard in the past; there were many bureaucratic obstacles.

Although the government is making various gestures towards Armenia and Turkish Armenians, it will never recognise the genocide. The incidents of 1915 and the killing of Hrant Dink [a prominent activist/journalist killed by a Turkish nationalist in 2007] are two traumatic events that affect our identities.

Levon Bagis, 35, wine expert, Istanbul
Levon Bagis [Al Jazeera]
Levon Bagis [Al Jazeera]

I haven’t come across any problems over my identity in my educational or professional life. However, I have been in various annoying situations in my daily life. During a photography trip we took, I told a person on duty at the site that I was Armenian. I still can’t forget his reply: “Of course not.” [This phrase is used in Turkish if one criticises or insults himself.]

One gets used to this sort of encounter over time. Our president said similar words when he was the prime minister. Armenians do not hide their identity, but prefer not to talk about it in public. When I was a child, my mother advised me not to call her “mother” in Armenian in public.

Our family is quite open. My older sister’s husband is not Armenian and my parents did not take it in a negative way. The majority of my long-term friends are not Armenians. I don’t feel different in my interactions with them

Arno Kalayci, 22, law student, Istanbul
Arno Kalayci [Al Jazeera]
Arno Kalayci [Al Jazeera]

We come across discrimination in different contexts in our daily lives. When I was a child, I was harassed by other children because of my ethnic roots. That influenced my adolescence a lot. As I grew up, I have seen people like Hrant Dink, Sevag Balikci [an Armenian Turkish citizen killed while doing his mandatory military service in 2011] and Maritsa Kucuk [an 85-year-old woman stabbed to death in her house in 2012] being killed for the same reason.

The state does not help Armenian schools and churches. And vice principles at schools have to be Turkish Muslims by law – which is discriminatory. These people act as if they monitor potential treachery at schools.

I believe the government’s policy on the genocide is not sincere. It is a presentable version of the decades-long denial policy.

Savas Arno Zanbakcioglu, 30, IT specialist, Istanbul
Savas Arno Zanbakcioglu [Al Jazeera]
Savas Arno Zanbakcioglu [Al Jazeera]

Not only Armenians, but any Turkish non-Muslim faces certain problems while living in Turkey. Professional life is a good example for this. You try not to use your name in certain environments. If people you are dealing with know you are a non-Muslim, your business opportunities decrease. During my mandatory military service, I preferred to use my second name [a Turkish name], instead of my real name.

I don’t think the state contributes to Armenians much for us to perform our religious duties. I have not heard them building a new church or creating religious courses for non-Muslims in regular schools. This government polarised the society, so the love, tolerance and understanding we used to have in the past do not exist any more.

I, an Armenian living in Turkey, have always defined myself as a Turk. I consider myself a part of this society, instead of seeing myself as a member of a minority group. For this reason, I get on with my life and prefer not to be stuck in what happened in 1915. However, because of the polarising environment created by this government, for the first time in my life, I have considered moving to another country to raise my children there.

Norayr Olgar, 23, archive officer, Istanbul
Norayr Olgar [Al Jazeera]
Norayr Olgar [Al Jazeera]

Similar to all Armenians living in Turkey, I have experienced difficulties in my daily life due to my identity. However, the killing of Hrant Dink and Sevag Balikci as well as attacks in neighbourhoods where Armenians mostly live in Istanbul, show that Turkey is an insecure place for Armenians to live. Most Armenian mothers warn their children not to speak in their mother tongue.

The Turkish state continues with its denial policy regarding the genocide. Today, we see the same unfair mentality at courts in the cases of Hrant Dink, Sevag Balikci and similar ones. There are people who moved to many parts of the world because of what happened in 1915, losing their identities, forgetting their music and language.

In Turkey, non-Muslim Turkish citizens cannot get jobs at state institutions. And as a man, I wouldn’t want to go to mandatory military service after the murder of Sevag Balikci.

Anonymous, 31, translator, Istanbul
Anonymous [Al Jazeera]
Anonymous [Al Jazeera]

In Istanbul it is easy for Armenians to satisfy their cultural and religious needs. I have never had any problems visiting the church or going to a cultural event, such as exhibitions or concerts, with Armenian themes or in the Armenian language.

However, Turkish Armenians are stuck in Istanbul, because there is no way to satisfy these needs in Anatolia. That is the reason our ancestors moved to Istanbul. Of course, there is a general population flow towards Istanbul. However, there are far more reasons to move to Istanbul for Armenians compared to other Turkish citizens.

We grew up with the awareness of what happened in 1915, although our parents did not tell us the details. It is an incident we keep in mind at school and work as well as in our friend and partner choices. Generally, one becomes friends with people who can talk about it. It is a tragic incident not only for Armenians, but for Turks and for this region in general.

Source: Al Jazeera