Armenian Americans feel the violent struggles of their homeland from across the world by Megan K. Brush and Dr. Sarita Melkon Maldjian

As conflict rages in Armenia, Armenian Americans are feeling the effects on their ancestral homeland from thousands of miles away.

I had the unique opportunity to interview Dr. Sarita Melkon Maldjian, who has been a professor in the English and Core departments at Seton Hall University since the fall of 2021, about the history of the conflict and her family’s response to it.

Maldjian’s family immigrated from Armenia to the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights after the Armenian genocide carried out by the Turkish Ottoman Empire 1915. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated as well as her paternal great grandparents. Her maternal great grandparents were murdered in the genocide.

Though Maldjian was born in America, the rich Armenian culture of her family was deeply integrated into her life growing up.

“It was my upbringing,” Maldjian told me. “Except for living and going to school in America, my daily life at home and with family was all Armenian in every way.”

She explained that though she speaks both English and Armenian, most of her family only spoke Armenian, making it her primary language used at home.

“I felt as though I was sort of living a dual life,” Maldjian said. “At home and in my inner circle it was all Armenian, and then when I stepped foot out of the house to go to school or my extracurricular activities, then I was American.”

She feels blessed to have continued maintaining the richness of her Armenian culture when she started her own family with her Armenian husband. Both of her teenage sons serve on the altar, and her daughter is the professional organist, at St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church in Livingston, New Jersey, where the family attends every Sunday.

“My children are experiencing their Armenianism not only in our home, but through our church, which is home away from home,” Maldjian said.

While her immediate and extended family are proud of their Armenian roots, they struggle with the ongoing conflict between their homeland and Azerbaijan.

The conflict is not recent. This war has raged on for centuries, with innocent Armenians being persecuted for their Christian faith by both Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Armenian genocide of 1915 consisted of the massacre of over one million Armenians by Azeris and Ottoman Turks. Following the genocide, Armenia and Azerbaijan became a part of the Soviet Union.

Maldjian’s family was directly impacted by the Armenian genocide, as her maternal great grandparents were murdered by the Ottoman Turks. The genocide also caused her family to flee Armenia and find a new home in New York City.  However, fighting did not end with the genocide.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin worked to separate ethnic populations in hopes of preventing them from revolting against the Soviet government.

The Republic of Artsakh, or the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh as it is known internationally, is an independent republic separate from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. While it is independent and conducts its own elections, the majority of its population is Armenian and has been since before Christ.

Stalin gave Artsakh to Azerbaijan, though the territory was 90 percent inhabited by Armenians.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the “Artsakh liberation movement” began as the Armenians in the region wanted to become an independent democratic state. This movement led to a six-year war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Armenia was victorious, and there was a tenuous détente between the two nations until 2020.

The beginning of a 44-day war started on September 27, 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a full-scale attack on Artsakh. The attack was also supported by Turkey. The war ended in the Armenians’ loss of 60 percent of the land in Artsakh.

“During this war, Azerbaijan committed many war crimes, including torturing prisoners of war, bombing maternity wards and hospitals, and specifically targeting civilian populations in schools and residential areas,” Maldjian said.

Russia placed peacekeepers in Artsakh to end the war. However, the war ended with Azerbaijan reclaiming much of the land of Artsakh. The war between Russia and Ukraine that began in 2022 forced Russia to remove most of its peacekeepers from the region.

Azerbaijan blocked the only road connecting Artsakh to the rest of the world, the Lachin corridor, in December 2022. Several human rights organizations reached out to the international community to try to stop this, but nothing was ever done. A humanitarian crisis ensued as a result of the Azeris shutting off the gas and water supply, as well as from starvation and lack of medicine.

More recently, on September 19, 2023, another full-scale attack on Artsakh was led by Azerbaijan, killing or wounding hundreds of Armenians. In just 36 hours, the people of Artsakh were forced to surrender due to lack of food and medicine. The remaining Russian peacekeepers evacuated civilians from villages until Azeri forces attacked and killed six Russian soldiers.

A week later, United States and other international officials landed at the border, leading negotiations for Azerbaijan to open the Lachin corridor and allow the surviving Armenians in Artsakh to leave. This weeklong conflict caused 100,000 Armenians to cross the border into Armenia proper.

Maldjian believes that the September 2023 attack was a second Armenian genocide, though it has not officially been titled one. While she wishes the United States would intervene, she notes that Azerbaijan has been supported in every war by Turkey, who is an ally to the U.S. through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In his “State of the World” address in January 2024, Pope Francis spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and added a special appeal for the protection of the monasteries and places of worship in the region. He expressed his hopes that these places of worship “can be respected and protected as part of the local culture, expressions of faith and a sign of a fraternity that makes it possible to live together despite differences.” 

Maldjian personally hopes for the best, but if history continues to repeat itself, she fears that these ancient sacred Christian landmarks will be destroyed as they were after the genocide of 1915 and the 2020 war with Azerbaijan.

She and her family have been donating to efforts helping Armenian refugees since the outbreak of the war in 2020. The process includes sending donations through banks to Armenia, with specific instructions on how to allocate the funds.

“My personal donation instructions to these families and family friends who were on the other side when we would send money through the bank was to buy food and treats for the children of Artsakh,” Maldjian said.

She and many others recently sent more donations to the orphans and displaced families now trying to make a new life in Armenia proper. Money, coats, clothes, and even bikes for children have been sent, with hopes that every little bit will help these Armenians start over again.

Maldjian hopes that one day Azerbaijan and Turkey will come to an understanding about the Armenian people and end their violence.

“We are very educated and hardworking people who mind our own business and just want to raise our children with Christianity, education, class, and culture,” she said.

She presses for the Turks to stop denying the genocide as well as for both the Turks and Azeris to finally make peace with Armenia.

“All we ask for is a peaceful life in the light and joy of our savior Jesus Christ,” she said. “I will pray for this always.” ♦

Megan K. Brush is a first-year student at Seton Hall University. She is studying public relations and hopes to one day pursue a career as a public relations professional and social media manager. At Seton Hall, she writes for The Setonian and is a member of the Buccino Leadership Institute.

Image: Family of Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, September 26, 2023. Voice of America / Public Domain

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1 reply
  1. Maria Nasif
    Maria Nasif says:

    A brilliant explanation of the history and current situation for Armenians in their homeland. This article truly gives in-depth and personal insight into the struggle and abuse that Armenians have faced for centuries.


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