A Project for Peace and the power of preserving refugees’ stories

A “passion for Armenian causes” prompted Anoush Baghdassarian ’17 and Ani Schug (PO ’17) to found the 5Cs Armenian Student Association.  

That same passion took them to Armenia last summer for a project to collect stories from Syrian Armenians who fled Aleppo to escape the Syrian war. They wanted to humanize the refugees as individuals, rather than anonymous subjects of news reports. “Overall, we wanted to empower people through saving and sharing their stories,” Baghdassarian said.

The pair gathered testimony from 81 people, including harrowing personal stories as the fighting spilled into their neighborhoods.

One refugee, Angel Ajemian, talked about how daily explosions forced her husband to quit his job and the couple to pull their three young children out of school. Another, Hagop Kereshian, recounted a ride out of Aleppo, in which the driver sped up to avoid gunfire: “We reached places where the driver said this kilometer we are going to go very fast because we are under fire.”

Running through the testimony was the desperate feeling that escaping Aleppo was the only choice. That extreme violence had invaded formerly safe places in universities, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces.

Getting out was also often terrifying. Ajemian’s family faced a 17-hour bus ride to Lebanon. “It was so torturous,” she said. “We would get stopped every 15 minutes. We had to get out of the bus and they searched our bags. And with three kids, it was hard. They were getting nauseous, and I was too. Mentally we were finished.”

Ajemian’s husband didn’t make it. He was kidnapped and eventually killed.

Listening to such stories deeply moved Baghdassarian and Schug.

“I was humbled by how resilient and strong-headed our interviewees were,” Baghdassarian said. “They each encountered different challenges and obstacles along their journey and faced them head-on with tremendous courage and faith. I was incredibly humbled by their resourcefulness and survivor attitude.”

Schug said: “While these stories were often difficult to hear, I walk away from our summer with so much respect and awe for what our interviewees were able to overcome and accomplish in their lives.”

The idea for the project – which was funded by the Davis Projects for Peace Prize – was sparked when Baghdassarian interned at Human Rights Watch during the summer of 2016. While at HRW in New York, she complied information about Syrian refugees and learned of the obstacles Syrian Armenians are facing in Armenia.

“Having studied the American media’s response to the Armenian Genocide,” Baghdassarian said, “and the lack of survivor testimony that presently allows narratives of denial, I saw similarities between the two situations; and knew I had to intervene to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of our past.

“Narratives from the Armenian Genocide, and from other atrocities like the Holocaust and Rwanda for example, always held a great amount of weight for me because they humanized the statistics. They allowed me to connect individually with the survivors on a personal level, which drew me closer to the topic and towards this mission of securing justice for persecuted groups.”

In Armenia, the pair spent long days interviewing refugees and collecting research and stories.

“We alternated between interviewing and technology duties, so if there were four interviews in a day, we'd switch back and forth, each doing two,” Baghdassarian said. “Then, we also had two different interpreters who were extremely helpful and patient throughout the whole process.

“Ani and I went into this project with the goal of collecting between 40 and 80 testimonies, and in the end, we surpassed that and collected 81 testimonies in five and a half weeks.”

Many partner organizations helped with the work and connected them with interview subjects, including the Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization, Mission Armenia, Mission East, IDeA Foundation, the national Armenian Students’ Association, and USC’s Shoah Foundation.

Next Wednesday, Baghdassarian will discuss what she and Schug have learned from their experiences in a lunchtime Athenaeum presentation. Next month, she will return to Armenia to intern with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and continue to document the testimonies of Syrian-Armenian refugees. A psychology and Spanish dual major with a sequence in Holocaust and human rights studies, she plans to work toward a master’s degree starting next fall and then go to law school to study human rights law.

Through it all she’ll advocate for wider understanding of the plight of refugees.

“We hope history is not forgotten,” she said. “And that these families can get the help that they need. We hope this work can aid humanitarian groups and governments to understand the problems that refugees everywhere face in resettling in a new country.”

Lori Kozlowski ’00