As the ship began to pull away, Valia watched the cruel beauty of the Turkish mountains grow smaller. It was as if they were slowly being chiseled by sharp clouds and biting rain. She was fifteen years old. She struggled to remember her parents’ faces, but all she could see was the emptiness of death. It was as if their death erased her memory of them. She raged against the soldiers that murdered them.
She didn’t want to go to America and live with her aunt. She wanted to stay home. She wanted to be with her parents.
Valia reached into her pocket and found a piece of pink tufa stone. She had picked it up near her house a few days before she and her older brother, Aram, made their escape. The stone reminded her of her father, a mason. Many said he was the best in all of Erzurum.
It was time to go down into the steerage. Valia was overwhelmed with the stench of overcrowded compartments. Deep in the hold, ventilation was poor and she strained not to vomit. They had no dining room, lounge, shower, nor any other comfort. Those things were reserved for the rich. She tried to sleep, but it was no use. She kept thinking about home, remembering how her mother used to prepare lavash, slipping it into the tundir, anticipating the smells of dough and flame and smoke.
Valia held the stone tightly, her hand streaked with red, and thought of her father, how he used to tell her stories about their people. “The Armenians were borne from the land where time began anew,” he often told her, “where Noah descended from Mt. Ararat, where our ancestors fought for centuries against the hordes of Persia. And now Turkey is trying to conquer us again. This land was given to us by God. It should never be taken away from us.”
Eighteen days later Valia and her brother arrived at Ellis Island. Hundreds of eager immigrants pushed and shoved as they exited the ship. Aram pulled Valia closer to him, protected her from the rush. Off the ship, men in uniform herded them like cattle, pushed them in line, forced them to stand for what seemed like generations.
Valia went first. The doctor shoved a stick down her throat, inspected her eyes and ears and gave the okay. She was clear to go. She held Aram’s hand as the doctor inspected him.
Something was wrong. A chalk mark was placed on Aram’s shoulder and he began to scream at the doctor. “My sister! Not leave her!” he yelled in broken English. “Not leave her! Khndrem! Khndrem!” he pleaded. “Please! Please!”
But they didn’t understand his words; only his screams.
Valia gripped his arm. His voice scared her. “Brother, what’s wrong?”
“They won’t let me go. They say I’m sick.”
He punched the doctor in the face. There was a loud cracking sound. The doctor toppled over the table and crashed to the ground, blood gushing from his broken nose.
A swarm of guards surrounded Aram and Valia. “Please come here, little girl,” one of them said, waving his hand, but Valia held on to her brother.
Aram gently pushed her away. “Ganna,” he said softly. “Go. I’ll be fine.”
Reluctantly, she let go and walked towards the guard that spoke to her. When she was safe, the other guards moved in, forcing Aram’s hands behind his back, handcuffing his wrists.
Valia waited for Aram. Finally, after three terrifying and miserable days, the doctor’s diagnosis of trachoma was ruled incorrect and Aram was released.
Valia and Aram waited on the dock for the ferry to arrive. As they climbed aboard, Valia hoped that her aunt would be on the other side to greet them.
I am a US Peace Corps Volunteer serving in the Philippines.
Motivation: This piece was inspired by my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia. My host family used to tell me stories about the Turkish army rounding up many Armenians and executing them before and during World War I. Many Armenians, however, escaped, some going to the US.
There is still a debate on whether or not the slaughter of 1.5,000,000 Armenians between 1913-1917 was a genocide.