UC Irvine’s Olive Tree Initiative sent eight students, as part of its first delegation, to Armenia and Turkey for 10 days in March 2012. At their welcome back event last Tuesday, students shared how their experiences with various religious leaders, politicians, nongovernmental leaders, academics and other citizens helped them gain a better understanding of the tensions between Armenia and Turkey.
Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) was founded at UCI in 2007 in its efforts to promote conflict analysis and resolution, mainly within the Middle East. It is a student, faculty and community initiative that has three main aims that revolve around fostering respectful and informed discussion on campuses, educating campus communities about conflict through a variety of facts and perspectives, and building a community of well-informed students and residents.
The eight students, along with three UCI faculty members, visited Istanbul, Ankara, Vanadzor and Yerevan during their 10 days abroad. The tensions between Armenia and Turkey began during the alleged 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians. Although the incident took place nearly 100 years ago, the topic is still extremely sensitive and highly controversial between the two nations. With the historical information and awareness of the current tensions in mind, these students and faculty members embarked on the inaugural diplomatic trip in order to develop an understanding of future peace-building initiatives and spread their knowledge around various campuses.
The students each took five minutes to share their experiences with the audience. Aysha Ruya Cohen, a Turkish student, and Shant Meguerditchian, a fourth-year cognitive sciences major, addressed the concept of the filtering of the word “genocide.”
The students who embarked on this trip either claimed or came to realize that the Turkish government fails to recognize the Armenian Genocide and refuses to educate the public about it.
Meguerditchian shared that as an Armenian, he had not spoken to a Turkish person until the inaugural trip.
“The trip gave me a chance to step away from my everyday surroundings and instead put myself in a very different and somewhat uncomfortable surrounding,” Meguerditchian said.
“In order for things to move forward between Armenia and Turkey, this questioning of ‘genocide’ must stop and acceptance of what happened should be recognized.”
Kerim Yasin Oktay, a Turkish Ph.D. student on the trip, shared his experience. Growing up in Turkey, Oktay was never exposed to the Armenian historical perspective.
“I only had knowledge of the Turkish side,” Oktay said. “I never really had a chance to hear what happened from the Armenian side, and OTI gave me a chance to learn what really happened to [the] Armenian people 100 years ago.”
Nora Injeyan, an Armenian graduate student, and Syuzanna Petrosyan, a fourth-year economics and international studies double major, shared similar thoughts on what they learned throughout the trip. Injeyan believes that it is the government, more than the citizens, of Turkey who are at fault, and Petrosyan believes it is the lack of education regarding Armenian history in Turkish society.
“The people just don’t know and you can’t expect them to define something they don’t understand,” Injeyan said. “One of the most important aspects that I came across was the slowly growing movement in Turkey […] I also realized how important it is to learn the realities of this dichotomy. Because yes, there is this progress in Turkey, but there are also these scholars disseminating this denialist literature that also needs to be countered.”
The students noted that Turkey is working on an Apology Campaign for the Armenians. Meguerditchian believes that the catalyst for this step is due to the work of the Armenian diaspora.
Kateylyn Finley, another graduate student, and Yolanda Espiritu, a fifth-year political science major, were the two nonaffiliated students on the trip. Both felt that they encountered different experiences from the rest of the students since they were not culturally tied to the subject matter. Finley believes that there is room for reconciliation on the people to people level. Additionally, Espiritu noted how the tensions are deeply rooted in identity. Both shared that they encountered different experiences from the rest of the students since they were not culturally tied to the subject matter.
“For me, one of the things that stood out the most was this emotional aspect,” Espiritu said. “And it might have stood out to me more than others in the sense that I’m not Turkish or Armenian. I just wanted to learn more about the conflict. When I went, I felt I could understand more in a way that a textbook couldn’t show me […] Going to the region allows you to see between the lines.”
Through their experiences in Turkey and Armenia, these eight students aimed to foster the well-informed, eye-opening discussions for conflict analysis that OTI was designed for.
“In order for things to move forward between Armenia and Turkey, this questioning of ‘genocide’ must stop and acceptance of what happened should be recognized,” Meguerditchian said confidently.
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