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Armenian culture, history come to life in classroom

April 25, 2007

MONT ALTO, Pa. - Armenian history and culture came alive in full color with sights and sounds for the students of Instructor Lucineh Mueller as part of their Women's Studies course Penn State Mount Alto.

Guest speakers Sevan (Moumjian) Birky and Ann Hall shared their grandmothers' survival stories during the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

"I've always been a 'hyphenated' person," emphatically stated Birky. "I have always known I am 100 percent Armenian, but I always had to quailify that fact and say, Armenian-Lebanese or Armenian-American." She then added, "As a matter of fact, I was born in Aleppo, Syria, and my passport will always state that fact, even though I never had Syrian citizenship!"

"My maternal grandmother Hermineh was a toddler in Dikranagert when the Turks took away and killed both her father and older brother," she said. "Quickly, the news went from bad to worse as the nightmare of the genocide spread like wildfire from one town to the next. Hermineh, along with her mother, a younger brother and older sister managed to escape to Italy, where her older sister was sent to Canada as a servant girl. Hermineh later ended up marrying and living in Syria, where my Mom was born."

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"My paternal grandmother Armenouhi was also a baby, about six months old in 1915," Birky said. "She survived because she was left behind with her aunt who was a talented seamstress and the Turkish family she worked for protected them. At the age of 14, Armenouhi escaped secretly under the cover of night to avoid marriage to a Turkish young man. In Syria, Armenouhi was actually reunited with her biological mother, but sadly too late, as her mom was allocated to relocate to Armenia. As a young lady, Armenouhi married and raised a family of five children. That's where my Dad was born."

"The seven-day war between Israel and Syria in 1967 caused our family to relocate to Lebanon," Birky continued. "Thankfully, we already had Lebanese citizenship since a decade earlier my grandfather, a long distance truck driver between Syria and Lebanon had acquired Lebanese citizenship upon Lebanon's independence."

"I consider myself blessed having grown up in Lebanon. Lebanon was a piece of heaven on Earth. A Christian country and a 'little Armenia' for me. I went to private Armenian schools with all its richness of three languages - Armenian, Arabic and English, along with the Armenian history, culture and faith," said Birky, who shared her school report cards, pictures and embroidery items with the class.

"I love to dance and that's why you see me in one of my traditional Armenian dance costumes," she said. If we had more time, we'd all be dancing a "shourchbar" right now. Armenians have always been small in numbers and survived many persecutions, that's why we love to celebrate life! Life is precious and dancing is one way to embrace our loved ones and celebrate life."

As a final note, Birky shared the classic Armenian story of "Anahid." Holding up the large colorful picture book, she enthusiastically proclaimed, "This is my most favorite Armenian story because it shows the wisdom and courage of Armenian women. Anahid, the heroine, insists that the prince who wants to marry her must first learn a craft, stating, 'Riches, power and title can be taken away from you. But never your craft!' Sure enough, one day the prince is kidnapped and thanks to his weaving abilities he inscribes a message within the carpet and is rescued by her own wife, Queen Anahid."

Hall of Chambersburg, Pa., talked about her recent trip to Izmir, Turkey, the hometown of her maternal roots. "I really felt like I was home. The connection was so strong. I knew I belonged here," she said with conviction.

Hall, who is Armenian on her mother's side, explained how it is only recently that she was able to reconstruct and learn of her heritage, her family's history and journey of survival thanks to the acquisition of a family trunk.

Her grandmother brought the trunk from Armenia to England. "In the trunk were the stories of my grandmother and grandfather, as told through documents, passports, pictures, letters, newspaper articles and other treasures, including a book of letters, written in a Turkish/English dialect, that covers the period of over 20 years that my great-grandmother spent in Turkey after she had gotten her son (my grandfather) out of the country," she explained. "I'm afraid that the content of those letters is lost to history, as it seems there is no one alive that can read them."

In addition to the guest speakers, Instructor Lucineh Mueller shared PowerPoint slide pictures of traditional Armenian costumes, along with Armenian artifacts and music.

The full class of 24 students in Mueller's class had already viewed "The Armenian Genocide" film by Andrew Goldberg, watched the files provided by GenocideEvents.com Web site and BBC Front Page. In addition, they have read and discussed works by Armenian female poets including, "Der Zor" by Alicia Ghiragossian and "By Now" by Diana Der Hovanessian. They are reading "Vergeen: A Survivor of the Armenian Genocide" by Mae Derdarian.

The Women's Studies course at Penn State Mont Alto encompasses 24 weeks, six weeks each focusing on Eurasian, African, Oriental and Hispanic women. The Armenian-Eurasian segment is the premier offering at Penn State, due to the talents of Mueller.

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