Haig Chahinian

Haig Chahinian

The Danish missionary – a stranger – had cared for my grandmother during the bleakest period of the early 20th century. I felt grateful to Maria Jacobsen. My existence was a testament to her love.

When Hurricane Sandy struck New York City in October 2012, the grid below 42nd Street short-circuited – and so did my professional life. For 13 years I’d been career counseling in a bank near the southern tip of Manhattan. The building flooded, closing the office and casting doubt on my future. 

I scrambled to figure out my options in the storm’s aftermath. I could end my contract helping employees land on their feet post-layoff. I could grow a new business, maybe go back to school. But my therapist said I shouldn’t rush. A decade earlier, I’d reached out to her for guidance in connecting with my non-Armenian boyfriend. She and I explored the impact of the Armenian Genocide on my personal life. I realized I could be with someone I loved – even if the person wasn’t a woman from my tribe – and nonetheless honor my ancestors. Yet I still needed answers about how my grandmother survived. I seized the break in work to spend time with my father and investigate my history.

Our family had a bloody past. As a fourth grader at Mesrobian Elementary in Los Angeles, I was taught that the Ottoman Turks had massacred a million and a half of our people. My teachers instilled in me the notion that sitting in an American classroom proved I was a survivor. 

At home, I learned that all four of my grandparents had been orphaned in the Genocide. 

My mother’s father Garabed Tonjoukian had witnessed horsemen abduct his father from a Gesaria (Kayseri, Central Anatolia) apple orchard. My mother’s mother Azniv Avakian was clad in diapers as she was exiled from Van. She later became a domestic helper in Jerusalem, where she met my grandfather. My father’s father Haigazoun Chahinian fled Marash (now Kahramanmarash, southern Turkey) to join the French Foreign Legion. But I didn’t know how my father’s mother Maritza Hodoian escaped the village of Percheng near Kharbert (now Elazig, eastern Turkey).

In search of reason

Hoping to understand why people committed genocide, I majored in psychology at USC. I signed up for psychotherapy, too, to get hands-on experience as a client. After graduation I worked in my alma mater’s admissions office, recruiting students from Mesrobian and its sister institutions. I loved populating the campus with Armenians. But I yearned to practice what I’d studied:  I wanted to take away people’s pain.  

I enrolled in a master’s degree program in counseling and organizational behavior in New York City. Interning in a downtown bank’s career center, I was mentored in the art and science of career coaching, a vocation I called “therapy light.” As soon as I graduated, I was offered a paying gig. I saw employees through dark moments until they secured new livelihoods. Hurricane Sandy had interrupted my productive run over five mergers.

I hadn’t spent such focused time with my dad since high school. Eating dinner one evening, I asked how Medz Mama voyaged to America. I knew little about her, except what I’d gleaned as a dutiful grandson calling her on birthdays. It saddened me that by the time I’d become curious to know more, she’d passed away.



Haig Chahinian with his father. 

My father suggested I call his sister for details. I tightened my fist. My aunt had shunned me when I’d come out. But I was willing to rebuild a bridge for my grandmother’s backstory. I dialed the number. After a polite conversation, she agreed to meet. We spoke on her comfortable, mid-century sofa. “What do you know about your own grandparents?” I asked. She hesitated, gazing outside at birds pecking at a feeder. “Your Medz Mama’s mother was dragged through the desert,” she said.

The kind Danish woman

My chest knotted. I listened as she recounted how my grandmother had been separated from her younger sister Shushan, after Ottoman soldiers began mass killings in the Kharbert vilayet. Shushan was placed in a German children’s home, but my grandmother was left in the village with Turkish neighbors. The man of the house was mean. She tried to escape, but he chased after her on horseback. He assaulted her, blinding her right eye. She fled again, and made it to an empty house in Kharbert. She hid for seven days, almost starving. On the last day, a 33-year-old Danish woman knocked on the window. Her name was Miss Maria Jacobsen. She said to my grandmother, “Would you like to come with me? I’ll bring you to where there are other children, you won’t be alone.” My grandmother, with short brown hair and deep brown eyes, took the hand of the kindly woman. 

As the atrocities continued, Maria Jacobsen made huge efforts to save Armenian orphans in Kharbert and nearby villages from imminent death. She collected and sheltered hundreds of children, often placing them in abandoned neighboring houses. But short on resources, they mostly ate bread, just enough for them not to die. Later my grandmother would say to her children who refused to eat supper, “Menk hats, hats, hats, guh sireyink. Took nayik eench guhnek took. [We’d devour bread, bread, bread. Look at what you’re doing].” 

To save some 110,000 Armenian youth from a new wave of persecution, the American Committee for Near East Relief, a humanitarian organization taking care of most Armenian orphanages in the Ottoman Empire by that time, initiated their evacuation. Thus, Maria Jacobsen led a large group of kids to Beirut in 1922.

My grandmother traveled with Jacobsen to Lebanon. She was adopted by a generous household, but she missed Shushan. When my grandmother heard Shushan’s German caretakers had placed her in a silk factory job in Lyon, France, my grandmother left her newfound home to reunite with her sibling.


Haig’s father as a child with his sisters and parents. 

The sisters worked together threading bobbins, difficult work considering my grandmother’s poor eyesight. For years they saved their francs to move to “the city of lights.” At last the two girls from Percheng made it to Paris. After my grandfather’s tour in the French military, he’d been toiling on a Parisian automobile assembly line. My grandmother swooned when she met him. He was so handsome, she said, “Lezoos gabvav” [I couldn’t speak].” As they had children, she became known around town as an informal psychoanalyst, attending to the emotional well-being of her neighbors.

Sated by this piece of my history, I bade goodbye to my aunt. I stayed awake that night, churning through the saga.

Not all events in 1915 Western Armenia had been rooted in hate. 

The Danish missionary – a stranger – had cared for my grandmother during the bleakest period of the early 20th century. I felt grateful to Maria Jacobsen. My existence was a testament to her love.

A week later, I received a call. The bank’s career services unit had been sold to a third party. “Would you like a role on the new counseling staff?” the caller asked. I turned to a wall-mounted picture of my father as a toddler, my grandmother standing regally behind him. In her eyes I detected a glint of gratitude for her family. “Yes,” I replied. “Helping people is in my blood.”

Haig Chahinian was born in Long Beach, California. He is a career counselor who lives in NYC with his husband and daughter. He is presently working on a memoir.

The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.