Although Stephanie lives in Japan, she feels strong ties to her Armenian heritage and to Armenian culture, which was transmitted to her by her grandparents.
It is not often that bringing Japan and Armenia together produces a pop music star and actress. Stephanie Topalian was born in Los Angeles, California on August 5, 1987. To date, the young performer has released two albums with Sony Music Entertainment, including the self-titled “Stephanie” in 2008 and “Colors of my Voice” in 2009. She also received the “Best New Artist” prize at the prestigious 49th Japan Record Awards in 2007.
A number of her songs have been featured in Japanese anime and films and she has starred in a few Japanese films, including “Pride” and “Tokyo Tribe.” She was also part of the Armenian super-group Genealogy, which represented the country at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest with the song "Face the Shadow." Although Stephanie lives in Japan, she feels strong ties to her Armenian heritage and to Armenian culture, which was transmitted to her by her grandparents.
The Armenian Genocide: an integral part of Stephanie’s family history
Stephanie learned much of her family history from her paternal grandmother, Koharik Mikaelian Topalian, whose father Artine Mikaelian lived in Western Armenia in the Ottoman Empire and was only seven years old when the Genocide began in 1915. He tried his best to take care of his family during and after the events despite his young age, but there was little he could do to save his family members. His mother died from hunger in front of his very eyes.
|Stephanie with her great-grandfather Artine Mikaelian and her brother.|
“My great-grandfather's mother died right in front of him from hunger. My other great-grandparents’ parents were either killed during the death march or died of starvation. The exact facts are not clearly known, because neither of them could remember their parents and what actually happened to them. We assume that they were sent on the death march and led into the desert without food and water, thus dying of hunger,” Stephanie says.
Later, when the wave of mass killings and deportations of Armenians subsided, Artine was sent to an orphanage in Istanbul. There he attended Armenian school for a few years. When the Near East Relief, an American charity taking care of Armenian orphans and refugees in the Ottoman Empire, began evacuating Armenian orphans from the empire to safer places in 1919-1922, Artine was relocated to Damascus, Syria, where he continued his education. Like many other orphans, he was later transferred to Beirut to a third orphanage – the now famous “Bird’s Nest.”
Nested with Maria
In fact, two of Topalian’s great-grandparents ended up in the “Bird’s Nest” orphanage (or “Trchnots Pooyn” in Armenian) that was run by Maria Jacobsen, a Danish missionary who dedicated her life to humanitarian efforts during the Armenian Genocide. From 1915 to 1919, she helped save some 4,000 orphaned Armenian children. Jacobsen managed to smuggle children out of Turkey and get them across the border to Syria and then into Lebanon, where she set up the “Bird’s Nest.” She took care of the children, fed them and raised them to the best of her ability. Maria continued her mission until her death in Beirut.
From France and Lebanon to Wisconsin and Japan
When Stephanie’s great-grandfather Artine was brought to Lebanon from Syria, he found some relatives to stay with in Beirut. It was there that he met his future wife, Aghavni Gichanshayan.
Stepahnie’s great-grandmother and great-grandfather never knew their true age, as no records of their births have been found.
They were united in marriage in December, 1934 in Beirut at the Soorp Mesrob Church.
Stephanie's grandfather Pierre Topalian, who was born in Marseille, France and her grandmother, Koharik Mikaelian of Beirut, Lebanon, met through mutual friends. Topalian traveled to Beirut to meet his future bride, and after the wedding they relocated to the United States, arriving in grand fashion on the Queen Mary. Their final destination was Wisconsin – a cold Northern state that was a strange choice for the young Mediterranean-born couple. Neither of Stephanie’s grandparents spoke English at the time, so adapting to a new environment wasn’t easy: “My grandfather worked for a company during the day and returned home to continue working as an expert tailor for the community of Racine,” says Stephanie. “And although my grandmother didn't hold a job, she spent much of her time raising and tending to her four children.”
|Left to right: Stephanie’s great-grandparents Artine Mikaelian and Aghavni Gichanshayan, Stephanie’s grandmother Koharik Mikaelian with Stephanie in her arms, Stephanie’s grandfather Pierre Topalian.|
In the 1980s, Stephanie’s father met her mother in the Yamaguchi prefecture of Japan, where he was stationed with the U.S. Army.
A message of peace
Stephanie believes that for both Armenia and Japan, 2015 is an important year: it marks the centennial of the Armenian Genocide as well as the 70th year since the end of the war in Japan. Stephanie has visited both the Armenian Genocide Memorial and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, which is rather close to where her mother grew up. “I saw how ugly war could be. No innocent life should be taken away and forgotten. I believe it is important to face and recognize what happened from each perspective and progress from both sides,” she says.
|Stephaie’s Armenian side of the family: her grandparents, her relatives from Lebanon, her mother, her father and his three younger brothers, little Stephanie in the foreground.|
The young singer carries with her a message of hope and peace, remembering those who made it possible for her great-grandparents to survive while looking forward to a future where Genocide and war may be a thing of the past. “I try to look at the beauty that each person possesses regardless of his or her background. Hate is certainly not a way to deal with things, and it's a pity that certain issues cannot be solved because of it. I hope that someday, the world will become a better place, and it is my mission as an artist to carry on that message of peace.”
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.