Life in the “City of Orphans”
In 1915 Musheg, the father of the Mkrtchyan brothers, was five years old; their mother Sanam was only four. They grew up in the Eastern part of the Ottoman Empire, in a region that is now part of Turkey, and fled with a group of refugees heading to Alexandropol (now Gyumri). Along the way, they were taken from that procession and sent to an orphanage. “Father was from Mush and very proud of it. Mother, a native of Van, was a delicate and reserved woman,” Albert Mkrtchyan recalls.
This all that is known about the family’s origins. Musheg and Sanam never talked about their lives in Western Armenia, their early childhood, their parents and ancestral homes. Everything they had to endure in the years of the Genocide was sealed away in their memories. In trying to protect their children’s feelings, Musheg and Sanam never told them about life in the orphanage where they both grew up. “Such a tragedy is simply impossible to imagine: in just one moment they lost all their friends and relatives,” says Albert.
That huge orphanage in Alexandropol (which became Leninakan in the Soviet times) was established by the American Committee for Relief in the Near East in 1919. It took over the site of three forts – “Cossack Station,” “Northern” and “The Range” – established by the Russian Empire. The orphanage was set up in 170 buildings and barracks. Over the years, it came to house up to 30,000 children. There weren’t enough beds for everyone, so many kids slept on bags stuffed with straw.
The orphanage was often called the “City of Orphans,” and the older kids took care of the young ones. The children were groomed for life outside the institution: little residents of the “city” were taught crafts, gardening, farming and housekeeping.
A silent dialogue
When he got older, Musheg got a job as a timekeeper at the local textile factory, while Sanam became a dish washer at the local cafeteria. That was where they met. “Our parents kept silent about their past. They had nothing to tell each other because their stories were identical. They didn’t want to upset us. We learned about the Genocide from other refugees in town,” says Albert.