“Where are the Nelson Mandelas?” asks Edward Djerejian, sitting forward in his office at Rice University in Houston. “I don't see a Nelson Mandela in Turkey. I don't see a Nelson Mandela in Azerbaijan. I don't see a Nelson Mandela in Armenia. We need one. The great challenge for Armenia now is reconciliation with its neighbors.” If anyone can ask a question like this, it is Djerejian.
Because of his family’s experiences in Armenia, he devoted himself to a life in the diplomatic service at an age when most youngsters still struggle to figure out who they are and what career path they want to pursue. “I was still in secondary school in New York when I heard stories about the Genocide from my parents.
I began to think: ‘Why did I survive? Why am I here, when so many others died?’
I felt that I had to, in some way, honor those who were not as lucky as I and also give back to the United States, the great country that gave my parents political refuge.”
Djerejian served under eight U.S. presidents, including as ambassador to Israel. However, it was his post in Damascus that he considers a particularly poignant experience. For it was in Aleppo, northern Syria, that his father Bedros escaped death. After losing both of his parents at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, Bedros was forced to march, along with other Armenians from his family’s home village of Hadjin (now Saimbeyli, in southern Turkey) to Deir-ez-Zor in Syrian deserts.
When those exiled reached Aleppo, Bedros managed to run away and was provided a safe haven by a Syrian Arab family, which employed him as a stable boy to care for its horses.
While working for the family, he discovered that two Armenian girls, who were orphaned as a result of the death march, had been taken into the household of a Turkish military officer as part of his harem. Bedros was so incensed that he traveled on his own via horseback to rescue the girls, taking them to the safety of an Armenian church in Aleppo.
The story might have ended there, but the two girls had an elder brother in Worcester, Massachusetts, who had become an American citizen. He managed to bring them to the United States, where they explained how Bedros had saved them.
Somehow, in those pre-Internet days, the brother tracked Bedros down at Robert College in Istanbul and sponsored his emigration.
The man, whose name is not recorded in the Djerejian family archive, helped Bedros to settle down in Worcester and Watertown, Massachusetts, where he opened a grocery store.
While in Massachusetts, Bedros met a woman who would later become his mother-in-law. It was during this initial meeting that she showed him a photograph of her daughter, Mary Yazudjian, who also escaped the Genocide and made it to Havana, Cuba, via the Danish orphanage run by Maria Jacobsen in Jbeil, Lebanon. “He was very taken by the image of this young woman,” recalls Djerejian. “So he traveled to Havana and brought her back, and they got married.”
Djerejian’s parents were the classic immigrants who look to give their children a better life. “My parents wanted to give me and my brother the opportunities they never had. They helped me get the best education they could afford and I was encouraged to make something of myself, to excel.”
Excel he most certainly did, as the walls of his office at Rice attest. There are photographs with just about any world leader one could care to mention, from George H. W. Bush to Nelson Mandela. From his desk he runs the Baker Institute, the ninth most influential university-affiliated think-tank in the world, which focuses on energy policy, health and bio-sciences, Middle East policy, Mexico and tax and fiscal policy.
Due to his family’s painful experience, while working in Syria Djerejian was able to forge a close professional relationship with the country’s then leader Hafez al-Assad. When Djerejian presented his credentials as the new U.S. ambassador, he told Assad he was born in the United States because of his father’s heroic act of saving two girls in Syria.
“If anyone had told that young Armenian boy who had just lost his parents in the Genocide that one day, his son would come to Damascus as the American ambassador, he would have said ‘You're out of your mind.’ But it happened.
Assad was really taken by this. I got his attention. During my three years there I met with him frequently. We accomplished a lot. I was able to translate the painful legacy of the Genocide into my life’s work.”
Djerejian has retraced his family’s steps to Aleppo many times. “I loved Aleppo. It is beautiful – or was. There’s much less of Aleppo to see today because of the sectarian war there.” Sadly, there are no records of his father’s time there, the place he worked, nor where he rescued the Armenian girls.
Djerejian’s involvement in conflict resolution in one of the most troubled parts of the world has given him unique insight – and unique license – to address the issues within Armenia today. “I believe it is important and necessary for us to move from victimhood of the Genocide to the future of Armenian culture, the Armenian nation and the Armenian people, wherever they may be,” he says. He is convinced that it is time for Armenia to find a new domestic and foreign policy strategy to be successful.
“The best legacy we can leave to those who perished during the Genocide is to work seriously for a prosperous, secure, peaceful Armenia. We must do everything we can as the Diaspora to help Armenia become stable and to deal with the dangerous and isolated neighborhood in which it is located.”
How can this be achieved? Armenia cannot prosper without reconciliation with Turkey, Djerejian believes. “The first step is opening up the borders and restoring economic commercial ties with the country.”
This is not just in the interests of Armenia. Reconciliation has appeal for Turkey, too, he argues. “Armenia is an important factor because it’s a Christian nation, and it would rebound to Turkey’s credit if it made peace with a Christian nation on its borders. It would help in its accession to the European Union. Armenia itself is not a strategic threat; it’s too small. But it is a cultural and ideological threat, because of the Genocide, which the Turks are so sensitive about.”
Conflict resolution is vital “because without peace and security, Armenia will not be able to prosper. The Armenian government, therefore, has a responsibility to recruit and produce diplomats and politicians who have a vision on how to make Armenia a prosperous and secure nation.”
“This is what the Armenian community should be doing now. So, the question is: where are the Nelson Mandelas? This is the great challenge for the Armenians now.”
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.