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Wisconsin Historian Discusses The Importance Of President Biden Recognizing The Armenian Genocide

Arshag Legionnaire photo closeup.JPG
Courtesy of John Savagian
Arshag Souvajian, (center) John Savagian's grandfather, was forced to flee his home and eventually settled in the United States to escape the Armenian genocide.

Starting on April 24, 1915 it’s estimated that up to one and a half million Armenians were killed or deported by the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey. Last month on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, President Biden became the first U.S. President to officially recognize this as genocide. U.S. presidents have avoided using that language for decades because of worries about upsetting the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, who still does not officially recognize the genocide.

106 years later, this statement by Biden is expected to greatly impact international relations with Turkey, Russia, Iran and other countries. But this step also matters a great deal to Armenians and Armenian Americans — like the community here in the Milwaukee area, the second oldest Armenian community in the country.

John Savagian is a history professor at Alverno College and an Armenian American whose family was forced family to flee during the genocide. He says in the beginning, refugees were mostly going to Russia or other parts of Europe with around 3,000 Armenians a year going to the United States.

“The first large group settled in the Massachusetts area outside of Boston in Watertown,” he says. “The second oldest group of immigrants came to Milwaukee, the region from Milwaukee down into the Racine, Kenosha area.”

A third group later settled in Pasadena, Calif. which is now the largest Armenian American community in the U.S. according to Savagian.

The first groups of immigrants that came to Wisconsin were mostly men in the 1880s and 1890s fleeing persecution from the Turkish government. Most men came looking to find jobs in the state's steel mills, glue factories, and meatpacking plants but they did not have families with them, notes Savagian.

"Following the 1915 genocide the Armenian community [here] really started to blossom because we started to see whole families of women coming in, particularly after the men who fought in the war brought back war brides who were orphaned women from the genocide themselves — including my grandmother and others in my family," he says.

Savagian says like all immigrant groups, Armenians brought their own culture with them but the effects of living through a cultural genocide has remained with them for generations.

“Every immigrant group has its origin stories. They have their own mythology and lore and their collective memory. The problem for Armenians of course, there’s always this thing hanging over them and that’s the genocide and especially when it’s a genocide that would not be recognized,” he says.

Savagian says his grandparents did not shy away from discussing what happened in their home country, and getting this support from the U.S. government is an important part for Armenian Americans to feel that their own government supports them.

Courtesy of John Savagian
Arshag and Goulee Souvajian, Savagian's grandparents, are pictured with their first born son, Gulbank after leaving their home to escape the genocide.

“This is an important step for Armenians but also other people who have been suffering through genocide to get recognition,” says Savagian.

While this major first step has been taken, he notes the end goal is to get Turkey to officially recognize the atrocities that were committed and allow Armenians to move forward in their healing process.

“This is just the beginning of that, we’re not even close to the finish line,” says Savagian.

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