• Portrait d’une Alumni : Achren Verdian

Portrait d’une Alumni : Achren Verdian

6 avril 2018

Since my report on the hidden Armenians aired, I’ve gotten emails from all around the world from people who had no idea that there were any Armenians left in Eastern Turkey. They were encouraged to see that not only does there continue to be an Armenian presence in Eastern Anatolia, but that Armenian life, in a certain sense, is being reborn.

Journalist and AGBU New York Summer Internship Program (NYSIP) alumna Achren Verdian loves covering stories that could have otherwise slipped under the radar. Her work at the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and the French television network France 24 is defined by nuanced reporting in misunderstood corners of the globe.

In the months leading up to the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, Achren shined a spotlight on a group of Armenians who had long existed in the shadows: the hidden Armenians of Turkey. In her report on France 24, she brought their stories to English-speaking and French-speaking audiences by investigating the history of Armenians who remained in Anatolia after the genocide and were forced to convert to Islam, assimilating—at least outwardly—into Turkish society. Now the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the hidden Armenians are discovering their Armenian ancestry and beginning the disorienting process of identity negotiation.

In our conversation, Achren gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the inner-workings of an international news organization, the meanderings of a report from pitch to broadcast and the contemporary legacy of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey.

Can you tell me how you arrived at this point in your career?

I came to journalism in a somewhat roundabout way. I originally saw myself working at a non-governmental organization or in the diplomatic service. I interned through the AGBU New York Summer Internship Program (NYSIP) at the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University where I got to see what work in the field would be like day to day. I was intrigued, so I organized my own internship at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the United States and the European Parliament and ended up getting my master’s degree in international politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was at this point that I found journalism. After I graduated, I began working at BBC Afrique, presenting the news for Francophone Africa. It was a very fulfilling position, because I felt like I was going beyond the news to raise awareness about regions and conflicts that we don’t often hear about. I have a similar sense of satisfaction in my current post at France 24.

What led you to report on the hidden Armenians of Turkey?

My Armenian heritage—and AGBU in particular—has always been a major part of my life. I’m a fourth generation French Armenian, but I went to the AGBU Ecole Alex Manoogian Saturday School for 13 years, learned the language and became more aware of the culture that I had learned about at home. As I grew older, I was involved with UGAB Jeunes, the AGBU youth organization, and then later participated in NYSIP. I even had a hand in AGBU FOCUS in 2011—the year the event came to Paris.

This is all to say that I was no stranger to Armenian life. Besides the language, I had been hearing about the Armenian Genocide since I was a little girl and thought I had a good grasp of the history. So when I came across information about the Armenians who had remained in Turkey after the genocide and lived as Turks and Kurds, I was fascinated to say the least. They had not been part of the narrative that we learned about the Armenian Genocide, which was very clear cut: either the Armenians were killed during the genocide or they survived as Armenians in the diaspora. Until recently, the Armenians who survived as Turks and Kurds were not part of the national consciousness, because their melding of identities was difficult to understand.

Tell me about the process of making the report for France 24.

I was really lucky, because after I pitched the idea to the network, I only received encouragement. The public discourse surrounding the Armenian Genocide is different in France than it is in the United States. Since the genocide is recognized in France, there is more awareness about the history itself and less of a need to introduce it to the public.

At a network like France 24, I knew I had the chance to take a different approach to covering the centenary. The producers made it clear that they wanted exceptional coverage of the Armenian Genocide throughout April and special coverage on April 24. My work—the report on the hidden Armenians in French and English and the interview with Fatih Akin, the director of The Cut—fit into this larger commitment to giving the genocide the attention it deserves. And France 24 is the best kind of training, because they have journalists do everything—from researching, interviewing and writing to producing, editing and more!

How did you research for a report on such a sensitive topic?

It was long, hard work that began five months before the report aired. I started by reading everything I could find about hidden Armenians, including Les restes de l’épée by Laurence Ritter and Max Sivaslian and La Turquie et le fantôme arménien by Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier. It was good, because there seemed to be much more awareness this year surrounding hidden Armenians, especially surrounding those in Diyarbekir, where the mayor has been very vocal about acknowledging the city’s Armenian past. As you’re entering the city, there is a sign in Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian welcoming you to Diyarbekir. It is more progressive when it comes to the Armenians than other parts of the country: there was a demonstration on April 24, streets are being renamed after Armenian figures and the Ottoman-era Church of Sourp Giragos has been renovated in just the past few years. Even though Diyarbekir a relatively open environment, it still requires a lot of courage for the descendants of hidden Armenians to accept their Armenian ancestry.

It took huge amounts of courage for them to agree to talk to me and my colleague Johan Bodin. These aren’t the kinds of conversations where I can just knock on someone’s door and they’d be willing to talk! I had to build trust over months for them to feel comfortable enough to share the stories of their families—and be filmed sharing them. There is still prejudice and fear of discrimination that surrounds revealing Armenian roots in Turkey.

What kind of response have you received since the report aired?

I’m glad to say that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I was really surprised by the pace at which it traveled on social media! I’ve gotten emails from across the diaspora—one even came from Venezuela—from Armenians who had no idea that there were any Armenians left in Eastern Turkey and were encouraged to see that not only does there continue to be an Armenian presence in Eastern Anatolia, but that Armenian life, in a certain sense, is being reborn.

Did you get a sense of how the descendants of the hidden Armenians of Turkey understand their relationship to the Armenian community?

Fethiye Çetin, a lawyer and granddaughter of a hidden Armenian herself, put it best when she said that hidden Armenians and their descendants exist in a kind of purgatory. By and large, they don’t know where they belong. They are stigmatized in Turkey for calling the premise of Turkish national identity into question, but don’t feel accepted by the Armenian community either.

Their existence challenges the notion of Armenian identity as being linked to Christianity. There isn’t just one way for hidden Armenians to reconcile with their Armenian ancestry. Some convert to Christianity—taking six months of religion classes and legally changing their names—while others refer to themselves as Armenian and continue to be devout Muslims. Armenians and Turks alike are now being forced to rethink their criteria for national belonging and question the national grand narratives they have inherited—all because of the hidden Armenians.