Bonded by Tragedy, RI's Armenians Find Strength in their Heritage, and One Another

October 21, 2022
Source: Providence Journal

By Amy Russo

As a kid, Martha Jamgochian didn’t know the dark parts of her family history. Anything she managed to gather was overheard.

“As my mother grew older, sometimes she would say something, but it was more like she was thinking aloud and I happened to be there, as opposed to sitting you down and telling you what happened,” Jamgochian said. “They never ever did that. They shared everything with their children, except their pain.”

Camille Gregorian had the same experience, using her knowledge of Armenian as a child to translate her grandmother’s conversations with friends.

“I didn’t know it all, but I just knew horrible things happened, because they would cry,” Gregorian said. “They would talk and cry, and talk and cry.”

They were talking about the Armenian genocide. Starting in 1915, the Ottoman Empire targeted its Armenian minority, killing about 1.5 million people during World War I, though estimates vary. Turkey, which emerged at the end of the empire, has refused to acknowledge the genocide for what it was. (The United Nations' 1985 report on genocide made clear that the crimes indeed met the definition of genocide.)

Museum is a resource for those tracing Armenian ancestry

Many Rhode Islanders trace their relatives back to those horrific years — including Jamgochian and Gregorian, both of whom are on the board of directors of the Armenian Historical Association of Rhode Island, nestled in an office building in Providence. The association’s first-floor space houses a small museum with various panels detailing Armenian history and its connection to Rhode Island communities.

Varoujan Karentz, the board’s founding chair, described the genocide as “what bonded Armenians together.”

“People that emigrated to Rhode Island didn’t know where the rest of the Armenians were,” he said. “All they knew was that everybody was being killed, so they came here … clothes on your back and no nickels in the pocketbook.”

The association, which was started in 1997, has held open houses to help Armenians trace their ancestry with a genealogy station and census records. But for a long time, such resources were sparse.

As Jamgochian recalled, “When we were growing up, the information was like this,” she said, making a zero with her hand. “And people would say, ‘What kind of a name is Jamgochian?’”

She recalled the difficulty with which teachers would pronounce her name when school started, moving down the roster when suddenly, “there would be a stop.”

“Martha … is that ‘Jam’ or is it ‘Yam?,’” they’d ask. The confusion continued into college.

Michael Kaprielian, one of the board’s founding members, recalled difficulties of his own in college when his fraternity brothers discovered that his Armenian name was Manoog and teased him.

Gregorian summed up the feeling in one sentence: “You constantly had to explain yourself.”

Sleuthing in the cemetery to trace Armenians in RI

But those names became especially key in the early 2000s, when researchers led by Karentz spent about three months scouring ledgers at Providence’s North Burial Ground, picking out all names ending in “ian” — a hint that those interred individuals were Armenian.

Kaprielian proudly held up a photo of one such grave — that of the Rev. Vaghenag Sisagian, a priest who served the Armenian community and died in 1899.

He’s evidence of one of the Armenians who arrived earlier in Rhode Island than others, though the historical association says it has found “hints of Armenian names” dating back to colonial Newport.

Today, Rhode Island has been home to a handful of notable Armenians, including judges, former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian, Alex and Ani founder Carolyn Rafaelian — who is Gregorian's cousin — and one name who's been making news as of late: Rhode Island Public Transit Authority CEO Scott Avedisian.

The extent of Rhode Island's Armenian community became more apparent in 2015, when former state Sen. Aram Garabedian, who is the son of genocide survivors, organized a trip to New York City where thousands rallied to mark the 100th anniversary of the genocide. While participants came from various states, in total, 12 busloads of Rhode Islanders made the journey.

Remembering that moment, Kaprielian reflected back on his college days, when no one knew his name.

“Those people that didn’t know us back then, knew us now,” he said.