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A Volunteer from Turkey in Vanadzor (The Armenian Weekly)


A Volunteer from Turkey in Vanadzor

By  // November 20, 2013


In Vanadzor, Armenia, there are exactly 10 foreigners. Pelin Özmen knows all of them, and without her, there would only be 9. She is probably the only Turkish resident of the city of approximately 100,000 people, located in the Lori Province of northern Armenia.

pelin photo 300x200 A Volunteer from Turkey in Vanadzor

Özmen is quite experienced at adapting to new environments, and has always defied easy categorization. Born in Yeşilyurt, a small town in the Tokat province of Turkey in 1989, she moved at the age of three with her family to Voralberg, Austria. Members of the Alevi minority, the Özmen family is all too familiar with the dark side of Turkish nationalism and its intolerance of deviation from the state-approved cultural mold. Özmen’s recently published paper about the Alevi perspective on the Kurdish Question in Turkey appeared in theVienna Kurdish Studies Yearbook.

Özmen had always been sympathetic to the Armenian position, and during an internship at the Austrian Embassy in Ankara, she heard about a volunteer opportunity with a human rights organization, the Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly (HCA), in Vanadzor, Armenia. Referred to the 9-month-long program by the Austrian Minister in Ankara, Özmen was accepted, and has been living in Vanadzor since April of this year. The program is funded as part of the European Commission’s European Voluntary Service (EVS). The EVS is a program for people between the ages of 18 and 30, who are encouraged to volunteer in other countries in capacities that further informal learning and cultural exchange.

The largest project undertaken this year at the HCA was a photo exhibition for World Refugee Day on June 25. After three months of preparation, the exhibition was successfully completed. The photos documented the lives of people living in refugee villages in Armenia, the majority of them refugees from Azerbaijan, but also some from Iraq and Syria.

For the International Day of the Disappeared, the HCA volunteers screened a film about missing Armenian soldiers from the Karabagh War, called “Hope Dies Last.” The film and subsequent discussion highlighted the lack of state support for the families of missing soldiers. The staff is currently looking for new projects, and is considering projects related to Armenia’s ascension to the Custom’s Union.

Özmen arrived at the program with an open mind regarding her new home. “I came here, and I was really surprised because in the beginning, everything was so different than anything I had ever seen before, like the city structure, the architecture, everything, the people, it looked really different. I was completely overwhelmed by this difference, because I always try to compare it with something which I know to categorize it… But then somehow I realized that it is very similar to Turkey, to east Anatolia, the landscape, the villages, and also the people—like sometimes I would see an elderly person on the street and I thought it’s my grandpa or something. “

This dawning familiarity, coupled with a warm reception from her organization, mentor, and fellow volunteers, helped allay lingering anxieties about possibly being the sole Turk in Vanadzor. “The thing is that I don’t tell anyone that I’m Turkish on the street. If I go to the market or something and people ask me where I’m from, I say that I’m from Austria and that I’m Austrian, so if they don’t ask me more questions, and if they’re satisfied with that answer, that’s it. I don’t tell everyone about my origins so I don’t have any problems with it. And even when I have told it to strangers, I didn’t have any bad or negative reactions… Most people who learn about my origins ask first of all about the genocide and if I recognize it, and if they see that I’m not a nationalistic person and that I don’t have any problems with Armenia or Armenians, they’re quite nice. They see that I don’t have any negative feelings against Armenian culture or Armenia, because I guess they realize that I came here to learn about their culture and live here, so why should I have any bad feelings about Armenia. “

Indeed, Özmen has found that many residents of Vanadzor are excited when they hear about her background and her work there with the HCA. “They’re really really happy [that I have this interest in Armenian culture] not only because I’m Turkish, but because I’m a foreigner, and I’m learning their language, and they’re so happy about every word which you know… They always think that we know Russian, and they try to talk Russian with us, and we say, ‘No, please, talk Armenian with us,’ and then they get so excited about it and they are so happy that we know Armenian. They’re really proud of these foreigners who know Armenian. So, in general, if they see that you respect their culture, and if they see that you are really interested in their culture, they’re very very nice, very friendly.”

Özmen’s observations of Armenian culture have often reminded her of her own. “For me, it’s very similar to my own culture. I can see a lot of similarities, like how people behave, how the gender roles are…the importance of family, traditions, somehow the conservative ideology, how important religion is. I can see that it’s a regional thing, it’s also very similar to Georgian culture, Turkish culture, Kurdish culture, so I think it’s just very close to the other cultures in the region. There’s huge hospitality, they’re very very friendly and nice to guests.”

She recalled an early encounter that embodied this spirit of hospitality. “One of our first experiences in Armenia, in our second week or something, we were hiking in the mountains and we passed a group of people who had khorovats, and they just invited us to have khorovats with them, and they didn’t know us and we didn’t know them but it was like, ‘Come come, you have to eat, please please, join us,’ so they brought us plates full of meat and then they gave us a lot of vodka. ‘Eat, eat, eat!’… They are so generous, I really love this generous culture.”

As someone who has completed more or less back-to-back assignments in two countries that are not on speaking terms, Özmen has a unique perspective on the current state of Armenian-Turkish relations. Her prognosis is not as bleak as I had expected, even compared to conversations we had had as recently as last year when she was working in Ankara. “I can see a lot of progress, from both sides, that they both want to have good relations. Of course, there will always be extremists, like nationalist people, and of course I guess there will always be people who will deny the genocide, but I can see that there is progress because in June when there were these protests in Istanbul and Ankara, there were people who were also fighting for the rights of Armenians, and also were there talking about the genocide, and said, ‘Oh, and this park will also be Hrant Dink Park, and this will also be commemorating the genocide.’ And you could not hear or see these kind of things several years ago. So you can see that there is progress—and these were not Armenians, these were Turkish people fighting for the rights of Armenians, so this is something good.”

She sees the progress coming from both sides. “In Armenia…they say that they don’t have problems with Turkish people, they always say they just have problems with the government. There is a will to improve the relations, and that’s why I think in several years the Turkish state will recognize the genocide. I don’t believe it will continue like this forever. And the borders will open, I’m sure about that… This government will not, maybe, but we are all hoping for change… I don’t think that the political situation will continue like this in Turkey, so I just hope that the people and the government will get more liberal. I don’t think that this government, with Erdogan, will do it, but I think in several years when there will be a change, there will be something with the border…”

The role of civil society is paramount, according to Özmen. The strengthening of civil society in Turkey, combined with the power of internet communication and social media, has shifted the power dynamic between the Turkish people and their government, enabling popular protests on an unprecedented level. The protests of the past summer were both catalysts for and symptoms of the increased robustness of civil society, Özmen believes, and she argues that this newfound “power of the people” does not stop at the Turkish borders. Indeed, the “Barevolution” movement surrounding Armenia’s last presidential election suggests that she has a point. “You can see that the civil society is doing something, and this has to influence the politics. It needs time, but it will influence [it], because I can see the will. I can see that Turkish people are more open now, that they talk about the genocide, and I can see improvement, but it will take a long time and it’s a long process.”

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