January 18th is a very special day for me and my husband Leo. In 1991, on this day, we arrived in the United States. Every year Leo and I celebrate January 18th as our own Independence Day.
Between the two of us, we carried $260 in our pockets, all that we were allowed to take with us, two small suitcases, and an unbreakable will to be free and happy.
But first, we had to survive. Literally. Yes, life was a precious commodity in those days. You see, we are Armenian Christians, who were born in Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, one of the former republics of the former USSR.
In the late 1980s there was a national and civil conflict largely provoked by the government. A conflict about a spec of a land that two nations, Armenians and Azeri, had argued about from the dawn of time. That land was called Karabakh. Located in South Caucasus, this tiny space was always home for the Armenian people. They call it Republic of Artsakh. But located on the Azeri territory, this region was a sore spot, and a reason for a long-lasting dispute between two nations.
That slowly-brewing disagreement finally erupted into a riot, and then war.
Since then, several wars were fought, and a sea of blood poured over Karabakh. The two nations, that were friendly once upon a time, became the worst enemies. Hatred replaced love, lies replaced truth, and white became black.
The horrors of those days are impossible to describe. Chaos. Fear. Death.
Friends and neighbors became adversaries; many mixed-race families were destroyed, and peace was replaced with war of the worst kind: racial/religious war.
Even though we lived in the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, long away from that disputed land, we, Armenians, became the enemies simply because of our nationality. Blood-thirsty crowds of fanatics boosted on alcohol and narcotics, ran around our beautiful city, vandalizing, destroying, raping, murdering.
At first, people couldn’t believe that this situation would last. Everyone waited for the government to step up and put a stop to it. But…
I don’t want to go into a political aspect of that horrible war. I’m just saying that somebody higher-up— somebody evil— needed it and made those atrocities possible.
When it became obvious that no one was going to interfere and help us, people took matters into their own hands. Many ran away, but even more died trying.
My family was very fortunate. We didn’t lose anyone, and we were able to run away first to the former republic of Georgia, and then to Moscow. We still harbored hope that our government, not the local but federal, would somehow help our situation. Guess what? No one in our nation’s capital cared that millions of people were left homeless, penniless, and victimized. And no one cared about the dead.
At that time, when hope was the only thing that keep us afloat, the United States officially recognized the situation in Karabakh as war against humanity, acknowledged Armenians from Azerbaijan as political refugees, and opened the doors to my people. And that’s how we first met, my then future husband and I: in line in front of the American Embassy in Moscow. That day fate was hard at work. She brought us together, and opened the doors to our new life. Thirty-two years later, we’re still living that life, and couldn’t be happier.
But back then, it would be another year of hardship before we landed at JFK airport. A horrible year of struggles, sacrifices, humiliations, and personal tragedy.
That year we lost my mom just a few months before we were due to leave Moscow. We are still not sure whether the surgeon who performed her simple procedure made a terrible mistake or it was a broken thrombosis, but she died overnight in a hospital. The autopsy was inconclusive. But what does it matter? We lost our anchor, our rock, the glue that kept our family together. She was just 48 years old. In a matter of days, my dad, a vibrant man of 53, became a shadow of his former self. Our family was shattered.
Scared and emotionally beaten, we resembled a bunch of survivors of a terrible disaster. And that’s exactly who we were back then. We all went through hell and back, but somehow our spirits weren’t broken. Even dad managed to drag himself from the abyss of grief. We all were determined to survive. Freedom was our mantra and our God. And so, with my mom’s ashes, we finally left the old country.
And every January 18th I remember my first glimpse of New York, and those first scary and confusing emotions. We were so young, but my hero was confident.
At first, there was the nerve-racking illusion of being deaf because I couldn’t understand a word spoken all around me. I remember people, so many people, laughing, moving, eating, talking… And the noise! The lights! Everything so bright and sharp and loud. I remember clutching my husband’s hand like an anchor and afraid to let go. But most of all, I remember Leo looking at me with his dark tired eyes, and telling me, “We’ll make it, you’ll see.”
And we did.
Even though the events that brought us here were tragic and horrible, we look at it now as a blessing in disguise. If not for that bloody war, we would never cut our ties with the old country, and would never know what true freedom is.
We would never know what it is to be true patriots, and to love your country with everything you are. And it doesn’t matter that we weren’t born here. The old wisdom says the real parents are those who raised you, not who birthed you.
Such a simple and untarnished truth!
We are proud to be American citizens.
God bless United States of America.
God bless my wonderful beloved country.