The themes of my current research – the social impact of genocide and war, and the production of memory, history and identity – come from questions that have arisen during my doctoral research on the enduring legacy of the Armenian genocide in modern-day Turkey. My post-doctoral will be on Armenian war orphans, a project that has been developed in consultation with my advisors Professor Alexander Etkind and Professor Luisa Passerini and stimulated by their (respective) pioneering work on mourning and trans-generational memory. The project was largely inspired by the in-depth work I have done on the fascinating, yet tragic, story of the Aintoura orphanage, for which I received the Raphael Lemkin Award from the Armenian Genocide Museum Institute and became the first scholar from Turkey to receive such an honour.
This Turkish orphanage for Armenian genocide orphans played an important – yet largely unknown – role in the Turkification of mostly Armenian (genocide) orphans during the years 1916-1918. While the majority of children living at the orphanage were Armenians, it also opened its doors to Kurdish and Turkish orphans, a fact that led to inter-racial and intra-religious conflict in their everyday lives. Both race and religion played major roles in this juvenile microcosm as they divided themselves up into groups and played out the dynamics of the war. From the story of Aintoura, we learn that Armenian children were not the only Ottoman children affected by the Great War. Although theirs were tragedies of different dimensions, Turkish and Kurdish children were also deeply affected and lost their parents. WWI was maybe the first time the world was confronted with what can be called an ‘orphan moment.’ The exact number of orphans created during this time is unknown. However, the Near East Foundation alone cared for over 200,000 Armenian orphans during and after the war. The Rockefeller Foundation started an operation called ‘Feeding the Children of Europe’ and funnelled money to Vienna, from where relief money was distributed to the various European states.
This has led me to pose several broad questions. The Armenian survivors were mostly women and small children; how did the absence of father figures affect Armenian children and families in their daily lives? Can we speak of a gendered nature of the Armenian genocide, and therefore of a gendered remembrance of it? What role did gender play in the inter-generational transmission of trauma? How did the position of women change in the process; did patriarchal familial structures change or consolidate? What role did the figure of the orphan play in the post-war attempts at Armenian national regeneration? And how can we understand these nationalist aspirations to claim and reclaim children for the nation in the broader context of the post-war atmosphere?