Sharing family stories is a tradition in most American homes around the country. But hearing my grandfather’s childhood recollections came with a sense of responsibility – as a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, he taught me at an early age about the importance of overcoming difficult challenges and the significance of legacy.
My grandfather, Dr. Charles Nerses Mahjoubian, was born in Konya, in present-day Turkey, and arrived in Philadelphia by way of Ellis Island in 1923 after escaping the mass atrocities against Armenians - where 10 of his family members perished during the inhumane deportations. The atrocities inflicted upon Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish Empire are, by definition, a genocide, according to multiple statements by the eminent International Association of Genocide Scholars. Upon settling in Philadelphia, my grandfather taught himself English in order to attend West Philadelphia High School, from which he graduated in 1928. He continued on to Temple University, successfully receiving his B.A. and D.D.S. from Temple University School of Dentistry in 1934. He worked in his father’s shoe repair shop throughout his schooling.
Over the years, my grandfather established a loving family with his wife Dorothy and their children, while building a flourishing dental practice in Bala Cynwyd. Despite his busy schedule, he immersed himself into the fabric of the greater Philadelphia region and was an active citizen in the public life of the community: he served as President of the Ard-Wood Civic Association, the Main Line Lions Club, Scout Master, Head Scout Master for the local Boy Scouts Troop, The Main Line Toastmasters Club, and the Sunday Morning Toastmasters Breakfast Club. He and my grandmother Dorothy introduced Armenian foods to these groups by hosting annual picnics in the backyard of their home, welcoming everyone with their warm hospitality and savory Armenian dishes.
My grandfather took his dedication to community a step further when he was elected to office as a Lower Merion Township Commissioner from 1958-1962. One of his most cherished acts of civic engagement, however, was initiating a school dental program for Darby Township’s 1,600 students, who he examined – without discrimination – from 1936-1946. Giving back to a country that provided a safe haven, without the fear of being killed for his ethnicity or religion, was crucial to him.
It could have been easy for my grandfather to become submerged in his new life, reaching the pinnacle of the so-called American Dream, surrounded by comfort and safety. But the searing pain of the Armenian Genocide never left him – especially since the Turkish government continued to deny the veracity of the 1.5 million lives lost between 1915 and 1923, when the Young Turk party implemented the massacres and deportations. My grandfather wrote thousands of letters to newspapers, elected officials, and several presidential administrations, between the 1940s and early 2000s, to bring awareness to the issue of the Armenian Genocide. His eyewitness testimony remains in the Congressional Record.
My grandfather passed away in 2004. I wish he could have witnessed both chambers of the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly pass resolutions reaffirming the Armenian Genocide in late 2019. The advocacy efforts of his generation, when combined with ours, brought to light official recognition a century in the making. But now the time has come for the Executive Branch to do the same. President Joe Biden has a documented, 30-year history of acknowledging the Armenian Genocide as an elected official. As he tries to restore U.S. credibility in the foreign arena and bring human rights back to the forefront, an official affirmation of the Armenian Genocide by the President would certainly align with American values and guiding principles. On April 24, we ask President Joe Biden to unequivocally affirm the Armenian Genocide as a genocide – to not only honor the memory of the victims, but to recognize the contributions that survivors like my grandfather made to America, a country held so dear in their hearts.