Teens give peace a chance

Last week, beside a fireplace in a living room at the Sugarbush Inn in Warren, Vermont, two teenage girls told me of their plans to raise awareness among young adults of the prevalence of violence against women. A few minutes later, along the couches near the inn’s main entrance, two teenage boys outlined for me their program to encourage public schools to expand their recycling programs.

Both ideas — only two of a dozen and a half that I heard about that day — were inspiring. But here is what excited me the most: The two girls were visiting Vermont from Armenia. The two boys had journeyed to the Green Mountains from Turkey.

There isn’t a lot of interaction between Turks and Armenians. The border between the two nations is closed. And the two peoples’ shared history revolves around what is sometimes referred to with spectacular understatement or euphemism as “the past,” “the tragedy,” or the “Meds Yeghern” (an Armenian term for “great calamity”). Others, including me and an overwhelming number of scholars and objective historians, simply call it genocide. Roughly one and a half million Armenians — three-quarters of the Armenian population in Turkey — died along with the Ottoman Empire in the midst of the First World War, slaughtered by soldiers and gendarmes or brought to the Syrian desert to die. Three of my four Armenian great-grandparents perished in 1915. Today, the Turkish government doesn’t dispute that Armenians died in the cataclysm, but remains adamant that there was no government plan to exterminate them.

Consequently, the idea that Turkish and Armenian teenagers were coming to Vermont for two weeks to work together to try and solve some of the problems that beleaguer their countries — and ours — interested me. They were brought to Warren by PH International (formerly Project Harmony) to take part in the Youth LAB program. Youth LAB is a Waitsfield, Vermont-based part of PH International, and LAB is an acronym for “Leadership Across Borders.”

Altogether, 72 students participated, 24 each from Armenia, Turkey and the United States, each of whom designed a civic action project that they will bring to life in their home community in the coming months. The endeavor was funded by the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. Later this year, all of the students will travel together to Armenia and Turkey.

According to Miriam Martirosyan, an Armenian from Yerevan and a part of the PH staff since 2002, “The primary focus of the program is leadership not history. Any interest in the genocide should come naturally.”

Nevertheless, all of the Turkish and Armenian students were aware of what Eric Palomaa referred to as “the elephant in the room. But everyone is also a future diplomat.” Palomaa, from Phoenix, Ariz., is a part of the Youth LAB staff this summer because he just finished his master’s program at the University of Chicago, studying Armenian-Turkish relations.

In other words, the purpose was to build friendships across borders and inspire future leaders.

Elora Silver, a 16-year-old American in the program from Windsor, Vermont shared with me how over one lunch she watched three Armenians and one Turkish student dance around history. The discussion kept “escalating and the tension was rising,” she said, and then, suddenly, the Armenians and the Turk were shaking hands and smiling. Silver’s civic action project is about tolerance: She says in a small Green Mountain town such as Windsor, there are people “who think all Muslims are terrorists” and she hopes to educate them of the absurdity of that presumption. Silver is Jewish.

And that is precisely the sort of thing that left me so moved by these 72 teens.

Somehow they are finding just how very much they have in common and overcoming the scars and legacies of their national histories.

As Volkan Duranoglu, one of counselors from Turkey, put it, “Conflict is between governments — not people.”

We still have a long way to go. Personally, I think a Turkish government acknowledgment that what occurred in 1915 and 1916 was indeed genocide would go a long way toward reconciliation. In the meantime, the Turkish, Armenian and American teenagers I met at Youth LAB sure gave me hope for the future.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 31, 2011. Chris’s next novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives on October 4, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.