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Nation states play an integral role in modern society and almost everyone in the world identifies with at least one country. Most people establish permanent residence in their country of origin and play an active role in the social and political activities of the country. Members of a nation develop a common identity by adopting common cultural norms, values, and languages. However, people sometimes choose to relocate to different nations for various reasons. In most cases, the migration happens voluntarily and it is driven by economic factors. In some instances, people move out of their homeland to avoid being killed or because they are forcefully evicted. This was the case among the Armenians who were forced to flee from their homeland by the genocide of 1915.
During this fateful year, the Ottoman Turks instigated genocide against the Armenian population and relocated huge segments of the Armenian population to Syria and Palestine. To escape the widespread killings taking place in the Ottoman Empire, many Armenians fled from their original homeland. France is one of the European countries where large numbers of Armenian refugees chose to settle. France expressed a great willingness to receive the Armenians who were seeking refuge from the Ottoman Turks. This paper will set out to discuss the Armenian Diaspora in France. It will argue that while France is today seen as an unwelcoming country for immigrants, this nation was welcoming to the Armenian community in the post Genocide era and it has continued to accommodate the French-Armenians who have managed to integrate successfully into French culture without losing its cultural origins.
Diaspora: A Definition
The term Diaspora is widely used in modern society to describe various groups of people who have settled in a foreign nation. This term is taken from the Greek word for dispersion. According to Cevik-Ersaydi (2011), Diaspora refers to “people with similar origins forced or induced to migrate, resulting with their departure from their homeland, dispersion throughout the world and their cultural development in that place” (p.98). There are a number of important attributes that differentiate the Diaspora from immigrants. To begin with, the dispersal from the original homeland often occurs in a traumatic manner. This can be through forced eviction or intense persecution that forces the group to flee from the original homeland.
The Diaspora community has a collective memory and myth about the original homeland and in most cases the homeland is thought of in idealized terms. The idealization of the homeland leads to a longing to return home and some Diaspora communities have aspirations to return to their original homeland. Due to this collective memory, the Diaspora often develops strong ethnic identities that are able to survive for long durations in the foreign nation. A defining attribute of the Diaspora is the group’s perceived inability to fully assimilate into host societies (Cavoukian, 2013). Strong connections are made with other members of the Diaspora in both the specific host societies and in other countries.
The Armenians are one group whom the term “Diaspora” is commonly applied to. This term is used not only by outsiders, but also by Armenians to refer to themselves. The term “Diaspora” is appropriate for the Armenians living outside the Republic of Armenia since almost all of them are descendants of people who were forced out of the country by the 1915 genocide. The Armenian communities have continued to hold on to the cultural identity of their original homeland.
The Armenian people have a long history that stretches back about 4 millenniums. These people initially settled in the geographical region that exists in the Southern region of Eurasia. At the peak of their civilization, Armenian territory extended to over 180,000km2 and it included that is not the Republic of Georgia and parts of Iraq and Syria (Ember & Skoggard, 2004). The cultural identity of the Armenian’s has undergone evolution over the centuries. Ember and Skoggard (2004) document that through the merging of the indigenous beliefs and practices of the blend of several peoples who inhabited the Armenian territory, a unique culture was developed. This culture borrowed some of its traits from the geographic neighbors and the various empires that conquered the Armenians. The greatest change in the cultural identity of the Armenians occurred when the state converted to Christianity in 301AD. The Armenians embraced Christianity and it became a persistent feature of Armenian identity.
Armenians started leaving Armenia in significant numbers from the fourth century AD. During this period, the major reasons for leaving the original homeland included forceful deportation by the Byzantine Empire to depopulated regions of the empire or to provide military services for the empire. The Byzantine Empire continued to cause the movement of the Armenians up until the 11th century, when the empire was conquered by the Seljuk Turks (Ember & Skoggard, 2004). The conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Turks had some significant consequences for the Armenians. Ember and Skoggard (2004) report that large numbers of Armenians moved to and settled in sparsely populated territory in the late 11th century. Others choose to flee from the invasion of the Turks by going north along well established trade routes. Most of these refugees settled in the Crimean peninsula while others went further into Eastern Europe. A significant number of Armenians settled in the Ottoman Empire where they thrived and coexisted with the Turk conquerors.
The peace and stability enjoyed by the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire came to an end starting from April 1915 when the Empire carried out the genocide against its Armenian citizens. Ember and Skoggard (2004) state that the Ottoman Turks killed about 1.5 million Armenians, which represented 75% of the total Armenian population within Ottoman territory. A large number of the Armenians died as they were deported to inhospitable desert regions without adequate resources. Due to the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the Turks, 1915 is regarded by many historians as the most traumatic period in Armenian history. The survivors of this genocide fled to various regions, including the Middle East and the West. Many Armenians took refuge in the Russian Empire, where they settled in the provinces that already had existing Armenian communities. The other survivors were forcefully deported to Palestine and Syria. France was one of the countries that welcomed thousands of Armenian refugees. Quayson and Daswani (2013) document that Paris sent boats to rescue the civilians who were fleeing from the genocide.
New Identity of Armenians
The present identity of the Armenians began in the post-1915 decades. The massacres of the Armenians by the Young Turks led to the creation of a significant Diaspora for the first time. Cevik-Ersaydi (2011) asserts that the Armenian Diaspora is “one of the most dispersed communities in the world” (p.93). The traumatic events of 1915 left a mark in the Armenian’s history and shaped their identity. Cevik-Ersaydi (2011) observes that the Armenian Diaspora has chosen to preserve its identity by using the trauma generated by the genocide of 1915 and the forced migration from their homeland. For a group to maintain its cohesiveness, it needs to have a common sense of belonging and identity.
For the Armenian Diaspora, this common sense is derived from the societal trauma experienced during the events of 1915. According to Cevik-Ersaydi (2011), the Armenian Diaspora positions itself in the axis of victimization psychology since it was treated unjustly by the Ottoman Turks. The Armenians continue to be sensitive of the past injustices carried out against them by the Ottoman Turks. Totoricaguena (2005) explains that Diaspora groups who have experienced traumatic expulsions from their homeland may suffer from some emotional and psychological crises of a ruptured existence. While they may manage to physically adjust to life as refugees, they still face the hard to manage psychological and emotional issues.
A unique attribute of the Armenian Diaspora is that they continue to thrive and preserve their ethnic identity in the various countries where they settle. Religion plays a significant role among Armenian communities and most diasporic communities are concentrated around churches. These institutions not only provide for the spiritual needs of the people, but they also serve as community centers where the Armenians meet and engage in various social and political activities. Religion is also used to express a form of diasporic nationalism by the Armenian Diaspora. The church provides an avenue through which the French Armenians can experience their original homeland’s culture. The Church is full of visual, linguistic, and musical traditions that provide Armenians with deep connections to their past. The religious institutions provide a sense of continuity by preserving the community’s culture and enabling the Armenians to experience it frequently even in foreign lands.
Another defining aspect of the Armenian identity is that the Diaspora regards the Republic of Armenia as their original homeland. This republic is a small country geographically located in Western Asia. The Republic of Armenia was established in regions that had previously been controlled by the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Unlike the historical Armenian territory that had extended to 180,000 Km2, this republic only extends to 30,000Km2. The republic was taken over by Lenin’s armies and it became part of the USSR. It regained its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the USSR. The French Armenians continue to play a significant role in the running of their fatherland. They influence the political life of the country and make financial contributions to the country. Cavoukian (2013) observes that the Armenian government regards its Diaspora community as human resources that play a positive role in the development of the country.
Armenians in France
Even before the genocide of 1915, the Armenians had been migrating to France for centuries. The first group of Armenians to move and settle in France was made up of merchants who arrived in the seventeenth century. Totoricaguena (2005) reveals that these immigrants were often motivated by economic interests. However, their numbers were fairly modest and they did not form sizable communities in France. The genocide caused the mass exodus of Armenians as they sought to escape persecution in their homeland. During this genocide, the French Government attempted to use its diplomatic influence to stop the Ottoman Turks from killing its Armenian citizens. In addition to this, the French administration welcomed the Armenian refugees who were fleeing their home country. Most of the refugees were given French citizenship since the government recognized that they had no home country to go back to.
France is the European Union member State with the highest Armenian population. Taylor (2008) asserts that France is one of the major destinations for the Armenian Diaspora with a population of an estimated 750,000 Armenians. This is compared to 80,000 in Greece and 70,000 in Spain. France distinguishes Armenians from other migrant groups, especially those whom the state perceives to be unassimilable. To begin with, there is no pressure to kick Armenians out of French soil since it is recognized that the Armenians have lost their homeland as a result of the genocide and they therefore have nowhere to return to. Quayson and Daswani (2013) reveal that the refugee status given to Armenians benefitted them in France since they were regarded more favorably than economic immigrants.
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The Armenian Diaspora in France is very active in the community and they have a significant level of political involvement. Due to this involvement, the Armenians have been able to effectively campaign for various causes in France. In 2001, The Armenian Diaspora lobby group was able to influence the government to officially recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915. Totoricaguena (2005) documents that a unanimous vote in the lower house of the French assembly led to France joining the list of nations that officially recognize the genocide of 1951.The good relationship between French Armenians and the French government can be seen from the vocal role that France has paid concerning the recognition of the 1915 genocide. To mark the 100th anniversary of the 1915 killings, the French president attended the memorial held in Yerevan and expressed his determination to push for the recognition of the killings as genocide (Doucet, 2015).
The French government is notorious for emphasizing on the assimilation of all foreigners who choose to settle within its borders. In spite of this emphasis on assimilation, the Armenians have been granted the right to express their cultural specificities. Totoricaguena (2005) documents that the Armenians are among the ethnic groups that feel a connection to others in their group in spite of which country they live. The government does not view the unique Armenian identity as a threat to the cohesion of the nation since French Armenians conform to the secular ideals of the state.
This paper set out to discuss the Armenian Diaspora in France with an aim of showing how they have been integrated in French society without losing their cultural identity. The paper began by defining the term “Diaspora” and showing how the term rightly applies to the French Armenians since the originating dispersion from the homeland occurred through forceful deportation and military coercion. A historical overview of the Armenians has been provided to show that they had a long and expansive history in Eurasia. The paper has shown how the 1915 genocide became a defining point in the history of the Armenians. This event less to the mass dispersion of the people and the formation of a sizable French-Armenian population. This population has continued to hold on to some aspects of its cultural identity even after 100 years of living in France. The French government has been accommodating to the Armenians due to the ability of the Armenian community to positively engage with the rest of the French society.
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