We arrived an hour before the passport facility opened, so Lilit and I explored, and what we found was incredible. Behind this building was a dirt road that continued for roughly one mile. At the end of this road one would see the entrance into an abandoned building. We stepped inside. It was known immediately that this space was once massive, but was absolutely destroyed. We walked silently, separating then coming together, examining fragments of unbroken tiles. All I could think of was how only something so powerful as an Earthquake could do this damage.
When the hour ended we returned to the Vostigonootyoon and went to Gagik Khachatryan’s office. There was a large line, and I decided to be bold by skipping the line and walking into his office. Lilit quickly explained what I wanted and he simply looked confused. I reached into my backpack and pulled out the newspaper article that HetQ published. He made a face of recognition immediately, which I would assume would be his Gyumri pride being satiated when he read “On October 12, 1988, a boy who would become I, had the infinite blessing of being born in Gyumri, Armenia – the country’s second largest city.”
He leaned back in his chair and knocked on the wall. A woman came out from around the corner and he asked her to look up the name Samvel, Samvel Moushegh, Samvel Moushegh Dalakashvilli, and Moushegh Dalakashvilli. We sat in his office and began talking about what we should do. I kept noticing the pocket sized portrait of Jesus leaning against the wall diagonally, facing him. In between our conversation, people poured in and he examined their passports while still speaking to us. Another woman came in bringing us coffee, and by the time we finished it, the first woman returned with news that no such names exist in Gyumri.
He then told me he’d have one of his drivers take me to the orphanage. With one of Gagik’s drivers, I returned to the orphanage. Again there was a substitute. This man was heavier and louder than the previous substitute. What followed was a most irritating conversation where I asked a question and he responded with an answer that obviously required another question. With the help of Lilit, the following dialogue was accurately translated.
“I can’t help you,” he said.
“The information is in the safe.”
“Then I need you to go open the safe.”
“I don’t have the key.”
“Who has the key?”
“Where is Ruzanna?”
“Does anyone else have the key?”
“When will she be back?”
“15 days. She’s on vacation.”
“Are you telling me that no one has a key here for 15 days? What if there’s an emergency? Are you people actually that stupid or are you just lying to my face right now?”
To this he smiled and turned around to walk away.
Liars, I thought to myself. The information I wanted meant twenty-two years to me, and to him it was just a Tuesday. Fury built within me to an extent I had never felt before. When he was perhaps 10 meters away I had an image of me strangling this incompetent and rude human being. Involuntarily, I opened my hands and began walking towards him.
“G’Nerek!” (Excuse Me!) Someone called before I had taken even three steps.
I turned and saw a man leaning against the entrance, smoking a cigarette. Lilit walked up to him and began talking. Lilit translated to me that his mother, Susana, worked at the orphanage for over 50 years and that she could help me. He gave us the directions to her, which we gave to Gagik’s driver.
A half hour later I would be standing with Lilit in an open, sandy space that was surrounded by three gray apartment buildings. When I approached what seemed to be my destination I saw a large woman outside one of the apartments.
I walked towards her to ask for the specifics of an address, but when she turned and noticed me walking towards her, her soft brown eyes went wide.
“SAMVEL?” she asked in utter disbelief.
This was the woman I was looking for. She invited Lilit, our other driver and I upstairs.
“Do you remember me? Because I remember you,” was the first thing she said as I sat down on her green couch.
She told me that my eyes – crossed or uncrossed – were unforgettable to her. What followed was her account of my stay in the orphanage. She said that one day, when the sun was so low that the orphanage was casted in complete shade, a woman appeared carrying a baby alongside a man ‘who was not her husband.’ Susana said that her accent was definitely not Gyumretsi; that she may have been from Georgia but she was undoubtedly Armenian by blood. Susana spoke to my mother very briefly because she was in a rush to catch a train.
She then told me of how I was in the orphanage and how the nurses and doctors treated me a bit differently than the other children – something I’ve heard many times. She said there was a nurse there named Hevush whom I called Gengush because I was unable to pronounce her name. This conversation continued for at least an hour, with her filling in particular details. Unfortunately, the most important questions – my mother or father’s name, where I’m from, and why I was abandoned – were ones she could not answer. So, even after many lucid revelations, the questions still remained a mystery.
Coming home from Gyumri for the second time must have been far better than the first, because I was sleeping like a satisfied baby on top of poor Lilit’s shoulder. I felt as if my walk through the ruins, conversation with Gagik, and longer conversation with Susana were extremely profitable occurrences in my growing wealth of knowledge about my history.
A week or so later, in Yerevan I met with a couple that recognized me from the previous HetQ article. The husband was from Los Angeles and the wife was a Gyumretsi. They revealed themselves to be great, thoughtful people, and offered their help. It was two weeks after my introduction to them, when I was in the middle of an event for Orran, when they called me.
“Sam? I spoke to Ruzanna,” she began, “and she says if you’re so concerned about your early life you should just go ask your sister.”
My heart must have exploded and then reconstructed itself.
“What sister? Does she know which Sam she is talking about? Did you say Samuel Armen or Samvel Moushegh Dalakashvilli?” I responded.
“Yes – she said you have a sister – and you should go ask your sister.”
She and her husband then spoke to a panicking me on the phone. They gave me a name that I wrote on my left hand, shaking from uncontrollable panic and immense confusion. A sister? I thought to myself, Is she okay? Where is she? Who’s taking care of her?
I hung up the phone and walked back to our table and sat down. My uncle looked at my left hand and asked, “What is that man?”
I wanted to say my potential sister; that she has my original last name and a historical first name, and that she may be in a terrible place. But, it was in this dining hall – this beautiful group that helps unfortunate children, under this particular sound – a piano played tenderly, coupled with the singing of a female with an affectionate voice, and around these people – my real family, who I suddenly could not hear the voices of – where I gave up.
Yes, I gave up on the first two chapters of my life. Everything seemed to be confused in a web of very believable lies, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. Maybe some other the day the answers will find me, I thought, or the fire of my determination will rekindle. This is the Armenian experience, I told myself, corrupt bureaucracy getting in the way. I’ve heard many people tell me, “I hope you have your answers soon.” It seemed as if people were rooting for me. Too bad I thought, because I was rooting for me too.
Then, as if punished by my lack of will, the information, which was always terrible, revealed itself to me. A few hours after the event, I was surrounded by new friends inside of a hookah bar on Northern Avenue. A particular person who was well-connected looked at me sympathetically. “No one wants to tell you the truth, Sam” she began, which immediately attracted my attention. “At least five people know the truth about your mother, but they don’t want to hurt you.” She paused and whispered nervously. “Sam… your mother was a prostitute.”
The entire earth seemed to fall on me, burying me deep under crashing stone, dirt, mud, bones, all the way down to the fiery mantle where I began perspiring profusely. I didn’t have breath – I was underground. I didn’t have sight – I was below the ground that the common men walk upon. I didn’t have anything. An immeasurable moment of time passed by me in a daze until I once again could see the person who revealed the information to me. She was vibrating through the lens of my teary eyes. “I’m sorry I just told you that,” she said, having watched me the whole time.
I would cry that entire night, shaking and thinking My mother was a prostitute, my father was a damned customer. In the morning I would wake up with tears and a terrible headache. But, in a fateful dialog of miscommunication, I accidentally revealed to my father what I had learned, which led to a very long conversation filled with revelation and detail.
My father knew about my sister. He met her nearly a decade ago and was going to tell me when he felt I was absolutely ready. In this moment, he had no choice. It wasn’t the mere fact that I have a sister that worried him; it was my reaction to her condition. My sister is a half-sister, is two years older than me, and she has a terrible case of Cerebral Palsy, which renders her communicative ability likened to that of a four-year-old. She has been in the best possible place for someone like her, and my father often watches over – to make sure it’s true what her guardians say there – that she is the happiest girl in the world.
He also aids her whenever there is an event that she would enjoy – like a group trip. He says part of the reason he does it is because he knows that she and I are related, that she’s my half-sister – that she’s the only other person in the world he’s met that has a part of my blood, and that she might have otherwise had a tragic fate. That was enough for Dr. Garo Armen to be fatherly.
I would like to take a moment to point out that Ruzanna telling me to “go ask my sister” wasn’t a kindhearted suggestion but rather a heartless, soulless, mindless, and thoughtless insult – both to a boy from an orphanage that she now runs and to a girl who was in the same condition. This should make people begin to question how the children are treated there and if they can find any better supervisors. In fact, besides this and her consistent vacations, one could bring up many terrible things this woman has done.
On the same day of talking to my father I learned from a friend in Yerevan that this woman, Ruzanna – who happens to be making quite a lot of money for being the director of an orphanage for mentally disabled children – was just caught for again stealing millions of dram from the orphanage, and that she would be punished. That made me smile. Later she would go unpunished. That made me very upset. There are plenty of stories people have to share about this woman, and I trust HetQ will be publishing them very shortly.
Going back to the conversation between my father and me, we began addressing the subject of my mother. My father and quite a few other people told me not to believe that she was a prostitute. My father’s aunt – who was very proper – was called a ‘prostitute’ when she was younger by many people because she would go out on a date with one boy and then a week later she would go out with another. Two decades ago, in Soviet Gyumri, it was very easy for a woman to be labeled as a ‘prostitute’. Even if she was lascivious at the time, I have no means of understanding the justifications of her actions in a recently impoverished, Earthquake-surviving city like Gyumri.
I agreed to the advice of many of my wisest elders who knew I would write this article – that I would be proper in my depiction of her. To be fair and just, my mother, most truthfully was – AT THE VERY LEAST – perceived to be promiscuous.
That was the essential conclusion of this journey to find out about my early life. I have a sister, and I plan on visiting her some day very soon.
Some might say that the trip yielded zero results, but even I, who was at the center of the storm, disagree completely. I have been given more answers than I can count. This journey brought me back to my city of birth, an ancient land that has whispered the poetry of Armenian and pre-Armenian people for at least 10,000 years. I have returned to my orphanage after two decades, which was an institution where I was held for over a year. I have been taught the erroneous bureaucracy one has to go through when trying to get something accomplished in Armenia. I have been shown the system, and learned very well who was corrupt, who was evil, and who was there to help.
I might not ever find my biology, but they make up my natural construct, so when I look in the mirror – it is, in a sense – them I see, developed and enhanced by my new, real, loving family throughout my life. This journey brought my real parents and myself closer together, and revealed tremendous details of my life that I had never known – like pages of deep-layered psychoanalysis, photographs of me in the orphanage (one of the youngest pictures of me I have ever seen). The pages of my lost chapters haven’t been fully retrieved, but I at least have a better vision of them than I have ever had. If I ever do find enough information – an amount that would fill those first two chapters – I promise it will be HetQ that will publish it first.
For this journey I thank:
- My Armenian ancestry which is unavoidably comprised of a history of survivors that allowed me to be born.
- Stella Grigorian, Arthur Halvajian and Alice Movsesian for bringing me to America and opening the passage for me to find a family.
- Digeen Mariam, Baron Krikor and the Armenian community in New Jersey for welcoming me to a new world.
- AGBU YSIP’s supervisors Aline and Anna and also the 20 interns who made this journey possible for me.
- Edik Baghdasaryan, both Sonas, Kristi, Vahe and all of HetQ for being as courageous as they are kind, and for making me feel like I’ve worked alongside a new, wonderful family.
- The families and couples who helped me in different ways so often – like the Yacoubian family.
- And, of course, more than anyone else: Dr. Garo Armen, Valerie Armen, and Zachary Armen, who made the efforts of everyone else worthwhile; who have given me something that has no word, but takes years to acquire, and to not have it or to have it is the difference between tears of sadness and tears of joy.
I also thank you all for taking time to read my journey. May the Grand Powers of this world, whoever they may be, only bless those who are willing to bless the world themselves.
Picture 1 - Samuel’s photograph of Lilit taking a photograph of the broken-down building behind the Passport facility in Gyumri.
Picture 2 - Photograph of the Gyumri Children’s Home Orphanage, taken roughly twenty years ago.