Earthquake Survivor: Several Historians and a Single Orphan PART I

12:30, 21 July, 2011

Samuel Armen

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.

On December 7, 1988 the ancient land shook violently with a devastating 6.9 magnitude earthquake that collapsed schools and structures to dust, and ended the lives of at least 25,000 men and women – most of which 2nd generation genocide survivors – and children who might have had a brighter future if their school ended five minutes earlier.

25,000 strong Armenians were no longer dancing, singing, speaking, breathing, or living. I was 56 days old, a fragile infant of less than two months of age, presumably incapable of even crawling, yet, I lived.

From that moment to the age of five my life is shrouded in mystery, illuminated only by the details told to me by five individuals. What they told me is a series of miracles that has led me to a blessed journey of life. Surviving the Gyumri-Spitak earthquake was my very first miracle.

Just as the earth was created with the aid of the heavenly constellations, my life’s fortunate journey to a family began with Stella.

I heard the name a few times in stories – Stella Grigorian this, Stella Grigorian that. At the age of fourteen I was told she would have answers of my past that no one else could tell me. So through the help of Alice Movsesian – another of my past’s historians – who tracked down Stella, I was able to speak to her. In the order of my known life, she would be the first person I knew to thank. I was fourteen, nervous and in my room clutching the telephone receiver tightly with sweaty hands and a racing heart as the phone rang and rang. “Samvel?” an enthusiastic voice suddenly sang with more than a hint of joyful youth. It was tranquilizing; her calming voice settled my nerves and our conversation began with a chapter of my life too obscure for anyone besides herself to find.

She told me, my last name was originally Darakashvilli, my biological mother is half-Georgian, my father was a mechanic and the name of my orphanage. Stella worked across the street at Lenshintrest – the state construction offices – working for the JDC (Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) working to build the JDC Children’s Rehabilitation Clinic and training local medical professions as physical and occupational therapists. Several times, she would see me outside from her second story window playing in the backyard of the orphanage.

Being one to explore and one who is familiar both with children and children in need, she visited from across the street. She had already known this particular orphanage was for mentally disabled children, but could not understand why I was there. She found soon that my eyes – my cross eyed vision and appearance – was the defect that led to such a mistake. Because I was too young to express my intelligence, and because the medical departments were old and already outdated, I had landed in this particular orphanage for mentally challenged children.

Stella wanted more than anything to adopt me then and there, but she was already pregnant, and was afraid of not being able to provide for two children so quickly. Fortunately, she would soon receive news from Alice Movsesian that I was in good hands.

Between Stella Grigorian, Arthur Halvajian – the Armenian-American philanthropist involved in numerous outreach programs – and Alice Movsesian – who worked under Arthur – I would be brought to America with the excuse of having my eyes corrected. Without Arthur’s approval of going to America to get my eyes fixed, I would not be given a visa, and thus remain in the orphanage. But in the times between any such surgery, they – especially Alice Movsesian – were determined to find me permanent parents. They were also determined to introduce me to America; to have my senses amazed by the sight of the towering Manhattan Skyscrapers, the rushing feel of an elevator rise, the soul-stirring sounds of Jazz, and the taste of biting into a New York City Burger.

It would be in New Jersey at the age of 3 where I would find my first real home.

Digeen Mariam (Ms. Mary-Anne) and Baron Krikor (Mr. Gregory) Saraydarian were my caretakers. But as they say, quoting a four-year old me: “I give you life.” They were the first parents I truly loved and still love. They gave me my first friend, my first family, my first birthday at the age of four, and I nearly gave Digeen Mariam her very first heart attack when she lost me inside of a toy store. Even after my adoption, they would come visit or I would visit them and we would talk about anything for hours. They were the ones who told me about Stella Grigorian, and told me that Alice Movsesian could get a hold of her. They were also related to the first person to make a prediction about me. Baron Krikor’s father, whom I called Babuk George, watched over me for an hour when no one else was in the house. When his son Krikor returned he told him, “That boy is either going to be something spectacular, or end up in a federal prison – watch him.” 

(See the picture 1: Samuel smiling with his hero, Sesame Street's Big Bird.)

When I turned four years old, Digeen Mariam and Baron Krikor surprised me with my first  birthday party. Baron Krikor had his brother dress up as Big Bird from Sesame Street. When the doorbell rang and Mariam and Krikor asked me to get it, they could hear from any corner of the house the wild delight of a young boy who had come face-to-face with his hero. At some point during this party, Big Bird lifted me in his arms and one destiny-weaving photographer took a picture of me – a young boy with a patch on his eye smiling from ear to ear –  which would eventually appear in the Armenian Reporter.

One week later and 25 miles away in Long Island, New York, in a blessed moment in space and time, my third miracle began. A man named Dr. Garo Armen received a call from a family friend that there was a photograph of a boy in the Armenian Reporter up for adoption who sort of looked like his own son, Zachary. After speaking to his wife, Valerie, the two wanted to at least see this boy.

By the time Garo and Valerie began their drive to the Saraydarian house in New Jersey I was four-and-a-half years old, and the Saraydarian's daughters - Alice Saraydarian and Karen Arslanian - were not the only ones taking care of me. I was sort of an attraction in the Armenian community in New Jersey. Families would ask to borrow me, take care of me, feed me, have me sleep over, and meet their own children. To this day I find it quite strange that I know a family of beautiful Armenian girls whose parents could have adopted me, making all of them my sisters.

No matter who wanted to adopt me, Baron Krikor and especially Digeen Mariam were very strict. The parents had to be good enough for this young boy they had grown to love. And through the nearly-mystical precision of Armenian hospitality and the placement of a blanket, that family would be known.

When the Armens first telephoned they were turned down because another family was taking care of me.

It was this one family that came, that seemed alright, and that wanted to adopt me. Krikor and Mariam allowed the family (like many other families whom they knew) to take care of me for a week. As they got to know them, Digeen Mariam rose to serve food, and frowned clandestinely when my potential mother did not budge or even offer to help. Nevertheless, they let them take care of me for a week. Before leaving, Digeen Mariam isolated the mother, handed her my favorite blanket, and whispered to her that she should put that on or near the bed I’d sleep on, as it would comfort me.

When Digeen Mariam visited me in my potentially new home, she was infuriated with what she saw: The blanket – my favorite blanket – was tossed aside, collecting dust in some room far from where I slept. After interrogating the mother, Digeen Mariam’s mouth dropped when she stated that “it’s okay – we’re giving him a cleaner blanket.” Needless to say, this family had lost their chance of adopting her little boy.

But it was during my stay with that family that the Armens called and had to be turned down. After Digeen Mariam excommunicated the family from me (so to speak),  the Armens were called back.

At the time, my father was in Dublin, Ireland. When he received the message from the other side of the globe, he began calculating, and it wasn’t long before he decided that a 3,187 mile flight and half-hour drive was worth seeing me.

When Digeen Mariam rose to make food, my mom leapt upwards. When she told them about the blanket, they nodded with a sincere countenance. When Digeen Mariam visited, she saw me wrapped comfortably in the blanket and sound asleep.

It was then decided, these would be my new parents.

I was told this news in New Jersey, and began crying instantaneously. I asked to Digeen Mariam and Baron Krikor, “Why can’t you take care of me anymore?” sensing that perhaps I had done something horribly wrong. To this they responded, “We are too old.” I turned lugubriously to Garo and Valerie Armen and asked them “Are you too old?” Fate had it that they were not.

Samuel (right) and Zachary (left) playing at a family event.

Picture 2: Samuel (right) and Zachary (left) playing at a family event.

Just as Digeen Mariam and Baron Krikor were the first family to make me feel loved, they were the first family to break my heart. I was convinced, for some reason or intuition, that I would never see them again as I sobbed in the backseat of the Armen’s car. Fortunately, that was definitely not the case. By the age of 5, I was adopted into the family and slowly becoming very close to my English and Armenian speaking brother, Zachary. As we grew older we played, we fought, and most of all, we learned from each other and still from each other today.

Today I love them like family, because family loves, cares, and teaches.

Today brings me to why I am writing this. My life and many of its mysteries can only be found in Gyumri. In less than five weeks I will be going to Gyumri to lift off the veil of my past as much as possible. There are still too many questions I have: Where did I live? Are my parents alive, were they killed during the earthquake, or did they already pass away in the last two decades since they’ve last seen me? Why was I cross-eyed? Why do I have particular phobias? Why do I look the way I look? Why do I have three small scars on me since as long as I can remember? Why do I write? Why do I calculate people so much? Who gave me my eyes, my nose, my voice, my chin, my face? What was I like as a baby? Did I cry and talk too much like I talk too much today? Why is my hearing so sharp and my vision so blurred?           

I write this all in Yerevan, and my hands shake at the thought of being somewhere I haven’t been in twenty-one years. When I come back, I will write my experience, detail any and all of the answers I have found, and introduce, to the best of my ability, the complexity of what it truly feels like to be adopted.

to be continued

Picture 3: Samuel Armen at age 21 – Photo taken in 2010