“How do you cook rice?”
When her Turkish neighbour in Istanbul asked this seemingly odd question Armenian Varduhi Balyan was not surprised.
“I told her that Armenians cook it the same way Turks do.“ [Most Turks] don’t imagine that our cultures are so similar, as where else they have seen an Armenian? It doesn’t mean [she] had prejudices; she just didn’t know anything at all and was curious how we cook.”
Many Armenians do not even travel to neighbouring Turkey for a vacation, let alone move there – either out of fear or a long nurtured anger for the 1915 mass killings of an estimated one and half million Armenians which are widely recognised as genocide. While Turkey admits atrocities took place in the turmoil of WWI, it adamantly denies a systematic attempt to wipe out the Christian Armenians.
In both countries nationalist discourses isolate people from each other and perpetuate constructed images of implacable enmity. The alienation is augmented by the lack of diplomatic relations - in 1993 Turkey cut relations and sided with Azerbaijan during the war with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The border between the two neighbouring countries has been sealed ever since.
Today Armenians in Turkey tend to be either families who have living there for generations -- the bolsahays who do not consider themselves part of the diaspora as Turkey is their homeland, or people who are temporarily in the country for trade.
Balyan landed in Istanbul in 2013 to volunteer for the programs of the TOG community volunteer foundation and the Hrant Dink Foundation and with the idea of staying for one year. Soon however she fell to the city’s charm. She decided to enroll in a master in Social Projects and NGO Management, at Istanbul Bilgi University. Balyan feels that her life choices, can help to challenge stereotypes and distrust.