Familial Love Transcends War, Servitude, Continents and Oceans
On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government issued an order for the extermination of the Armenian people in their own land, where they had lived for centuries. On that date, writers, composers, intellectuals and priests were rounded up and killed. Their death presaged the murder of an ancient civilization. April 24 is, therefore, commemorated as the date of the unfolding of the Armenian Genocide.
Between the years 1895 and 1923, the Armenian people was subjected to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre and starvation. The great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the vast majority was sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. Large numbers of Armenians were methodically massacred throughout the Ottoman Empire. Women and children were abducted and horribly abused. The entire wealth of the Armenian people was expropriated. As a result, some 600,000 Armenians were killed or died of starvation.
These events may seem to be far removed from local residents, but they are not. Throughout greater Boston and southeastern Massachusetts, the children of first generation Armenians who survived the genocide live among us. This is the story of one of the surviving families and the town that embraced them.
In 1889, Samuel Sakaian, a 24 year old Armenian, left his young wife and children and emigrated to the United States. Several months later, responding to the need for skilled tradesmen in the local manufacturing industries, Sakaian relocated to Foxboro, Massachusetts.
During the ensuing three decades, Sakaian would travel back to Armenia several times in search of his family members who remained in his native land. The archives of the Foxboro Reporter is a window to the past of the heartfelt love and concern of the residents of the town for the adopted son as he journeyed into danger. His final journey was celebrated by the return of his niece who was captured by Arab slave traders and sold into domestic servitude.
In 1894, when word of the fighting between the Turks and Armenians reached Samuel Sakaian, the Foxboro Reporter began recording the unfolding events. On August 24, 1894, in an article titled "Off for the Holy Land," it was reported that "Samuel H. K. Sakaian left Foxboro on Tuesday of this week for Worcester, from whence he will go to New York, and from there he sails on Wednesday, August 29th, for London. From London, England he goes to Paris, France, from Paris to Marseilles, France, and from Marseilles he boards a ship, which will carry him to Antioch, in the Holy Land. At Antioch, he will buy a horse at an expense of about $25, on which he will be obliged to ride for 15 long days before he reaches his home in Central Armenia, near Mount Ararat. At Antioch he will also hire an ass and its owner. On the back of the animal will be carried his carpenter tools, which weigh several hundred pounds. These will be divided and packed in two boxes, each holding about an equal number of pound in order that they may be carried to better advantage. All along the route are located inns, at which travelers purchase necessities for man and beast.
"Samuel has resided in Foxboro for 4 years and it is 4 ½ years since he left his native land. During his absence a daughter 6 ½ years of age has died. He has three brothers and one sister, all married and all residing in the same house with his family. He was 55 days on his journey to this country, but expects to return in 40 days, under increased facilities, and with less delay along the route. During his residence here he has been nearly or quite all the time in the employ of Deacon Thomas B. Bourne, and engaged as a carpenter. He has gained many friends and carries back to his country the best wishes of all who know him. He also carries back a knowledge of various things as done in this country, which will be of great value and lasting benefit to him. He wishes to extend his thanks to Deacon T. B. Bourne, Robert S. Carpenter and their families, and to the many people here who have befriended him either by word or deed. It is a long and tedious journey, which he starts upon, and one beset by more or less danger."
Unfortunately, Sakaian’s journey ended in Marseilles, France, for according to the Foxboro Reporter in September 1895, Sakaian started a second time for Armenia. The article recorded that "Samuel leaves many friends in Foxboro, who have learned to respect him; the prayers and best wishes of many people here accompany him on his long journey, and will be with him after he reaches his home. He has been absent from wife and children 5 years and 7 months, a daughter having died during his absence.
"Once before he started on this journey but met with misfortune before sailing from Europe, and returned to America. He will carry his carpenter tools with him, which he has purchased since his return to America, his first chest of these necessaries having been stolen from him during his previous journey. Samuel wishes us to say that his heart is filled with thankfulness to the people of Foxboro for their many and great kindnesses to him during his stay among us, and we realized that his heart was filled with tender thoughts for our people who had befriended him, which could not be expressed."
Three months later, in December 1895, the Foxboro Reporter informed residents of the town that a letter had been received by Sakaian’s former employer, Thomas B. Bourne. In the article, Bourne stated that Sakaian was in Marseilles, France, "in company with quite a body of his countrymen, all being detained there on account of the terrible ravages, which are taking place in Armenia, in which over 18,000 of his people, have been massacred. It is impossible for any of them to get passports to proceed. Samuel does not know whether his family are alive or dead, as no word of any kind has been received from them. The nearest post-office has been visited by marauders, and their fearful work of murder has been going on there. He still retains his chest of carpenter tools, and will probably be able to find something to do in this line to pay for his expenses." The article went on to mention that Sakaian "was followed from Foxboro by many prayers, and kind wishes, and it would be a comfort for him to know that he has still a warm place in the hearts of many in this town."
Soon after, in February 1896, the Foxboro Reporter recorded that a "meeting in town hall Monday evening to raise money for suffering Armenia was fairly attended. Rev. J. W. Flagg presided. The speaker of the evening was Rev. E. P. Allen of Portland, Maine, who was a missionary at Harpoot, Turkey. His lecture was intensely interesting, and a generous collection was taken."
Several weeks later, on March 14, 1896, the Foxboro Reporter mentioned that Sakaian had safely arrived again in Foxboro from Marseilles, France. The article went on to state that Sakaian’s arrival "was closely followed by a registered letter, from his home in Armenia, receiving it on Saturday. It was the fourth, which has been received by him, out of seven letters written to him by his people. The others have probably been intercepted. He wrote fifteen letters from France to his home and to those acquainted with his people in other parts of Turkey. Nearly all of these have doubtless failed to reach their destination.
"The letter received Saturday was, as stated, forwarded to him from France, where he left his address upon leaving for his last journey back to the United States. It was written on Wednesday, January 15th and stated that his wife and son, his three brothers and their families, 15 persons in all, were alive. This was cheering news to Samuel although the letter received was written nearly two months ago."
Sakaian remained in town for several more years, but in 1900 he left Foxboro for his native Armenia. But 10 years later, on June 25, 1910, the Foxboro Reporter recorded that "Samuel Sakaian, who again arrived in this country from Armenia a week ago and who has once again settled in Foxboro, will bring his wife and other members of his family here as soon as he secures the necessary funds for them to make the long journey. Samuel has been absent ten years. He has four children living of the ten children born to them. One of these is a soldier in the army of his country. He with his wife also desire to come to America, but considerable money is required to secure his release from the army. Samuel has had varied and sad experiences since he left Foxboro, and at times has been in imminent danger of losing his life at the hands of the treacherous and wily Turks. He says he never desires to return to his native land, and life will seem worth living when his family are again here."
Apparently Sakaian’s family never arrived in Foxboro, for almost a decade later on July 19, 1919, the Foxboro Reporter recorded that Sakaian had received his passport and that he was traveling to Armenia "to locate if possible his wife and family, not a word from whom has he heard for years." The article also mentioned that "...He had a large number of relatives and has always held the opinion that many of them were victims during the Armenian massacre. He is undecided as to his future labors, but may devote his remaining year to the interests of his Armenian country and people."
On November 29, 1919, the Foxboro Reporter recorded that "The many friends of Samuel K. H. Sakaian will be pleased to learn that he has reached his native land in safety. We present our readers with a letter received from him by Thomas B. Bourne, dated Constantinople, October 20th, which is as follows: ‘I am in Constantinople. New York to Constantinople twenty-one days on the water. We had a nice journey, nice food, nice bed; everything was good. My fare from New York was $305. My health is good. By and by I will go to the English Consul to show my passport. Went to the American Consul, but he told me to go to the English Consul, because everything is in English powers hands. I think I will stay here this winter, but sometime I will see the English Consul to get advice to go to Aleppo. I found my brother’s daughter. All the Armenian people have been without any clothing: all women, girls and boys, have been undressed: nothing to cover themselves. I do not want to write all the things, and I am not able to write. Thousands die of hunger and thirst, and many of them throw themselves into the river and kill themselves. I am sorry I am not able to write long letters, but I hope you will be satisfied. Best regards to you all. You cannot send any letters to me now.’"
Apparently Foxboro residents were unaware of Sakaian’s whereabouts for the next three and a half years. It was not until May 1923 that he returned to Foxboro and told his incredible story. As recorded in the May 12, 1923 Foxboro Reporter, "Mr. Samuel Sakaian, a former resident of Foxboro, returned Wednesday after a sojourn of almost four years in Turkey. Mr. Sakaian left here in June 1919. The ‘Black Arrow’, on which he sailed, left New York on September 26, 1919 and was 22 days on the way to Constantinople." He experienced numerous difficulties in securing passports for passage both ways, notwithstanding the fact that he was an American Citizen; it had become practically impossible for an Armenian to live in Turkey. His plan was to go to Harpoot in Asia Minor to locate his family. When he arrived, he learned that all members of his family, numbering 25 in all, which included his four brothers and their families, had been "sent down South"—in other words, massacred by the Turks. Mr. Sakaian does not want us to think, however, that all Turks are cruel as he tells us that some are humane. In a small village, called Kuckuk Chekmeja, which is just outside of Constantinople, he found a few remaining relatives, who used to live there years and years ago.
One of his cousins had been shipped South to Aleppo by the Turks and there met one of his nieces, who had been claimed in the desert by an Arab. The procedure was to ship all Armenians to the desert where the Arabs overtook them and seized the girls and young women, all others being massacred or left to die of starvation and thirst. To quote Mr. Sakaian, "My niece, who comes from Harpoot, was shipped with the others to the desert by the Turks. There a crowd of Arabs came and took the girls. My niece, at that time only fifteen years old, was taken with two other girls by an Arabian and kept by him for three years. Fortunately, he was very kind, gave them work in the kitchen and did not trouble them. When the Armistice was signed, and everything was under English control, the Arab asked the girls whether they wanted to stay in his house or go into English hands. The girls wanted to go, so he took them over to the English. There, the refugees were in one large building, under English hands. There my niece met her uncle (above mentioned) who did not recognize her at first, as she was a little girl the last time they had met. She remembered him and told him of her experiences and thus were reunited. They were both sent to Constantinople by the English representatives and there I found her, the only one I have left. She was penniless and had only on robe which an Arab had given her to wear. I left her passage money and expect her to reach Foxboro some time next month where she will make her home with me."
"The girl was shipped by the Turks South together with thousands and thousands of women and children from the villages, cities and towns. On their march thru the desert, they passed the dead bodies of hundreds of fellow countrymen who had been massacred. The Turks did not give them a chance to take their own children with them. Women, who had their babies with them, stopped to rest by the road and were killed as they sat there, for they stopped the progress of the march. Many children and women died of thirst, when they were driven into the desert. The girl’s mother had no water for days and when they came at last to water, she drank too much of it and died. The same fate befell thousands of other women."
Mr. Sakaian stayed in Constantinople for three years, waiting for a chance to go to Harpoot. After the Greeks had driven the Turks back and Smyrna was burned, the Turks got power enough to drive all foreigners of every nationality out of Constantinople. Many Americans, English, Italian and French were rushed out of Constantinople by train and boat.
After the foreigners were driven out of Constantinople, there was very little disturbance, so Mr. Sakaian was told by the American Consul that he could stay longer if he wished but that it would be better to come back to America. He experienced many difficulties in securing the passport as it was taken from him by the Turkish government on the grounds that it "was against International Law" for Mr. Sakaian to become an American citizen without notifying the Turkish Consul in this country.
In order that Mr. Sakaian might get safely aboard the steamer for New York, he was referred to the American Ambassador, who, when the appointed time came, had his "qavas" or military orderly escort him to his ship. Mr. Sakaian states that he is glad to be back in Foxboro again, and that he proposes to stay this time.
Samuel’s niece, Alma Sakaian’s voyage to America was beset with the immigration complications and quotas that were common in the post-WWI era. On October 6, 1923, the Foxboro Reporter, in an article titled "Mr. Sakaian Misses Ship Diverted From New York To Providence: Armenian Immigrant is Finally Admitted," recorded the odyssey for the local residents. "Samuel Sakaian, a resident of this town for over 30 years but a native of Armenia, visited several months in his native land where he learned that all his family had been massacred except a niece, Alma Sakaian. He returned last Spring leaving money with the American Consul in Constantinople for the passage later of his niece. She arrived at Ellis Island on July, 1st and was one of over 10,000 aliens that arrived that day in New York harbor. Unfortunately, by the time she was to debark from the ship the monthly quotas for Albania, Greece, Turkey, "other Asia" and Syria had been reached and she was sent back to Europe and her money refunded. Massachusetts Congressman Louis Adams Frothingham took up the matter and she was allowed an entrance. She took passage again on the steamship Canada due to arrive in New York last Monday. This vessel was diverted to Providence where it docked on Sunday. Samuel Sakaian went to New York on Monday to meet his niece. She landed in Providence on Sunday and came to Attleboro where she was taken care of on Monday night by the Y.W.C.A. and finally arrived here safely on Tuesday."
Alma Sakaian was 21 years old when she arrived in Foxboro in 1923. She was born in Arghan, Turkey, in 1902. Several months after arriving in Foxboro, she married Archie Shahabian, an Armenian who also was born in the village of Arghan in 1885. Like Sakaian, Shahabian had emigrated to the United States and moved to Foxboro in 1904. Archie and Alma married in 1924 and lived in Foxboro for the rest of their lives. Archie died in 1975 and Alma passed away in 1982.
Several years after the death of her husband, Alma agreed to be interviewed by a local reporter, George Patisteas. For the first time, Alma recalled publicly her recollections of the events that transpired 60 years earlier. On November 9, 1978, the Foxboro Reporter recorded her story. "...Alma Sakaian was born in the town of Arghan, the youngest in a family of eight children, it was not the best of times. On the verge of the First World War, nationalism was running at a fever pitch. Instigated by years of fighting that resulted in about 200,000 Armenian deaths, the Turks were once again growing resentful of their country’s sizable minority.
"What followed as a result were a number of purges of small hamlets and towns throughout the country that began in Alma’s hometown when she was eight. At that time, out-of-town Turkish soldiers, prodded by the Germans, blindfolded and shot all the male members of her church over the age of 16. The group included Alma’s two brothers, father and an uncle… After the Arghan massacre took place, Turkish harassment of the Armenians continued until a more organized purge began one month later. The Armenian members of the community, Alma recalls, were uprooted from their homes and told to take only what could be carried on their backs and donkeys or horses. Herded from their homes, the refugees were soon stripped of their animals as well, as they headed into the deserts of Mesopotamia.
"The reason for the hostility between the two groups of people was singular: religion. The Turks believed in the word of Muhammed. The Armenians followed the teachings of Christ.
"Lagging behind the caravan of refugees because she was attending to her younger brother, Alma was beaten by a Turkish soldier with a ball and chain, as was her brother. The beating was so severe that the two were left for dead, even though she was still alive.
"What Alma witnessed next, however, was worse than the beating: 10,000-15,000 Armenian refugees, including her mother and brother were being burned in their shelters while soldiers stood guard ready to shoot any person trying to escape. All remaining members of her family were killed in the blaze save for her two older sisters, who had married and moved to Russia before the purges began."
Alone in the deserts of Arabia, where the Armenians had been herded, Alma was picked up by Arab slave traders and deposited in the household of a rich sultan and his wife, where she became personal maid to the lady of the house. Her name and origin was then placed in area newspapers, including the Boston Globe. It was in that paper that Samuel Sakaian, while visiting a friend in Watertown, was told of Alma. Sakaian stayed with his niece for four years, married, then decided to return to Foxboro. Because of his marital status, immigration officials recommended he leave his niece and then send for her a few months afterward.
Alma’s attempts at emigrating, however, were a bona-fide disaster. Aboard a Greek ship that docked in Ellis Island in New York, she and about 50 other Armenians were denied entry because of filled quotas. The boat returned across the Atlantic, not to her home but to the home of the ship.
In Greece for a month with little money, Alma managed to scrape by until it was time for another try. However, when custom officials looked at her passport, taken early in Alma’s life, they balked, thinking it was a forgery. They were convinced that the woman they saw was not the child of the picture, even though only a couple of years had elapsed. "If you were in my place, you’d look older, too," Alma recalls telling them. Allowed to proceed, she this time landed in Providence. Unable to speak a word of English except "Foxboro" and "Sam", Alma found her way to town with the assistance of helpful attendants and train conductors.
After residing in Foxboro for a few months she met Archie Shahabian and they were married soon after in 1924. Archie, like Alma, was a former resident of Arghan. Archie had come to this country as a stowaway to escape what he correctly predicted would be bloodshed in his native land. Alma and Archie Shahabian raised two sons in Foxboro, John and George. George recently passed away and John lives in California.
The Sakaian/Shahabian story, as recorded in the Foxboro Reporter archives, makes very personal an international story of remembrance that may seem at times to be far removed from our local events and memories.