Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alma (Sakaian) Shahabian, 1915 Armenian Genocide Survivor: Immigrant to Foxboro, Massachusetts

Alma Sakaian



The date April 24 is a national holiday in Armenia and is observed by Armenians in dispersed communities around the world. It is held annually to commemorate the victims of the tragedies and atrocities suffered upon the Armenians during the World War I era of 1914-1923.

It is estimated that over 1.5 million Armenians met their death by massacre, murder, starvation, and torture during this era. Alma was a survivor in a caravan that was force marched for sixty-five days and witnessed over 17,850 casualties. Samuel, residing in Foxboro during the war and prohibited from traveling at the time, would discover that all the members of his immediate and extended families in Aghin had been killed, except for Alma. “From Aghin” is an account of Alma’s fortitude, acumen and survival instinct interwoven with the determination of Samuel to rescue his brother’s daughter and return to America.

On July 1, 1915 thirteen year old Alma Sakaian along with her three sisters, a brother and mother left the village of Aghin in a caravan of women, young children and old men. Alma’s father, two older brothers, and all the male members of her village over the age of 16 had been brought together several days earlier, blindfolded and executed by authorities. 

The caravan of 18,000 embarked upon the ancient Roman trade route built alongside the river banks and gorges of the Euphrates River. Sixty-five days later, Alma numbered among the 150 survivors that traversed the footpaths over the Taurus Mountains, forded the Euphrates River at the olden city of Samsat and walked the desert sands between the cities of Urfa, Viran Shehr, and Ras-ul-Ain. 

On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia. The following day a secret treaty of alliance was signed between Turkey and Germany. On October 29, 1914 Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers.  Turkish and German military leaders feared a potential alliance between Armenians and Russians. The fear resulted in an increase in civil and political actions against Armenians which culminated in a defining event on April 24, 1915. On this date military authorities arrested and executed 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople.  Thereafter, the authorities removed Armenians from their villages and force marched them in caravans for hundreds of miles towards the deserts of Syria. It is estimated that1.5 million deaths resulted from the atrocities and deprivations inflicted upon the Armenians at this time, including 25 members of the Sakaian families from Aghin.

Aghin Village, Turkey
In a 1978 interview titled “An Armenian refugee’s 60-year-old tale of tragedy,” Alma recalled her experiences. She related how the Armenians of her village were uprooted from their homes and told to take only what could be carried on their backs and donkeys or horses. How they were herded from their homes and soon stripped of their animals as they headed towards the deserts of Syria. She described how on the march she passed by the dead bodies of hundreds of fellow countrymen who had been massacred. She recalled many distressed mothers that were separated from the children by abduction. She remembered witnessing women, particularly those who had babies with them, stopped to rest by the road and how often times they were killed as they sat there, for they delayed the progress of the march. She told of the many children and women that died of thirst when they were driven into the desert.

 Alma described how she came to be sold to a wealthy Arab. After several days of aimless traveling in the desert she lagged behind the caravan to attend to her younger brother. She described how without any warning a soldier on horseback came upon them and struck them with a ball and chain. The beating was so severe that they were left for dead. Alma survived the attack however her brother died from his injuries. Convinced that she would die alone in the desert, she left her brother’s body, and followed the tracks left behind the caravan. Alma said that what she witnessed next was worse than the beating. From a distance she witnessed hundreds of Armenian refugees being burned to death in their rudimentary shelters while soldiers stood guard ready to shoot any person that tried to escape. Alone in the desert for several days after tragic immolation, she was picked up by Arab slave traders. She was soon sold into the household of a wealthy Arabian and his wife, where she became a personal maid to the lady of the house.


Alma recalled that the Arab was very kind and gave her work in the kitchen. Three years later when the Armistice was signed, and everything was under English control, the Arab asked Alma whether she wanted to stay in his house or go into English hands. She wanted to go, so he took her over to the English where she was placed with other orphaned refugees in a large building under English hands. Alma’s name and origin were placed in area newspapers, including the Boston Globe. Samuel Sakaian, while visiting a friend in Watertown, Massachusetts, was informed that his niece was alive and interned in an orphanage. A short time later, On July 7, 1919, Samuel, aged 56, received his passport to visit Turkey. His purpose stated on the application, “To find my wife and children, if living and to see if any property is left to me.

 Articles published in the Foxboro Reporter over the next four years recorded Samuel’s journey to rescue Alma and bring her home. On July 19, 1919 the Foxboro Reporter recorded, Samuel Sakaian has had under consideration for some time a trip to his native country, Armenia. His object in making the trip is to locate if possible his wife and family, not a word from who has he heard for years. Samuel came to this country in 1889, made a return trip in 1900, returned to America in 1910, and now will again cross the water in 1919, and we trust there will be luck in odd numbers. 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, “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 dated October 20th, which is as follows: “I am in Constantinople. I was 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 died of hunger and thirst, and many of them threw themselves into the river and killed 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.”

In Constantinople Sakaian was employed as an interpreter for the English army. He soon learned that his wife and children, his brothers and their families had been massacred. The English authorities located the orphanage where she was interned and had her brought to Constantinople. Samuel did not recognize Alma at first, as she was a little girl the last time they had met. He later recalled, “I found her, the only one I have left. She was penniless and had only on a robe which an Arab had given her to wear.” Alma remembered him and told him of her experiences. Samuel and Alma remained in Constantinople for four years. He remarried and decided to return to Foxboro.

The May 12, 1923 Foxboro Reporter article titled, Samuel Sakaian Returns From Turkey, described his journey. “Mr. Samuel Sakaian, a former resident of Foxboro, returned Wednesday after a sojourn of almost four years in Turkey. He experienced numerous difficulties in securing passports for passage both ways, notwithstanding, the fact that he was an American Citizen, the trouble between Armenians and Turks since the war has made it practically impossible for an Armenian to live in Turkey. His plan was to go to Harput 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…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 his 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. Because of his marital status, immigration officials recommended he leave his niece and then send for her a few months afterward. When the appointed time came, the Ambassador 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.”

Alma’s immigration was also fraught difficulties. 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 ship 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 picture, 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. Alma recalled telling them, “If you were in my place, you’d look older, too.”

An October 6, 1923 Foxboro Reporter article titled, “Mr. Sakaian Misses Ship Diverted From New York To Providence: Armenian Immigrant is Finally Admitted,” described Alma’s ordeal. “She arrived at Ellis Island on June 30, only to find that the quota from her country had already arrived. She was sent back to Europe and her money refunded. Congressman Louis 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. Unable to speak a word of English except “Foxboro” and “Sam,” Alma found her way to Attleboro with the assistance of helpful attendants and train conductors. There she was taken care of on Monday night by the Y.W.C.A. and finally arrived here safely on Tuesday.”

A year later, Alma H. Sakaian “gowned in grey Canton crepe with hat to match” and Archie Shahabian married in the Bethany Congregational parsonage by. Rev. Archibald Cullens. The groom, also born in Aghin, immigrated to Foxboro in 1912 at Samuel Sakaian’s encouragement. Shahabian was employed by the Caton Brother’s Hat Factory and later joined the Foxboro Company.

Samuel, Alma and Archie lived in Foxboro for the rest of their lives. Alma and Archie had two sons, George and John. The late George married Rose Tutelian and lived his entire life in Foxboro. The Sakaian and Shahabian families are buried in Rockhill Cemetery. John resides in California.

See all research links at  http://milhomme.blogspot.com/2015/02/where-is-your-christian-god-documenting.html
ttp//milhomme.blogspot.com/2015/02/where-is-your-christian-god-documenting.htmlttp://
 Additional photographs and maps documenting the caravan route http://milhomme.blogspot.com/2012/03/sakaian-aghin-caravan-deportation-route.html

From Aghin” a screen play that recreates Alma's fight for survival. “From Aghin” is her story. It is registered with the Writers Guild of America (1437433). Seeking interested individuals to utilized this screenplay, or for additional information please contact Bill Milhomme < William_milhomme@msn.com >


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