Through the Lens of Childhood: An Alternative Examination of the Armenian Genocide

  • Sanjna Selva Skidmore College
Keywords: Middle East, Ottoman Empire, Armenian Genocide, childhood, migration, trauma, orphanages, orphanage industry, social work, humanitarian aid, family, film


The fate of children during the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1922 was one that was rife with trauma, characterized by loss, and inherently complex under the shifting legal parameters that defined a tumultuous interwar climate. During the genocide, entire villages, cities, and swaths of farmlands were desecrated, men were killed or conscripted into labor, leaving women and children displaced and sent to poorly-conditioned refugee camps and settlements. As a result, the forced transfer and trafficking of children from parental unit to institution became a common reality for many desperate families who were coerced into believing that they had no other options.

In my paper, I analyze the unique institutions that picked up where parental units left off: the orphanages that proliferated in the Ottoman-ruled Middle East during the Armenian Genocide, specifically in present-day Lebanon and Turkey. These orphanages played a paradoxical role: providing subsistence to thousands of displaced Armenian children while enabling child trafficking, a central crime of the genocide. My paper builds from a range of primary sources focused on detailed oral histories of formerly trafficked children. Donald E.Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller’s Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide, offers an intricate look into how the orphanages functioned from the children’s perspectives, while Bertha Nakshian Ketchian’s memoir In The Shadow Of The Fortress and Karnig Panian’s memoir Goodbye, Antoura, provide unparalleled records of two survivors’ individual and detailed emotional experiences in orphanages in Ottoman-occupied Armenia and Antoura, Lebanon respectively. Through these primary sources, I explore the lived experiences of Armenian orphans, highlighting the emotional impacts of abandonment, loss, and loneliness experienced, as well as the impact of familial separation on the upbringing of the children.  

I also raise the devastating irony that many of these children were not indeed orphans and had, in fact, been trafficked. Drawing on the specific research of Keith David Watenpaugh, a leading American historian of the contemporary Middle East, human rights, and modern humanitarianism, and an expert on the Armenian Genocide, this paper will turn a critical lens upon the interwar humanitarian sector, exploring how orphanages were manipulated into entities that, instead of effectively combating the lived trauma of the children, succumbed to moral and monetary corruption, thereby creating “the orphanage industry.”

On a larger scale, I explore how certain deliberate processes within the orphanages, such as forced religious conversions of Armenian children to Islam, and a loss of traditional Armenian culture, bore generational effects and created a culturally-displaced Armenian diaspora. In addition, human rights violations such as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse endured by the children within these institutions, shed a light on the human rights laws that were developing at the time. Panning out further, my paper offers a critical evaluation into the state and foreign powers that were responsible for establishing these orphanages, exploring intersections with nationalism, colonialism, and a Western savior complex that was reminiscent of a shifting concept of modernity in the changing Ottoman world.

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