Valley Voices

Grandpa Leo: Genocide survivor whose Christian faith helped him overcome the horror

Local Armenian clergy members hold a prayer at the Armenian Genocide Memorial during a commemorative event to observe the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide at Fresno State on Tuesday, April 24, 2018.
Local Armenian clergy members hold a prayer at the Armenian Genocide Memorial during a commemorative event to observe the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide at Fresno State on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Fresno Bee file

His hands felt strong, as he urgently grabbed my arm, leading me to the mouth of the hose. “Grandpa! Grandpa!” I kept yelling, confused and scared, as he packed mud onto my eyelid, throbbing from a wasp sting I had suffered seconds ago while making leaf art in the backyard. Grandpa struggled to soothe my wound and me, a frightened little girl. Soon after a flurry of rinsing and dousing my eyelids with water, his strong hands gently worked a Band-Aid into an awkward position over my eye, and then he hugged me tight.

Deanna M. Garabedian SCOTT ANGER Fresno Bee file

A survivor of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, my maternal grandfather, Levon “Leo” Kellejian, was a farmer, a shoe repairman, a husband, a father, and not least of all, a Christian. He knew a lot about pain, wounds, rage and fear. At 13, the Ottoman Turks marched into his home village of Injirli, near Yozghat, where he would forever remain a witness to horror, degradation and murders of his sisters and parents. Forcibly grabbed out of line seconds before what would have been his tragic end too, he was made a slave, still unable to escape Turkish clutches.

Years later, a courageous survivor with strength and intelligence, Grandpa struggled to make ends meet. He worked in factories and lumber companies, joined the United States Armed Forces, and ultimately learned the art of repairing shoes. He eventually married, had four children, bought land, and farmed on the west side. Grandpa used his strength daily, perfecting it delicately not only as a farmer, but by repairing shoes, too. With intensity and purpose, he perfected his craft by bringing relief, comfort, and healing to those with physical needs for whom walking had become not only a chore, but also sometimes impossible.

Grandpa was a writer, too, and a poet at heart, his inner life invisible to most, no doubt. Sometimes he felt compelled to write, venting about injustices and defending those without a voice. Sometimes, he would even wake up in the middle of the night and journal his thoughts, compelled to grasp an idea, inspired by a thought or a dream, perhaps giving expression, voice and identity to a life clouded by pain, frustration, and rage about a brutal past and the incomprehensible obliteration of his family.

Grandpa’s family, devout Christians who not only knew God’s Word, but also lived according to God’s principles, died as believers in Jesus Christ. They did not die in vain — their tragic, untimely end would not quell the truth of God’s Word. Grandpa’s unwavering strength — his ability to help others stand and walk — enabled him to provide for his family and to create a life free from oppression and religious persecution.

Grandpa has long since passed — his farm was sold and his shoe repair shops reconfigured. However, he left an indestructible legacy — the legacy of Christianity, a faith that massacres and genocide will never destroy. Grandpa’s children, to this day, like countless children of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, continue to spread the message of the Gospel, despite the horror and history. They serve the Lord in humility, knowing that God’s grace is a gift that not even genocide can take away.

While it is disappointing that a country that I love, honor, and defend does not officially recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the truth remains. Each individual, ultimately, answers to the Lord. In the end, being a Christian Armenian is not about the importance of maintaining our language or about reparations or about the rightful possession of land and boundaries or about maintaining cultural traditions or about worldly opportunity. While these things are significant to our heritage, they are incomparable to our legacy as Christians. Being Armenian, then, is about not only surviving genocide, but thriving and flourishing despite it, too, and only through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is about knowing God’s Word and sharing the message of the Gospel. It’s about being a part of a remnant. And, like Grandpa Leo encouraged, it’s about standing up and always walking with the Lord.

Upcoming events

Three events in Fresno to commemorate the Armenian Genocide will take place on April 24:

▪ City Hall, 10 a.m.: Raising the United States and Armenian flags in front of Fresno City Hall, sponsored by the Armenian National Committee of America–Central California and the Armenian Cultural Foundation.

▪ Fresno State, noon: The Armenian Students Organization will hold a commemoration at the Armenian Genocide monument.

▪ Fresno State, 6 p.m.: The Armenian Genocide Commemorative Committee of Fresno will have a civic and religious service at the Armenian Genocide monument. This year, student written essays will be presented and read out loud.

Deanna Moosakhanian Garabedian lives in Selma. She teaches English and is the supplemental instruction coordinator at Reedley College.