Nowhere to go: Former Wahpeton woman publishes the diaries of her childhood exile from AzerbaijanWAHPETON, ND - At 13 years old, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte took her first steps onto American soil. Before her arrival, her family of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan spent two long months bribing people in Moscow to let them leave.
By: Demetria Mosley, INFORUM
WAHPETON, ND - At 13 years old, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte took her first steps onto American soil.
Before her arrival, her family of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan spent two long months bribing people in Moscow to let them leave.
She and her family found a place to call home in Wahpeton upon their arrival in the U.S. in 1992.
Now, 20 years later, she has compiled the entries of her childhood diaries during her time in exile into a book called “Nowhere, A Story of Exile.”
“When we found out we were coming to America, my mom and dad started jumping up and down and I cried hard,” she said. “The freedoms and rights that America gives us is a rarity in this world. It’s amazing.”
The book is told from Turcotte’s point of view as a child and is divided into two parts: her time in her hometown of Baku, Azerbaijan, and her two years spent in Armenia.
Her life as she knew it in Baku changed in 1988 when the government announced that it wanted to unite with Armenia. This resulted in a violent and deadly uproar – known as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict –between the Azeri natives and the Armenians in the country, Turcotte said.
Her family and other Armenians were forced to leave their belongings and flee to Armenia in 1989 when they realized Baku was no longer safe to live.
“I never forget one night we were all huddled on the floor in our house hoping that no one would break in and hurt us. My father was holding a bunch of knifes in his hand, and he said to us ‘I’m going to have to kill and take one with me if they come in.’ That was the moment the situation became real to me,” She said.
Although Armenia took the refugees in and allowed them to stay, the people of the country felt as if they weren’t always welcome, she said.
“The Armenians understood our problems, were willing to help us out but they were not receptive to us,” she said.
“That’s one of the reasons why I named my book ‘Nowhere.’ After we had to leave Baku and we weren’t able to stay in Armenia. I felt like there was no place to go. I was devastated,” Turcotte said.
Her family went to Russia in 1991 hoping to get clearance to leave for America.
“My parents took me and my brother with them to a million offices in Russia thinking that if the people see their children dirty and hungry, they would help faster. It didn’t work. We found out only money worked,” She said.
There were eventually granted access to leave and arrived in the U.S. in 1992.
“We were scared and didn’t sleep for the two days it took to get here on the plane. We thought the government was going to stop us and make us go back,” she said.
The Evergreen United Methodist Church in Wahpeton helped the family adjust to their new country and provided a three-bedroom apartment stocked with food and clothing.
“Lutheran Social Services reached out to churches in our area, and we were one out of three who decided to help refugees move to America,” said Fern Bailey, one of the volunteers at Evergreen who helped the family settle in. “It is the Christian responsibility to help people, so helping them settle in was something we ought to do.”
Today, Turcotte is 34 and lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband and two young children. She received her American citizenship in 1997. Her parents still live in Wahpeton, and her brother, Mikhail Astvatsaturov, lives in Williston, N.D.
Turcotte remembers how shocked she was on her trip to a grocery store on their second day in Wahpeton.
“We had food, but I’ve never seen that much food of every kind in one place. It was hard to process,” she said.
At age 14, Turcotte started translating her diaries into English after realizing her future children would not be able to read her Russian.
“I wanted to immortalize the story of my exile for my child. Since we are first generation immigrants, it’s important that they know where they came from,” she said.
She was surprised at how many details her younger self remembered. When she reread the information it was if she was “opening my eyes and seeing the days of my life as a refugee again,” she said.
After reading her story, friends and family encouraged Turcotte to make it into a book, but it was John Wall, her high school English teacher at Wahpeton High School, that really pushed her into thinking about publishing it.
“I was greatly amazed by what she had gone through in her young life. The manuscript was riveting and powerful and I told her to keep writing,” said Wall, now a state senator for District 25.
Turcotte hopes her book reminds people to appreciate what they have.
“This is a topic not covered in the media,” she said. “We, the victims, won’t forget about it but it’s about time the world knew about what happened and is still happening.”
The e-book was released June 15 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. The physical copy will be available Sept. 1, but you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for an advance copy.
So far Turcotte has only received positive feedback from her book.
“It was very sad to read. I can’t read it again because it brings back up so many old memories,” said Irina Astvatsaturov, her mother.
Turcotte is passionate about human rights and belongs to several Armenian organizations. She hopes to visit Armenia next year for the 25th anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
She’s also thinking about writing a second book.
“I lot of people have been asking me to write a sequel. If I write another book it won’t be a sequel but more so about what’s still happening and how people where affected by it,” she said.