I’ve written before about the extraordinary diversity within the members of this year’s Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.
This diversity extends far beyond some of the often more standard physical markers in the United States of age, race and disability into country of origin, stage of career, and sexual orientation, among others.
Karen Tchennozian embodies that diversity.
Born in Marseille, France to Armenian parents, she lives in Beirut, Lebanon and works with refugees from throughout the Middle East.
Like nearly all Armenian families, hers was affected by the genocide. The impact took many forms, one of which involved her maternal grandmother, Zaroui.
As a 12-year-old, she walked 600 miles to an orphanage, safety and freedom from the Turks who would kill her and the rest of her family.
After living out the war, she made it to the United States and set up a family. Like many survivors, she wanted dearly to preserve the culture from which she had come and of which so much had been destroyed.
One of the ways in which she did this was by making jam from fresh apricots and cherries by hand and cooked by the sun. Karen said her grandmother would rotate the location of the jars of jam from one side of the house to another.
She never used preservatives or added sugar, and always said that commercially-made jam was poison.
Ashamed and embarrassed, Karen stopped eating it for years.
Zaroui kept making the jam until the last of her 102 years.
In 2005, she died at the age of 102.
For the first time in her life, Karen had to buy jam.
She purchased a jar, opened it and took a bite.
Her grandmother had been right.
It tasted like poison.
Karen brings her background into her work with refugees from across the Middle East. Many of them are Iraqi, see Karen’s dark hair and try to figure out whether she is Sunni or Shi’a, friend or foe. She explains to them that she is Armenian. This self-disclosure and her residence in Lebanon help to build trust and to ward off conflict.
She also honors her grandmother and ancestors by not eating much jam.