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In South Florida U.S. Holocaust Museum Memorial Presents Findings on Genocide and Mass Atrocities in Iraq

By Mercedes Gechidjian
FLArmenians Miami Contributor

A displaced Iraqi Christian woman prays at the home where she is staying in Erbil. Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A displaced Iraqi Christian woman prays at the home where she is staying in Erbil. Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

On Tuesday, February 9th and on Wednesday, February 10th, Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton and the University of Miami (UM), respectively, had the honor of hosting a presentation by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) entitled “Exposing the Darkness: Perspectives on Mass Atrocities.” The panel discussion featured human rights experts Naomi Kikoler, Deputy Director at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the USHMM, and photographer Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin. This brilliant, powerful discussion was co-hosted by FAU’s Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education and by the University of Miami Hillel.

In 2015, Kikoler and Knowles-Cousin travelled to northern Iraq to document evidence of mass atrocities carried out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). The USHMM report found that IS has committed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing against various minority groups and perpetrated genocide against the Yezidi people.

“The event discussed previous atrocities, such as the Holocaust and crimes in Iraq, and brought forth ideas on how these atrocities could be prevented,” stated Michael Bezjian, a University of Miami Armenian Student Association (UM-ASA) member who was present at the Miami panel.

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Naomi Kikoler, Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin, and Michael Bezjian

Knowles-Coursin’s work focuses on identity within the context of migration and statelessness, so his photographs documenting the Islamic State’s brutality brought to life the plight of the displaced and persecuted.

According to USHMM’s mission statement, the “Museum strives to broaden public understanding of the history of the Holocaust through multifaceted programs: exhibitions; research and publication; collecting and preserving material evidence, art and artifacts related to the Holocaust; annual Holocaust commemorations known as Days of Remembrance; distribution of education materials and teacher resources; and a variety of public programming designed to enhance understanding of the Holocaust and related issues, including those of contemporary significance.”

Florida Armenians were encouraged to attend the USHMM discussion in the hopes of raising awareness and broadening perspectives on genocide and man’s inhumanity to man.

“Growing up as an Armenian American, I’m no stranger to the stories of genocide, as they were told to me by my grandparents, who learned from their parents. Attending high school in South Florida, we learned about Nazi Germany and the atrocities that took place in the concentration camps during WWII,” stated Florida Armenians Boca Raton Chair George Sarkisian who was present at the FAU presentation.

“’Exposing the Darkness: Perspectives on Mass Atrocities’ was truly eye-opening, and really put in context the level of violence currently taking place in Iraq and Syria. The pictures and stories shared by the panelists provided a small but powerful glimpse into the lives of the people suffering at the hands of ISIS. I was especially touched by the pictures and stories of the displaced people living in camps located in northern Iraq and it feels like the history of the Armenian people a century ago may well be repeating itself today,” Sarkisian said.

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Florida Armenians Meets With Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Washington

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Taniel Koushakjian, Serzh Sargsyan, Bryan Ardouny

Last week, Florida Armenians Managing Editor Taniel Koushakjian sat down with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan during his trip to Washington, D.C. Sargsyan travelled to the U.S. to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City where he delivered an impassioned speech about the need for international condemnation of Azerbaijan military attacks against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh that has recently claimed several lives, including three Armenian female civilians, in the last few weeks.

From New York, President Sargsyan, accompanied by Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, Presidential Chief of Staff Vigen Sargsyan, and Armenian Ambassador to the U.S. Tigran Sargsyan, travelled to Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings with Armenian American community leaders. Koushakjian shared with Sargsyan activities of the Armenian community in Florida marking the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Koushakjian explained that Florida is one of 43 states that has acknowledged the 1915 Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey, which was last proclaimed by former Governor Jeb Bush in 2006. Although Florida recognizes the Armenian Genocide, it does not have an official curriculum mandated by the state to teach the Armenian Genocide. Sargsyan inquired if the presidential candidate was aware of his strong record on the Armenian Genocide, which Koushakjian assured him was the case.

In that regard, Koushakjian talked about efforts by Florida Armenians and the Armenian Assembly of America to advance Armenian Genocide education in the Sunshine State despite lack of a state mandate. For instance, in April of this year Koushakjian presented an Armenian Genocide exhibit entitled “Iconic Images of the Armenian Genocide” at the Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida (HMSWFL). In the lead up to the presentation, the Turkish Consulate in Miami wrote a threatening letter to the HMSWL objecting to the presentation and demanding it be canceled. Koushakjian explained to Sargsyan that Armenian Genocide denial exists around almost every street corner in America and that grassroots efforts promoting genocide education are vital to ensuring a future free of mass atrocities.

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Taniel Koushakjian meets Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan

In addition, Koushakjian thanked Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian for his efforts to confront and assist with the Syrian refugee crisis. To date, Armenia has absorbed close to 20,000 refugees, the majority of which are the most vulnerable communities: Armenians, Assyrians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities. In addition to Armenian government efforts, Nalbandian has raised the cause of the Syrian peoples’ plight to the international community on several occasions this year alone. Koushakjian informed Nalbandian that Florida Armenians would do everything they can to inform the American public that Armenia is the last Christian safe haven in the Middle East.

In the afternoon, the Florida Armenians attended a luncheon on Capitol Hill hosted by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) and the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues in honor of President Sargsyan. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) gave remarks and introduced President Sargsyan. “For years, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has been a leading voice promoting awareness of the Holocaust and other genocides throughout history, and the Foundation has called upon all of us to have the courage to stand against such despicable brutality in the future,” stated Chairman Royce. “As the leader of a people who survived the first genocide of the twentieth century, President Sargsyan is well aware of the need for that courage. We must continue to speak the truth about the Armenian Genocide and learn its bitter lessons in order to help others who are targeted,” Royce said.

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Taniel Koushakjian and Serzh Sargsyan on Capitol Hill

The luncheon featured remarks by special guest Robert M. Morgenthau, grandson of U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau, who received an award from IRWF Chairman Eduardo Eurnekian and co-founder Baruch Tanembaum for his efforts advancing Armenian Genocide recognition.

On Thursday, October 1, President Sargsyan concluded his visit to Washington with a presentation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.