hidden cultures: eurasia
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Hidden Cultures: Eurasia
May, 2012, Page 114
Phoenix isn't famous for its diversity. But peer into its margins, and you’ll find a city flush with people from around the world. In part one of a three-part series, we delve into the Valley's Romanian, Armenian and Bosnian communities.
: Approximately 19 million
Estimated population of Romanians in Phoenix
Winters in Romania are furiously frigid, with temperatures that plunge as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Heavy snowfall blankets the buildings and blows through the streets in a freezing breeze that bites at peoples’ cheeks. The days are dark, illuminated sometimes only by streetlights that spotlight the skeletal branches of trees hung with thick, glassy icicles.
No one wants to be outside at 4 a.m. on a Romanian winter morning, standing in a long line waiting for a pound of sugar and a gallon of milk – especially not a 7-year-old girl who would rather be sleeping or eating breakfast. But this was routine under “ration times” in Communist Romania, and though it’s been a few decades, Dina Conciuba remembers the morning she expressed her youthful discontent at being dragged out of bed and into the piercing cold – and the spark of fear that shot through her mother.
“I said to my mom, ‘Mom, when are we going to see Dad in America?’ And my mom just slapped her hand over my mouth,” Conciuba recalls. “Because... the secret service was patrolling the lines. You couldn’t say ‘America,’ you couldn’t say ‘freedom,’ you couldn’t say you were going to a better place.”
Photo courtesy Ileana Orlich
Romanian folk dancers from St. John the Baptist Romanian Orthodox Church in Glendale perform at ASU as part of the university's “Night of the Open Door.”
Conciuba’s in a better place now. She came to the United States as a young girl nearly three decades ago and has a large extended family in the Valley. Three nights a week, she and her husband, Ted, join other Romanian families at Arizona Sports Complex in Glendale. Soccer is huge in Romania, and dozens of relocated Romanians go to ASC for their soccer fixes. The children take weekly lessons, and two nights a week, the men play on a mostly-Romanian team called Arsenal – distinguished by their fire-engine-red jerseys and their fiery cheering section of Romanian wives. They fill the bleachers with children and strollers, screaming, “Go babe!” and chatting excitedly in Romanian.
The estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Romanians living in the Valley represent one of Phoenix’s largest immigrant populations. It’s a diverse community with many focal points, including the Romanian Studies Program at ASU; more than a dozen Romanian churches around the Valley (the largest is Happy Valley Christian Center on 15th Avenue, with a congregation well into the thousands); and a prominent presence in the assisted-living industry, where they represent roughly 65 percent of workers at and owners of high-end group homes for seniors. A retirement-destination desert metropolis like Phoenix seemed like the perfect place for them to settle. “We love the weather, and being where a lot of seniors come makes it a great opportunity to serve the community,” says Conciuba, who runs an assisted-living facility in Scottsdale. Family’s also been a deciding factor in Phoenix’s Romanian population – many come to the Valley because their relatives are already here.
Anca Ile, 29, came to the United States from Romania in 2000. Today, she operates the Paradise Valley Senior Retreat with her husband, Florin. She drives a Mercedes SUV and lives in a luxury home behind her business. But she still remembers how, as a child, she’d go to the store with her mother and watch her buy the ripest banana she could find (“because if it’s greener, it’s heavier, so it costs more,” she recalls), take it home, and slice it into eight pieces – one for each of her children.
Photo by Mark Lipczynski
Anca Ile (center) at a family gathering
“We try to take our four children to Romania every three or four years, so they can learn how things go, and when they come here, they’re like, ‘We can’t throw all this food in this garbage. Other kids don’t have anything to eat,’” Anca says, adding that their visit to an orphanage a few years ago was especially enlightening. “In Romania, they have cribs with mattresses this thick,” she says, pinching her thumb and forefinger almost completely together. “And if they eat well or they don’t eat well, they have nothing else to say because there’s nothing else to eat. We’re trying to teach our kids, you have to be really thankful for what you have.”
Romania lies on the lower Danube, whose waters flow to the forest-fringed, white-sand coasts of the Black Sea. The sloping, snow-slathered peaks of the Carpathian Mountains form thick veins across its topography. Written evidence of tribes and principalities in Romania dates back to 440 BC. It came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-16th century, became the Kingdom of Romania in 1877, and then a Soviet-aligned Communist state in 1947. In the decades that followed, soldiers went through the neighborhoods at night, knocking on doors and telling people to turn the lights off. Electricity, like everything else from gas to livestock, was rationed. The only defense against the harsh winters was a fire.
Anca Ile’s family had a coal-burning fireplace – and a big pile of coal to conceal a false wall in the basement. Her parents would make her and her siblings sleep in layers of clothes at night, warning that if the army of Romanian head-of-state Nicolae Ceausescu came, they could shoot and kill them, so they needed to be prepared to hide in the basement – which they did in 1989, when the Romanian Revolution hit. “I remember the revolution. It was the scariest thing we went through,” Anca says. “We slept in that [room] for two days. We had water, some bread, milk, candles. And we were little. I was 5 years old. And I remember hearing the guns, how the army was shooting. Because they were ordered to shoot anybody that would come against Ceausescu.”
Reportedly, more than 1,100 people died and 3,300 were wounded in the revolution. “It’s great that so many young people risked their lives – and did die – for the freedom of Romania,” Conciuba says. “Things needed to change, and they did – at a price.”
During the “Night of the Open Door” at Arizona State University the first Saturday in March, there was a slice of Romania on a large outdoor patio, as 10 teenage dancers performed a traditional folk dance from the eastern region of Banat. Their moves were fluid and furious, synchronized around a swirl of violins, woodwinds and a saxophone-like instrument called the taragot. It looked like line dancing on fast forward, flush with twists, turns, clapping and stomping. The complex choreography seemed second nature to them; they practice regularly – and attend services – at St. John the Baptist Romanian Orthodox Church in Glendale. Many of them have been dancing since they were young.
Standing to the side was Ileana Orlich, Honorary Consul General of Romania in Arizona and director of the Romanian Studies Program at ASU. The three-branch program (language, culture, and a summer program abroad) is the largest Romanian program in the United States, Orlich says, with 150 students this semester. Orlich expects to see some of the dancers in her classrooms in a few years.
Photos by Mark Lipczynski
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Romanian cabbage rolls •
, a hand-cut Romanian pasta • Florin Ile plays soccer while his family cheers.
“This is very distinguished by the fact that the parents are very involved in their children’s lives, as you can see,” she says, adding, “We do have a very good tradition of students taking Romanian, and once again, the parents play a wonderful role. Because it is very, very unusual for a family coming from Romania not to expect their children to graduate from college.”
Romanian families are big. Dina Conciuba has six siblings, including her brother Florin, Anca’s husband. Dina’s husband, Ted, has nine sisters. Ted says his mother has 49 grandchildren. Traditionally, women cook at home, making Romanian dishes like sarmale – plump, thumb-size cabbage rolls stuffed with home-ground beef and pork, rice and vegetables. For one typical family gathering of about 18 people, Dina and Florin’s mother makes 250 to 350 sarmale; weddings call for hundreds of thousands.
The importance of family in Romanian culture explains why an estimated 400-plus Romanians work in the assisted-living industry in the Valley. Conciuba says when she was working with a network a few years ago, there were 1,500 to 1,600 homes, and out of all those, “I would safely say 1,200 were run by Romanians.” Amenities at the Iles’ Paradise Valley Senior Resort and the Conciubas’ Upon the Rock assisted-living facility include flat-screen TVs, walking paths adorned with desert succulents and crossed by jackrabbits, and home-cooked meals.
For Florin, working in assisted living is mutually beneficial for the seniors and the Romanians, who are accustomed to caring for older family members. “For Romanians to have the opportunity here to make a living from something they’ve already been doing, it’s just amazing,” he says.“I actually think to a certain level that the Romanian community needs this industry.”
“The great thing about it is, we’re bringing seniors back into the communities that they helped build,” Conciuba adds. “Romanians, and why a lot of people work in assisted living, is because they feel like they belong. They’re part of a community. Now they’re serving a purpose. And they are making a difference.”
: 3.2 million
Estimated population of Armenians in Phoenix
When you’re at a Melikian family gathering, you must follow one rule: Eat.
One March night, the family has gathered at the central Phoenix home of Robert Melikian, one of four children of Gregory and Emma Melikian, prominent members of the Valley’s Armenian-American community. There are about 18 adults – plus two children and two dogs – munching on a bacchanalian spread of appetizers and awaiting dinner. The smells of curried chicken, baking pastries, and Armenian pomegranate wine waft through the house.
Gregory, 87, is the patriarch of the family. He has a genial, grandfatherly demeanor and smiles a lot, his warm grin and sparkling eyes framing his prominent nose. His raven-haired wife, Emma, talks with her hands a lot and constantly checks on everyone: “Are you okay? Did you eat? Do you need something to drink?”
Conversations crisscross through the air all evening. “Did you hear what Sarkozy said about too many foreigners being in France?”; “I’ve tried to grow tomatoes, but the birds seem to know exactly when they’re ripe”; “I just read that Kim Kardashian [also Armenian-American] is single.”
Photos by Jill Richards
Robert Melikian’s brother Richard says the family is really “Mom’s apple pie-American,” but they have an enduring connection to their heritage. Their Armenian culture is observed occasionally through colorful folk costumes and elaborate religious ceremonies at a local Armenian church, but more frequently, through discourse and remembrances. Though Emma is the only one in the immediate family born outside the U.S., all her children and even grandchildren know they’re Armenian-American.
Armenians refer to their familial ancestors as their “source,” as if they are a river flowing out into the world from a single point. In fact, they are many rivers spread across the globe; the Armenian diaspora – estimated at as much as 8 million people – dwarfs the country’s current population of 3 million.
An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Armenian-Americans live in metropolitan Phoenix. Some families have been here more than 50 years and have impacted the city in myriad ways. Two of the first Armenian families to settle in Phoenix were the Mehagians, who arrived in 1929 and operated Mehagian’s Furniture on Seventh Street near Camelback, and the Mardians, who established Mardian Construction (the company that built Terminal Three at Sky Harbor Airport), produced a Phoenix Mayor (Sam Mardian, Jr., in office from 1960 to 1964) and a figure in the Watergate scandal (Sam’s brother Robert Mardian, who was a member of the Nixon Administration).
Among their achievements, the Melikians own several historical properties throughout Arizona (including the San Carlos Hotel in Downtown Phoenix, which they purchased in 1973). They’ve supported Arizona State University for more than thirty years, providing an endowment for the Melikian Center at ASU, which promotes outreach related to Eurasia and Eastern Europe. They also helped found Melikian Hall at Saint Apkar Armenian Church in Scottsdale. The church, which started in 1957 for the benefit of a few Armenian families, now has a congregation of more than 2,000.
But no matter how far they advance in their lives in Arizona, the Melikians, like most Armenian families, cannot forget where they came from, and why they are here now.
Three generations of the Melikian family gather in Phoenix, including Emma (left)
Bordered by Iran to the south and Turkey to the west, land-locked Armenia has been under the authority of numerous rulers since it was first established as the Kingdom of Armenia around 600 BC. Many an empire – including the Roman, the Arabic, the Ottoman, the Mongol and the Russian – has risen and fallen in this mountainous, modest-size country. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 that Armenia officially claimed sovereignty.
Armenia’s past is both rich with religious symbolism and rife with violence – a birthplace of both Christianity and ethnic cleansing. Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion, with the establishment of the Armenian Apostolic Church in 301 AD. Events in Armenia around World War I became the genesis for the term “genocide,” when an estimated 600,000 Armenian civilians were systematically deported and killed by the Ottoman Empire.
Gregory Melikian lost both his grandparents on his father’s side in 1895, when an estimated 80,000 to 300,000 Armenians were killed in the Hamidian massacres. Gregory’s father was one of some 50,000 orphans of the internecion when he landed in New York City at age 17. He founded Melik Trucking with two horses and a wagon, and rode from Queens to the docks every day, delivering European furniture. He saved some money and sent for a woman from his village in Armenia; they met for the first time on the docks of New York and married shortly after. That woman, Gregory’s mother, survived what’s become known as the Armenian Genocide.
From 1915 to 1923, hundreds of thousands of Armenians, escorted by Ottoman soldiers, were driven from their homes and forced to walk hundreds of miles across the Syrian Desert with little food or water. Those who survived the treacherous trek through Turkey were imprisoned in deportation camps in Deir ez-Zor, Syria.
“Gregory’s mother was 9 years old when they were pushed into the Syrian Desert,” Emma Melikian says. “Our military complains about the sandstorms. We know; we live in Arizona. We know monsoon sand. And they were all pushed into that desert, and they had to cross the desert into Syria, walking. Oh, it was very torturous. And they would endure rape and all these things.”
German soldier Armin T. Wegner, a medic in the German Sanitary Corps of the Turkish Army, immortalized hundreds of horrific visions of the camps through photographs. He was arrested, many of his photos confiscated, and sent back to Germany – but not before smuggling some emulsions in his belt containing images of the atrocities.
In gloomy gray tones, Wegner’s photos show people carrying dirt-caked packs of bedding on their backs, some faces emaciated almost to their skulls, their sun-scorched skin stretched tight over starving, sad expressions. Those are the photos of the living. Others show naked, gaunt corpses, including children.
Though 20 countries (as well as 43 of 50 U.S. states, including Arizona) have officially recognized the events in Armenia from 1915-1923 as a period of genocide, the government of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, denies it.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Footage from a documentary by Richard Melikian's nephew about visiting Armenia. • Three generations of the Melikian family gather in Phoenix, including Gregory
Every year on April 24, Armenian communities commemorate the genocide with a “Walk to Remember.” In Phoenix last year, nearly 300 participants made the annual march Downtown to Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, where an Armenian Martyrs Memorial bronze slab marks what Gregory Melikian calls “a day of infamy in our lives.” The family has participated in the walk for 30 years.
Gregory, a World War II veteran, practiced law in Manhattan until 1969, when he fell in love with Arizona while representing partnerships here and decided to move his family to Phoenix. They’ve been Arizona philanthropists ever since, salvaging and restoring historical structures, setting up the first permanent headquarters for the Native American Intertribal Council in the historic El Encanto Building in central Phoenix, and patronizing such annual Valley events as the Armenian Community Celebration of the Arts in October, and the Armenian Food Festival in November (both at Saint Apkar Armenian Church in Scottsdale, saintapkar.com). The church also helps organize cooking classes, golf tournaments and bowling nights.
For the Melikians, helping to promote Armenian culture in the Valley is a way of paying back their blessings. “Real estate, over the years, has been very good to us,” Richard Melikian says. “I think our parents taught us – and also the genocide taught us – one day you could have everything you’ve ever wanted in the world, and the next day it’s all gone. You have to be part of a community, and you have to give back to the community, because that’s what life is all about.”
: Approximately 3.8 million
Estimated population of Bosnians in Phoenix
From the outside, the Panini Cafe & Bakery in Phoenix looks to be a typical Mediterranean-inspired eatery. But if you come here actually looking for a panino, you might be pleasantly surprised. They don’t serve traditional Italian sandwiches, but they do boast some of the best Bosnian food in town. Patrons hail from places like Albania and Romania, but the bulk of the customers are Bosnian – as are the owners, Edo Hatic and his wife, Alma Camdzic.
From dawn till dusk, they are here working. A baker arrives as early as midnight and makes batches of bread rolls and pitas from scratch, leaving behind a warm, buttery-yeast fragrance that lingers all day. The pitas, lighter and larger than the Greek-style, provide fluffy, flaky frames for picture-perfect specialties like cevapi, a traditional Bosnian dish consisting of several grill-charred sausages of minced beef and pork, served with raw onions and sour cream.
Panini Cafe & Bakery owner Edo Hatic (left) shows off Bosnian breads
Edo and Alma have owned Panini Bakery for five years. Like the majority of Bosnians living in the Valley, they fled the Bosnian War in the mid-’90s and came to the United States on refugee visas. They became naturalized citizens in 2000. Alma remembers the ceremony well. “We went there, and at the time, the president was talking on the TV, and... it’s very emotional, when you start swearing in,” she says. “That part is very emotional. It’s like you’re reborn.”
Phoenix is home to anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 Bosnians, who work in careers ranging from medicine and engineering to business and baking. There are more than half a dozen Bosnian restaurants in the Valley, and the community spans the metro area. Many activities revolve around the Islamic Center of North Phoenix, the 17th mosque constructed in the Valley since the influx of Bosnian refugees began in 1995. The 2.5-acre ICNP opened last July in an older, partially-constructed church the Bosnian community renovated. The center, which helps Bosnians adjust to life in Arizona, includes a library with texts in English and Bosnian, a kitchen and an outdoor recreation area for sports like soccer. There’s a potluck every first Sunday of the month and religious services.
The majority of Bosnians are Muslim, but there are also large numbers of Orthodox practitioners and Catholics, as well as a small Jewish community. “Bosnians are good-natured people, wishing peace to everybody,” says Naim Logic, who came to Arizona in 1994.
Logic taught for 18 years in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sarajevo. His wife, Mirjana, had a management job at Energoinvest, the largest company in Bosnia. When the Yugoslav Army and Serbian forces besieged Sarajevo in April 1992, Naim sent his wife and daughter out of the country. They fled first to a small village in Croatia, then to Germany.
regular customers of the Panini Cafe & Bakery
Naim lost touch with them not long after they left. “They cut the phone lines – on May 2, I remember it very well,” he says. “There was no way in and no way out, no tap water, no electricity, and a very limited quantity of food.”
“I didn’t know what was going on over there,” Mirjana recalls. “Once in a while, maybe every two or three months, we were getting information through the Red Cross, like ‘How are you?,’ ‘I’m alive,’ and so on. That was it.”
Naim eventually escaped to Austria, but Mirjana couldn’t get a visa to leave Germany. The family had been separated almost three years when they were reunited in Tempe in 1994 and started building new lives. Naim earned a Ph.D. in engineering (again) from Arizona State University and has worked at SRP for eight years. He’s an avid mountaineer making his third attempt at climbing Mount Everest this spring. Mirjana has worked at companies around the Valley as an electrical engineer, and also as a Realtor. The family has a website, bhradiophx.com, where visitors can stream Bosnian music, hear programming about Bosnian history, and view images of Bosnia and its new communities around the globe. “Now, we are spread out all over the world,” Mirjana says. “You can find a Bosnian wherever you go.”
Hanging in the hallways of the Logics’ home are framed family photos and images of Bosnia, spanning some 60 years – one black-and-white snapshot shows a street in Sarajevo, circa 1955, lined with large, hulking metal cars splattered with rain at dusk. Another image captures the earthy colors and eclectic architecture of the National Library in Sarajevo, designed in 1891. The building was heavily bombed during the Bosnian War, and most of its books perished in flames.
Damir and Nina Karaman, six-time national dance champions in Bosnia, at their Eurorhythm Dance Studio in Scottsdale.
“Our country is heart-shaped,” Mirjana says, pointing to it on a map of Europe. “And people have big hearts. They are very proud of their origin... unfortunately, politically and strategically, Bosnia is in the middle of Europe. It’s a tiny line between east and west. That’s where east and west collided.”
Since its first written mention as a country circa 950 A.D., Bosnia has been a kingdom, a part of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, a member of a Socialist Federal Republic state, and currently, a federal democratic republic. Six times smaller than Arizona, it sits on the Balkan Peninsula, bordered by Croatia to the north, west, and south. Bosnia lays claim to about 13 miles of Adriatic Sea coastline, plus mountainous regions in the north, and lush, river-fed fields in the southern part, Herzegovina. (The country’s official name is Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it’s commonly called Bosnia.)
After World War II, Bosnia became one of six countries in the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, soldiers led by Serbia and Croatia attacked Bosnia, dismantling Sarajevo from April 1992 until February 1996. A documented 97,207 people – Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats – were killed or went missing during the Bosnian War (though some researchers have estimated as many as 250,000 casualties), and millions were displaced. There were reports of ethnic cleansing and mass rape, and those who lived through the period aren’t eager to talk about it. But some will, especially when it comes to high-profile portrayals like Angelina Jolie’s recent film In the Land of Blood and Honey.
“I will not see it, that’s for sure. I heard she made it pretty realistic, and that’s why we don’t want to see it,” says Damir Karaman, who came to Arizona from Sarajevo with his wife, Nina, in 2000. “I don’t think anybody wants to be transported back to that, because it would take a lot of time to process and kick it out of your system. [But] what [Jolie] did is really great for people to understand what has been happening there – something that, in an era of computers and space travel and stuff, we are having something that is so criminal and so horrific, it’s possibly unimaginable.”
The Karamans were six-time national dance champions in Bosnia. During the war, Damir was a soldier in the Bosnian army, while Nina worked with civil assistance groups. They managed to dance on the military base, one of few places that had electricity. They first came to the U.S. at the end of 2000 for a dance championship, and later obtained O Visas (granted by the U.S. to foreigners who “possess extraordinary ability”), and opened a dance studio, Eurorhythm, in Scottsdale in 2002. The studio specializes in Latin, ballroom, and swing dance. He and Nina became U.S. citizens two years ago. “Definitely, in what we do, we make sure it’s some kind of Far East approach of wisdom, and a little American culture with some Bosnian flavor,” Damir says.
For many Bosnians, Phoenix – with its myriad mosques and churches and eclectic mix of people – provides a perfect place to become part of the proverbial American melting pot, while the state’s mountains and forests remind them of regions back home. “There’s opportunity for everybody [here], so it depends on you, how you’re gonna live,” Edo Hatic says. “I love Arizona – the weather first, and then everything else. It’s nice and wide. I was driving a semi-truck for five years, and every time I’m driving down here, it’s like going home.”
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