September 15, 2009
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON -- New scholarships will enable Armenian-American students to study in Turkey, a gesture prompted by diplomatic progress made by two long-feuding countries.
The scholarships for 100 American students of Armenian descent will finance a semester at any Turkish or Turkish Cypriot university. The Turkish Coalition of America is offering the $2,000 scholarships in hopes of changing minds.
"We hope to encourage dialogue between Turks and Armenians, so that future generations won't have the burden of this animosity," coalition president Lincoln McCurdy said Monday. "The shared history of both cultures has been overshadowed by hostility for far too long."
The scholarships could prove particularly enticing in regions like the San Joaquin Valley, home to tens of thousands of Armenian-Americans. California State University, Fresno, hosts both an Armenian Studies Program and the nationwide Society for Armenian Studies, which spans many campuses.
Each year, roughly 10 Fresno State students graduate with a minor in Armenian Studies, and dozens more take history, arts and language courses through the program.
But the new scholarships also provoke questions in some Armenian-American circles, as do the broader talks now under way between Turkey and Armenia.
The two countries have been at odds for nearly a century over events between 1915 and 1923, when by some estimates upward of 1.5 million Armenians died during the final years of the Ottoman Empire before Turkey was founded. The Turkish government blames the deaths on civil war. Armenians call the deaths genocide.
"There's always skepticism, because of Turkey's attitude in the past," noted Barlow Der Mugrdechian, director of the Fresno State Armenian Studies Program. "Until Turkey recognizes the [Armenian] genocide, there's always going to be skepticism."
Der Mugrdechian said he would need to learn more about the scholarship's details before he could evaluate it.
More broadly, though, he noted that San Joaquin Valley Armenian-Americans have concerns that the Turkish-Armenian diplomatic breakthrough announced recently was accomplished in part through trading away a formal Armenian genocide recognition.
On Aug. 31, following negotiations brokered by Swiss go-betweens, Turkey and Armenia unveiled a roadmap toward mutual diplomatic recognition. This includes six weeks for parliamentary consideration, followed by opening of the Turkey-Armenia border within two months.
The protocols include establishing a joint historical commission that will presumably be genocide-oriented, though it is described in a round-about way.
Armenian-American organizations and their Capitol Hill allies have long pushed for an explicit congressional Armenian genocide resolution.
With the help of successive U.S. presidents, fearful of the diplomatic consequences, Turkish officials have resisted the genocide resolution efforts.
The Turkish Coalition of America was founded in 2007. It sponsors educational and other programs boosting Turkey, including the trips to Turkey sponsored for members of Congress and staff and scholarships for students.
The Coalition offers more information at www.turkishcoalition.org/.