“You have dust cloth, she has your day wage...”

Yerevan University History Department graduate Armenian citizen Siranuş has managed to leave her dust cloth aside in Istanbul and found at least a desk-job in Yerevan. She is not mad at Istanbul or dust cloth or fate. We talked to Siranuş, who has “learned loving life with all its rationality and irrationality”, in Yerevan.

Armenian migrant workers in Turkey are remembered only when genocide resolutions are discussed in foreign parliaments or someone wants to “punish” Armenians; they are used as leverage. This issue has never been discussed within the general migrant crisis in Turkey. While the “Women workers from Armenia” research continues, I have been trying to keep in touch with all the women that I have interviewed. After having worked in Istanbul for 20 years, Siranuş (she prefers this name) has returned to Yerevan last year. While she was working in Istanbul, we saw each other many times and talked about difficulties and sufferings. This time, I talked to Siranuş for Agos and she told about beautiful things in these gloomy days. 

How did you decide to go to Turkey? Or should we start from how you decided to return to Yerevan?

They are parts of the same story. If we follow the chronology, maybe my story would sound more rational. 

Do you think that going to Turkey from Armenia for working is irrational?

No, I think that each story might be inherently irrational. Of course it depends on your point of view, the timing and manner of your looking. Besides, it is also important how the story is told to you; if it is told nicely and reasonably, you would understand it in a rational way. I was born in 1968; I mean, I am from the generation of young people who hit the streets in Karabakh Movement. I am from the last generation who went to university and graduated during Soviet era. Make a long story short, I studied history in Yerevan University. When I was graduated, the free and independent Armenia had already emerged. And I was supposed to work as a teacher and help the new generation to learn and question their history freely. It didn't happen. Things were crazy, we waited for better, calmer times. There was earthquake and war and then Turkey border was closed. We had financial difficulties. I had never wanted to go abroad. By 1995, I realized that I have no money for heating. The money I was earning from the school wasn't enough for the expenses of the family consisting of me, my mother and father. We had sold my father's house because of his health problems. My parents hadn't been working, because they were sick. It would have been easier, if we didn't have to pay rent. Eventually, I decided to go to Istanbul.

An acquaintance of our neighbor was working as a cleaning woman. I knew that there are Armenians in Istanbul. I like Western Armenian literature and poetry; I was thinking that Armenians in Istanbul are still leading that kind of a life. I have been hearing that people from Armenia are working in their houses. However, since I speak a few languages and have a university degree, I was hoping that I might find a different job in Istanbul.

What kind of jobs, for instance?

I was thinking that I might teach Armenian history in foundations, or Armenian language. If not, I might find a job in stores. Of course it didn't happen. Now, when I am thinking about those dreams, I smile. Teaching history was nothing but a fantasy, since most of the Armenians weren't able to call 1915 “a genocide” even in their houses back then. 

Where did you started to work?

In houses. Both in the houses of Turks and Armenians. I was working as a cleaning lady or nurse. Working in the houses of Turks was better for me. Armenians was looking down on people like me. They asked inappropriate questions like, “This is called banana. Have you ever eaten one?” or “Do you have cars, nail polish or cigarettes in Armenia?” I felt offended. Turks were more distant and professional. It was easier to work in their houses. Of course, I blamed myself for this many times...

For working in the houses of Turks?

Yes. In the end, you choose the easier option, because you feel unable to tell about yourself and your country. I felt offended indeed, but maybe I should have objected to them. I kept asking myself, “First, you ran away from your country and now, you are running away from Armenians. Where will you end up?” I reflected on this issue and started to work in the houses of Armenians. 

Did your life get better in this way?

No. Troubles didn't go away. Contempt continued. Humiliations like “Asonk asank en!” (These people are like this) didn't end. They were partially right; there were cleaning women who were stealing things or having affairs with the men in houses. Even if you haven't done anything, they think badly of you because of such incidents. You are wiping the floor, can you say to the woman who are treating you as if you are stupid or a thief or ignorant “Look, I am smarter than you. I speak three languages, I went to university, I still read two books in a week”?  You have dust cloth, she has your day wage; you have already lost the game...

Wasn't there anybody who approached you with understanding and compassion?

There was, but the situation is full of troubles in itself. Thus, you are troubled and unwell. You keep thinking that you are doing something that is below you and you became obsessed with it. You cannot see nice people as nice; you get suspicious. I had a conversation with an old man named Garo and today, I am still unable to make sense of that conversation. He was the father of my employer. He observed me. One morning, we were alone at home. He said, “Make some coffee, let's drink and talk.” He asked, “Why are you ashamed of your job?” I faltered and said, “Women who are not better than me act like they are.” He spoke at length. He talked about ups and downs of life. He said that I shouldn't hold grudges and learn something from this. I got mad at him. A whole system was collapsed and many people like me crushed under it. On the other hand, those women got married to rich men and saved themselves. It wasn't grudge, but I was mad. I envied those people and I was mad at myself because of that. 

What did you do after you got mad?

I started to think more clearly. “Why am I here, what am I doing here?” I was an illegal worker. I had no permit and politicians were saying that they will expel us, every time they get mad. I thought about what that old man said. I thought to myself, “I have to come to terms with my job. I am not a historian anymore, I am a nurse.” I accepted this and decided to return to Yerevan. While I was away, Armenia had changed a lot. I thought I could do this in Yerevan too; I would be close to my loved ones and not be illegal.

Why haven't you thought about it before?

I was ashamed. I didn't want them to see me like that. I was thinking that being away from them  is better, but homesickness is just too hard. Think about ending up in a police station as an illegal worker in a country where “Armenian” is an insult. Armenians living in Istanbul got used to that oppression, hiding themselves and even believing the lies. They had to. I am not blaming them, but such a way of life was too hard for me. 

Can you explain this oppression with some examples?

For instance, the textbooks. They are the total opposite of the history that I  have learned. One time, I said, “Send your children to another school. Don't let them learn such things.” She was a nice woman and said that all schools have the same textbooks. A boy was calling himself Ali, though his name was Ari. Hiding your name, being forced to hide your name is hard. One time, my employer hid the Easter eggs because she was going to have guest and she said, “If anyone asks, you are from Uzbekistan.” Like Uzbek people are good and Armenian people are bad. This way of life offended me. 

There were some tragicomic instances too. For instance, grandmother of a Turkish employer fell ill and I started to take care of her. And that woman kept saying, “Cook some Armenian foods. Sing Armenian songs.” She had always wanted to visit foreign countries; since she was feeling close to death, she wanted to experience different things. 

How is life in Yerevan? Are you happy to come back? Have you ever said “I wish I wasn't back”?

I learned not saying “I wish”. Life in Yerevan is better than I expected. First of all, I am free. I didn't look for positions in schools, I applied to cleaning companies. And I realized that monthly income is same in Yerevan. In Istanbul, there are more expenses and  you have to pay rent. Yerevan turned out to be better in this sense. After I worked for 2 months, I became the “group leader”. Group leader supervises the others, calculates the expenses and needs. After working 3 months as the group leader, I started to work in the office. In short, I am not working with a dust cloth anymore. Am I happy? Yes, of course. 20 years after I graduated from the university, at the age of 50, I started to work with pen and paper [her eyes fill with tears]. I was feeling degraded and now I am feeling a little bit better. And something even nicer happened: young people from Turcology department called me and asked if they can speak Turkish to me for practicing. I said yes and they asked about the price. I got surprised. I said I don't want any money for this. We have been practicing for 4 months and they always bring some gifts, flowers or fruits, because I am doing this free. I managed to leave the dust cloth aside after 20 years and I am even working with university students. I am so happy. I remember that old man a lot; acceptance doesn't mean surrender. It means getting less damaged and coming to terms with life. 

Then, your life has taken a rational course now, like you mentioned at the beginning...

I learned to accept and even to love life with all its rationality and irrationality. Think about it, it's '90s, there is war and poverty, Turkey closes the border for supporting Azerbaijan and weakening Armenia in order to be able to make them accept their political demands... And you go to Turkey without a permit... Is it something reasonable? That's life...


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Aline Ozinian