Putting Armenia on the map for future generationsVahe and Armine Meghrouni fund several Armenian history and language initiatives at UCI
By Rosemary McClure
When he was seven years old, Dr. Vahe Meghrouni, M.D., climbed to the crown of the Statue of Liberty.
"I never heard her speak until many years after we met," said the 91-year-old Orange County resident. "But ever since, she has been speaking ceaselessly."
And he, in turn, has been speaking ceaselessly about Armenians—their identity, their ethos, and the murder of their nation, which was the first genocide to take place in the 20th century.
Because he and his wife, Armine, also a physician, had the passion to help others understand Armenian history and culture, they set their eyes on the University of California, Irvine.
In 2011, they funded an endowed public lecture series in Armenian Studies named the Vahe & Armine Meghrouni Lecture Series in Armenian Studies, which has brought numerous scholars and public figures in Armenian studies to UCI.
In 2014, they resolved to dedicate observance of the approaching landmark centennial year of the Armenian Genocide by establishment of a chair in Armenian studies at UCI.
Coincidentally, around the same time, the University of California Office of the President had revealed that a limited number of $500,000 matching grants would be available to new and fully funded endowments. The Meghrounis quickly committed to a full endowment of $1.5 million dollars. With the whole-hearted dedication and financial support of the local Armenian-American community, they achieved a $2 million endowed professorship in Armenian studies at UCI.
Named the Meghrouni Family Presidential Chair in Armenian Studies, the position is held by Professor Houri Berberian, an expert in modern Middle Eastern history.
Recently, the Meghrounis provided the university with a gift to complete the funding for a first year of Armenian language classes. There will be a special emphasis on the western dialect because that is what the victims of the genocide spoke and it is at risk of dying out. Together, the Meghrounis’ endowed chair, endowed lecture series and their support of language courses, provide UCI students with the opportunity to learn and engage with the breadth of Armenian history and culture. With the support of the Meghrounis and other donors, and to ensure student success and interest in these offerings, scholarships, academic awards, seminars, archives, and graduate studies have been established around the student core classes.
Vahe Meghrouni lives on a sunny hillside of the bay in Newport Beach. Of Armenian parents, he was born at home in Detroit, Mich. He didn't speak English until he started school at five, but now is an eloquent poetry-quoting retiree.
"We grew up without relatives or grandparents," he says. The reason? Most of his family members were murdered during the Armenian Genocide, during the time of World War I.
“Armenians—men, women, children—were killed or taken from their homes by the Ottoman Turks and marched through Eastern Anatolia to concentration camps in the deserts of Syria. Murdered mercilessly by the thousands, huge numbers starved to death there.
What was a systematic campaign of mass murder was mirrored a generation later by an attack on Jews by Hitler, who proclaimed ‘Who today still speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians,’” he says.
Estimates are that as many as one and a half million Armenians were slaughtered or died on the marches.
One who survived was Vahe Meghrouni's mother Virginia (“Vergeen”). But she had to run a hellish gauntlet to do so. Her memoir became the basis for the book Vergeen, A Survivor of the Armenian Genocide (Atmus Press Publications, 1996), written by her friend, Mae M. Derdarian, the daughter of another survivor who befriended Virginia.
The story follows Vergeen, then a 13-year-old girl, and her widowed mother as they become part of a death caravan. Eventually, from a death camp in the Syrian desert, guards forced Vergeen and her mother for days towards the killing fields. On the way, Arabic nomads abducted Vergeen and killed her mother. She became a Bedouin slave and was raped, tortured and tattooed on her forehead and chin to show servitude.
Vergeen managed to escape to Aleppo, Syria. Over time, she made contact with her step-uncle in Cairo, Egypt and traveled to the United States at age 18 to marry Armen Meghrouni, to whom she was betrothed as a child.
In 1943, after eight years of study, she became the commencement speaker at her own high school graduation.
To aid in his mother’s recovery, Meghrouni, then a medical student, found a doctor who was successful in removing his mother’s facial tattoos during a year of operations.
As a child, long before he was fully aware of the genocide, Meghrouni habitually looked for historic or modern references to Armenia and never found any.
His own name seemed strange when compared to those of his classmates, he says. "Kids would make fun of it."
As an adult, he realized his perceptions were correct. "In public schools there were no significant notations about Armenian culture and ethnicity in the text books."
In the end, this is why the Meghrouni family is funding studies at UCI.
"Now we Armenians ourselves are leveling the playing field and building a foundation in all levels of education. That is what we are doing here and now," he says.
Armine Meghrouni, also of Armenian heritage, is a big supporter. "We're very happy with the quality and prestige of the university. We're happy we were able to do it."
The couple met when they were in training at the Los Angeles County General Hospital. Vahe had been to California years before when the family had come to Pasadena when he was in high school; Armine had grown up on the East Coast. "I had every intention of going back, before we met,” she says.
She was a goner though, after she met her charming husband. "We were married within four months." That was 61 years ago; now the family includes four daughters and three grandchildren. Three of the daughters graduated from UC.
The Meghrounis practiced medicine – he as a radiologist, she as an anesthesiologist – until retirement.
They travel frequently; one of their best trips was over 25 years ago with all their children to Turkey, a place they thought they'd never wanted to go. “If we don't go, we may never."
"They took away our historic lands, persecuted us for centuries, tried to erase us and our identity from the earth," Vahe Meghrouni wrote after the trip. But the journey offered them the opportunity to "go where our forefathers were, walk on the land they trod for millennia, be where our parents were children. Our children could bond with their roots."
The 2,000-mile trip turned out to be more than memorable. "We traveled the roads and fields of our historic past, searching for remains of Armenian life and letting the Armenian soul envelope us."
Years later on a separate trip to Armenia and Karabagh (present-day eastern Armenia and southwestern Azerbaijan) with his brother, Meghrouni wrote, “we looked into faces not seen before but who were not strangers because …they were us! When they spoke, we heard the voices of our mother and father."
The trip reinforced his desire to help the world learn more about Armenian culture.
"While other ancient civilizations have ceased to exist, Armenians remain worldwide,” he says. "This despite the misfortune that almost every historic invader in history passed through and occupied their homelands for millennia."
He's happy with the results of the UCI Armenian Studies Program, which "has done a great amount of work in educating present-day society as to who Armenians are and what the culture represents. Most importantly, the program enriches our Armenian and non-Armenian youth."
To learn more about Armenian studies at UCI, please visit: http://humanities.uci.edu/armenianstudies/