A Wahpeton High School graduate who experienced ethnic cleansing during her childhood has written a book about what her family lived through, called “Nowhere, A Story of Exile.”
In 1988, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte was a 10-year-old Armenian living in the city of Baku, in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Her childhood was disrupted when the majority Muslim Azeri population drove the minority Christian Armenians out of the country with violence.
“For a year and an half we endured fear, violence, hiding,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Portland, Maine. “We had nowhere to go. We couldn't legally leave until we had to, to save ourselves.”
Turcotte said her family fled to neighboring Armenia, but weren't accepted, as they didn't speak the language.
"We endured prejudice there," she said.
A large earthquake had just devastated Armenia, which wasn't prepared for the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Azerbaijan. The family lived in an unheated basement and struggled.
“There was no way we could live there that way,” she said.
The family applied for refugee status and 2 1/2 years later, came to Wahpeton with $180. She was 14 and her brother, Mikhail, was 7.
“We came at the end of January (1992). I was in the 8th grade with limited English,” she remembers. “It was a pretty big shocker.”
Turcotte says she was traumatized in many ways, still grieving for her homeland and trying to adjust to a new country and way of life.
“My parents started working and learning English,” she said. “They started assimilating and wanted us to do well.”
The author describes herself then as a "strange child in a new school district," without many friends.
“Everyone was nice but I felt I was treated as a souvenir from a different country,” she said. “I spent my first summer alone and started writing in a diary. I thought of my future children and wanted them to know where we came from.”
Turcotte said she spent about two years on her diary, penning her memories and experiences as a way to grieve about what she'd witnessed and lost, and then put it away.
She shared parts of it with her high school English and journalism teacher — N.D. Rep. John Wall — who encouraged her to finish it. As she went through college, she received advice from professors on how to clean it up.
“I thought I'd do it someday, but I knew I was going to law school, so not now,” she remembers. “Emotionally I couldn't revisit the story, so I found an editor, an Armenian poet,” she said, who helped her finish the book.
Turcotte became a U.S. citizen in 1997, earned a law degree, and is married with two children, ages 2 and 5. She said the book is dedicated to her children and to honor her parents, Norik and Irina Astvatsaturov, who still live in Wahpeton.
“I'm forever thankful to them,” she said. “It's been 20 years since we came to the U.S. and every year I send them roses on Jan. 31 to thank them.”
Her 5-year-old asked where the family is from, and asked Turcotte to show him on their globe.
“He said he wanted to go there,” Turcotte said. “I tell him I cannot enter the country because I have an Armenian maiden name. He doesn't understand why. He drew me a picture of a spaceship and said that's how he's going to get me to my city.”
Turcotte said she avoided looking for people from her past for the last 20 years. Once she knew the book was coming out, she starting searching on the Russian version of facebook.
“I found everyone in the book except for one,” she said.
People's names were changed for their safety and privacy, she said, unless they gave her permission to use their real identities. She said it's surreal to be in touch with them all again now.
Turcotte said her book is the only book written on the atrocities, which she finds “amazing.”
“I think people who were traumatized, are too traumatized to write about it. The rest of the world doesn't know, because it was covered up by the Soviets,” she said.
“I want to shed light on it, and honor those who suffered, and honor my parents,” Turcotte said. I'm hoping not only Armenians are interested in this book, but also non-Armenian Americans. I want people to learn about what goes on.”
“Nowhere, A Story of Exile” came out as an e-book in June and will be released in print Sept. 1.