Former orphanage in Istanbul becoming new symbol of survival for Turkey's Armenian community

Campaigners strive to prevent demolition of building that hosted 1,500 Armenian orphans for 21 years · Writer Hrant Dink was one of residents · "This is one of the most important witnesses of a culture that resists," activists argue · HDP party supports campaign

The same year that the Armenian Genocide under the Ottoman Empire is being marked, Turkey's Armenian community is getting unusual visibility in that country by unexpected means. Groups of Armenian activists have been seeking to protect from destruction, for the last two weeks, a former orphanage in Istanbul's neighbourhood of Tuzla. The building used to be the home of Armenian orphans, and now is leading the way to become a new symbol of the Armenian presence in Turkey.

The Gedikpasa orphanage, also known as Kamp Armen, welcomed some 1,500 Armenian children from 1962 to 1983, when it was closed down. The building and its land was owned by the Armenian Evangelist Church after being expropriated by the Turkish state. The building changed hands several times before being bought by Fatih Ulusoy, who had decided to demolish it to make room for new buildings.

On May 6th, bulldozers began to demolish parts of Kamp Armen. But resistance by a group of Armenian activists -among whom former orphanage resident Garabet Orunöz and pro-Kurdish HDP party candidate Garabet Paylan- persuaded operators to stop the demolition.

Ulusoy then agreed to postpone the demolition until a solution to the dispute is found. The activists want the building to be preserved and to become a memorial and a cultural space for Turkey's Armenian community.

Guards to prevent the disappearance of a symbol

From 6th May onwards, groups of activists have been taking turns at the orphanage to avoid further demoition. Among them, members of Nor Zartonk ('New Renaissance', in Armenian) association are found. Nor Zartonk wants Armenians to reclaim their place within a democratic, egalitarian, non-nationalist Turkey.

"The orphanage was built by the children of those who escaped [genocide] in 1915," the group says in a statement. Kamp Armen holds huge symbolism: Turkish Armenian writer Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2007 by a young Turkish ultranationalist, spent a part of his childhood there. "This is one of the most important witnesses of a history, a geography and a culture that resists," Nor Zartonk argues.

Campaigners have earned support from Armenian diaspora organizations, groups of neighbours and students in Istanbul, not all of them members of the Armenian community. HDP, which advocates a multicultural Turkey, is also supporting the campaign.

(Picture: Kamp Armen being occupied by activists / photo by Kamp Armen Yikilmasin.)