“Meet Kamo Mayilyan. He’ll be your interpreter.” It was April 2009, and I was about to give a presentation to a group of young women at the National Democratic Institute in Yerevan. I was on a month-long international development assignment in Armenia to advise a civil society organization, and had been asked to make an impromptu talk a few blocks away. Kamo and I only exchanged a few pleasantries beforehand. He was polite, affable, and fluent in Armenian, Russian and English, with a smattering of Spanish and an interest in French.
Kamo the Immigrant
Fast-forward to 2012. A mutual friend contacted me. Did I remember Kamo? He was immigrating to Canada. Would I be available to offer advice on housing, potential employment, etc.? Of course. We corresponded, and once he, his lovely wife, Mary, and sweet baby arrived and settled, we saw more of each other. We had a few picnics and barbecues, a visit to Niagara Falls, holiday dinners with my family, yardwork in my backyard (thanks!), and one week-long memorable Christmas in my house not far from frozen, power-less Toronto. Over the next couple of years, we became good friends.
Even though he has a master’s in Economics, with a major in Public Administration, Kamo did what most other immigrants do—he found “survival jobs”: delivering pizza, working in a call centre, and selling medical supplies. Meanwhile he enrolled in courses to better himself. Thanks to York University’s Bridging Program for Internationally Educated Professionals (IEP), he learned about professional life in Canada that includes the Canadian workplace, multiculturism, communication styles and our unique hybrid of British-American English. He also graduated from the Genocide and Human Rights University Program offered by the Zoryan Institute. His hard work, and not a small amount of good luck, paid off when he landed a job as an international commodities trader.
Kamo the Salesperson
I have come to realize that Kamo is a phenomenal salesperson. Not in the sense of “selling refrigerators to the Inuit”, but in the best definition: discovering the real needs of buyers and helping them find a solution. Perseverance is also part of the equation. That’s why he’s successful as a commodities trader, and that’s how he convinced me to write Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad.
He heard about an American missionary, Susan Wealthy Orvis, who had almost single-handedly saved 3,000 orphans in the Ottoman Empire after the Armenian genocide. He had met her great niece in Toronto and was convinced that I should write Susan’s story. For several reasons, I wasn’t interested. I did, however, offer to help him with an article about her, in time for the 100th anniversary of the genocide. Remembering Susan Wealthy Orvis was published in Armenian Weekly in April 2015 and reprinted in 100Lives.
When Kamo learned that Susan’s unpublished manuscript was archived in Harvard’s library, he drove to Boston with a couple of IEP classmates to get a copy. Then he gave it to me to read. He knew I was interested in history, women’s stories, and thrilling tales. And that I love doing research and writing. When I read about Susan’s derring-do adventures on the Trans-Siberian Express during the Russian Revolution, rolling up her sleeves to create a medical clinic for refugees, and dodging bullets in Baku, I was hooked. I had to at least look into it…
Kamo the Entrepreneur
He’s always thinking ahead. Kamo’s also one of those lucky people. (“Horseshoes,” I’m always telling him.) In Armenia he partnered with a dentist to start a dental implant business, which is still going strong. After writing our article, he put his email at the end of it. Within a few weeks of publication, another relative of Susan contacted us. Would we be interested in seeing an old trunk that was stuffed full of Susan’s personal letters and documents? Would we!!?? Kamo immediately made plans to visit the trunk (and the generous relative, whom I’ll reveal in a later post). He photographed every relevant page, then over the ensuing months, transcribed them. Meanwhile I transcribed Susan’s journal. Together we had original materials that no one outside of Susan’s family had ever seen. What a gold mine of information!
After intensive research into the magazines of Susan’s employer and the letters of her colleagues, I discovered that a) Susan was on a year-long furlough in Illinois during the genocide, but that b) her colleagues had continued working in Turkey, and c) after WWI there was a massive humanitarian and reconstruction effort. When this small group was allowed back into the Talas (Cesarea / Kayseri) area they found 88,000 refugees (30,000 Armenians, 8,000 Greeks and 50,000 Turks), 10,000 of whom were orphans. This was the story that needed telling. And as I discussed the book’s new direction with Kamo, his brain was already working on its promotion.
Kamo the Armenian
I understand why immigrants usually have one leg in their homeland while trying to establish a new life in their new country. If I had to move to another land, I would always be Canadian in my heart. As I write this, Kamo is leaving Canada for a five-month, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something positive for Armenia. He can do this because of a supportive, understanding wife, and a generous employer who is giving him a leave of absence.
A while ago I asked him why Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad was so important to him. The book was his idea. He has supported me in my research. He agreed with my international approach to the content. He has reached out already to the Armenian community and beyond to promote my blog. I know he’ll continue to promote it until the book is in as many hands as possible. But why does he have such a fervour for it? “Because we (Armenians) need to know who to thank,” he told me. “Those missionaries and relief workers saved the seeds of future generations. We are in their debt. We must recognize them, and be grateful.”
Kamo the Canadian
Kamo and his family will soon be Canadians. They bought a condo, settled into the Toronto community, and have applied for citizenship. They have quickly grown to love this country, and continue to make friends. I’m happy to count myself in that number. And I have “horseshoes” to have Kamo as “the man behind the book.”
The artwork behind Kamo Mayilyan (top) is a drawing by Viscount James Bryce, 1877, entitled “Great and Little Ararat from the North-East.” The photo of the Czech soldiers on the Trans-Siberian train, 1918, is courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Note: When Kamo first arrived in Canada he spelled his name Mailyan because people found it difficult to pronounce. He has since reverted to the original spelling: Mayilyan.