“This isn’t your typical memoir. These stories are snapshots of my life and they don’t always flow from one to the next. But the whole thing gives you a picture of who I am.”
It makes sense that a book on Berdjouhi Esmerian’s life would be far from typical. After all, Berdjouhi (pronounced Bur’ joo’ ee) is fluent in five languages and understands at least three others. Although she has called Rochester home for almost all of the last half century she came of age and eventually fled a region consumed by political and social conflict. Her unique perspective will give readers of her forthcoming book a glimpse into places most people will never visit.
“Egypt was my homeland until I was 30 years old,” explains Berdjouhi, now 90 years old. She remembers her childhood in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria as a carefree time with vast opportunities to become immersed in her own Armenian culture while also being exposed to other ways of life. Neighborhoods were typically made up of a variety of ethnic groups and children were free to move from school to school. As she explains it “every time we went to a new school we were formally trained in a new language. And when we played with Greeks or Italians or children of any other descent we learned enough to understand everything they were saying.”
1952 brought revolution in Egypt and with it a drastic change in day-to-day life. By the early 1960s the new leadership in Egypt began nationalizing what had been privately-owned property and businesses. “Suddenly, the country took on a much more serious and uncomfortable state,” remembers Berdjouhi. Her family owned a large, modern building in Alexandria which housed apartments, shops, and a parking garage. Gradually, the government began absorbing the profits from this business, making it impossible to maintain.
As the atmosphere in Egypt was changing, Berdjouhi—who had received her college education in neighboring Lebanon—was teaching English at the American College for Girls in the capital city of Cairo. The unrest happening in Egypt at the time started to remind members of Berdjouhi’s family of the events leading up to the genocide of 1915 that resulted in the extermination of over 1 million Armenians. After three decades living in the Middle East, it was time for her to leave.
“I came to the United States and it has been my homeland ever since,” says Berdjouhi. She came to New Jersey in 1963 and stayed with relatives but found it difficult to find work as a teacher. Still, she was motivated to secure some type of employment. “I grew up in a home where I didn’t have to worry about money. Here (in the United States) it was much different. I was totally alone and had to support myself.” She eventually took a position as a filing clerk with Western Electric.
Her time in New Jersey would not last long. Less than a year after immigrating to the states, Berdjouhi followed her brother, Ohannes, to Rochester. Again she was unable to find work as a teacher and took an entry level position as a proofreader for $66 per week with the Lawyer’s Co-operative Publishing Company on Broad Street. She would remain with the company until her retirement 30 years later.
Berdjouhi progressed through the proofreading department at Lawyer’s Co-op and within three years she had been promoted to assistant supervisor. A few years after that was named supervisor of the copy editing department. She credits her involvement with numerous projects throughout multiple departments—including collaboration with the managing editors and lawyers on the content of the publications—for her steady advancement through the organization. “This made me happy. I was contributing and people were listening to me and appreciating me for my brain.”
Despite being intimately involved in a variety of aspects of the publishing business for three decades, it was not until after her retirement that Berdjouhi began crafting her own work. At the time, her only previous writing effort had been a fictional short story written when she was 17. She connected with the local writing community through a “Memoir Writing for Seniors” course at Nazareth College and eventually collaborated on According to Us, an anthology of personal stories from a handful of area women. Of course, Berdjouhi’s professional background meant she took the lead on editing, working with printers, and other responsibilities crucial to the publication of the book.
As Berdjouhi continued to write throughout her retirement she aspired to pen a full-length memoir of her own. She took classes at Writers and Books and connected with Nina Alvarez, the editor of Berdjouhi’s new book So Many Homelands: Memories of a Daughter of the Armenian Diaspora. Now a resident at Brickstone by St. Johns, Berdjouhi explains that “each homeland is a different phase of my life.” Her first and only trip to her ancestral home of Armenia in 2003 sets the stage for the final homeland featured in the book.
As for the descriptive part of her book’s title, Berdjouhi hopes So Many Homelands serves as a tribute to her father. “With this book, I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to my father.” Although he died at a relatively young age, she believes he was the person most responsible for her becoming a lifelong learner. “He used to say ‘I don’t care if you are a girl or you are a boy. If you have a brain in your head and I have money in my pocket, you are going to fill up that head with education.’”