By Anna Patrick
(Charleston Gazette-Mail) – They wore red.
Violetta Petrosyan’s sweater was a bright shade, the kind of red you’d see on an American flag.
Ivan Petrosyan’s red shirt wasn’t as flashy. The couple wore the colors of their new country.
Violetta’s nails were painted a bright blue. Ivan brought his camera. They held each other through most of the ceremony.
On Jan. 7, a large crowd gathered on the seventh floor of the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse. Family and friends filled the downtown Charleston courtroom to see their loved ones become naturalized citizens. American citizens.
Violetta and Ivan didn’t have any family there, but they had enough colleagues and friends from church to fill multiple rows. And they had each other.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin began handing the new citizens — 37 in all — their certificates, which proclaimed their citizenship. One by one, the recipients looked him in the eye, shook his hand and thanked him.
When it was Violetta’s turn, she leaned in close to Judge Goodwin and asked, “Can I hug you?”
He opened his arms.
“Ivan,” Goodwin said, calling to Violetta’s husband. “You better get back here and take a picture.”
The mood in the courtroom had been serious up to that point. Now, people smiled.
Violetta wished she could tell Goodwin how far she traveled, what she’d endured to get to that hug. The judge’s paperwork said she was from Russia, but that country was never home.
Really, she’d been forced to leave her home nearly 30 years ago. She had taken what she could. She looked for someplace safe.
Because Azerbaijan was not.
Ivan and Violetta Petrosyan waited too long to leave; the brutality had already begun.
Riots in the street. Beatings in broad daylight. Murders.
From their balcony in 1988, they watched thousands of people organizing in the street below. In an angry mass, they saw children and parents marching. Saw people chanting words of hate. Saw signs that read, “Kill all Armenians” and “Death to Armenians.”
The Petrosyans were Armenian. So, too, were their children, Julia, 8, and Olga, 4.
While all four of them were born in Azerbaijan, their Armenian roots singled them out.
But Azerbaijan had always been their home. Baku, the Eastern European country’s capital along the Caspian Sea, is where they’d chosen to live.
It’s where Ivan hung a swing in the hallway of their apartment for his girls to play on. Where Violetta kept her English and French language books that she’d so carefully studied in college. It’s where they wanted to be.
Ethnic tensions from Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia had made their way to Baku. The countries were fighting — like they had for nearly a century — over a disputed region, the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan claimed it, but the majority of the region’s population was of Armenian ethnicity.
For years, the Soviet Union’s control over the satellite countries had frozen the dispute. But in 1988, when the Soviet Union began to crumble — when Ivan was excelling as an engineer for the Soviet space program, when Violetta had just been promoted to vice principal at her school — the conflict reignited.
The war brought an eruption of ethnic violence from both sides. Azerbaijani people living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and other parts of Armenia were forced to flee, according to a 1994 report by the Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that investigates human rights abuses. Armenian communities in Azerbaijani cities, like Baku, were targeted.
On both sides of the dispute, minorities found their lives threatened.
When their friends were buying one-way tickets to Moscow, Ivan and Violetta stayed in Baku, hopeful that the fighting would soon end.
Olga’s daycare stopped accepting her. The Azerbaijani director told Violetta that she would not be able to guarantee her daughter’s safety.
On his way home from a trip, Violetta’s cousin was yanked out of a taxi in Baku and beaten. Violetta knew of a neighbor who’d been killed; men invaded her home and pushed her from her second-floor balcony.
The Petrosyans did their best to be invisible.
Neighbors started getting groceries for them so that they didn’t have to leave the house.
When Ivan boarded the bus to go to work, he’d slide to the window and turn his back to the other passengers. He’d look out the window and hope that no one would notice the hump on the bridge of his nose — a telling Armenian feature.
One of Julia’s classmates, a fellow second-grader, advised her on what to do if men came to kill her family. “You have to tell them my name, not your name,” the Azerbaijani girl told her friend.
“We lived in that fear for over a year,” Violetta said. “We would always say ‘goodbye’ to each other every day without knowing that we can see each other in the evening.
“How long can you live like that?”
A knock on the door was the final straw.
Violetta’s mother was home watching the girls, while she and Ivan were at work. Strange men started pounding on the door.
A neighbor intervened.
“They are not at home,” the neighbor told the men. “You will not find anyone.”
Violetta’s mother stood on the inside of the apartment door, silently listening. She kept her hands over the girls’ mouths. The men left.
They left at night. The family packed two backpacks with all that they could fit — winter clothes, a pot for cooking, Ivan’s guitar. The girls grabbed a favorite toy. Julia chose her stuffed monkey.
They didn’t have much money, but enough to pay for a night train out of the city, enough to get them to a mountainous village in Russia where a friend had promised work.
They left their apartment nonchalantly, giving off the appearance of a family heading out to run some errands — not a family fleeing their home.
The apartment held the belongings they’d acquired during a decade of residency. It held Violetta’s books, the ones her grandmother had given her, the ones she had in college. It held the slides of photos Ivan had taken while mountain climbing.
One January night in 1989, the Petrosyans fled their home because the threat of dying outweighed any reason for staying.
They didn’t have a place to live. There weren’t aid organizations at the ready to assist. At the time, most of the world was unaware of the ethnic violence unraveling in both Azerbaijan and Armenia.
That same 1994 report by Human Rights Watch said “an estimated 25,000 have been killed and over one million displaced and made refugees on both sides” of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Russia became home to many refugees, including the Petrosyans. But it never really felt like home.
In the city of Volgograd, a small, one-room shack was all they could afford.
“It was a shed actually,” Violetta said. “We only had electricity. There was no water, no gas.”
They all slept together in the one-room clay shack. They walked to get water, nearly a quarter mile away, several times a day. They used the bathroom in a hole out back.
“Mom, tell me honestly, am I going to get married out of here?” their daughters would ask.
That wasn’t the worst of their concerns.
As a bus driver, Ivan was mocked. As a teacher, Violetta heard her students drop racial slurs casually in conversation. The police stopped them often in the streets. They wanted to see identification.
“In Russia, it wasn’t fear of killing, but more of embarrassment,” Violetta said.
On a daily basis, they were made aware of their dark skin and hair, made to feel bad for it, made to feel less for it.
Their faith grew. They became members of the First Church of the Nazarene in Volgogrod. They met a lot of people that way, including Americans that came over for mission work. For a large church conference, Ivan and Violetta traveled to the U.S. for the first time. Living in Indiana, their host family showed them around. They even showed them a college, Bethel College, that their youngest, Olga, could attend. They promised that they would help Olga to study there. They did more than help. American Members of the First Church of the Nazarene funded Olga’s education.
Violetta and Ivan’s trip to the U.S. in 2006 was for only two weeks.
Olga was in her senior year of college. Her music major required her to perform in various places, and it brought her to South Charleston. That’s where Violetta and Ivan came to visit.
It was only supposed to be for two weeks.
On their last day in the U.S., Ivan and Violetta didn’t get on their return flight home. For a second time, they left their fully intact lives, their fully intact homes to try for something better.
“We were born in the wrong country. We were born the wrong nationality. We were born Armenians for Azerbaijainis. We were blacks for Russians,” Violetta said.
And they were tired of it.
They applied for political asylum, and prepared for a lengthy legal battle. They had to prove they suffered racial, religious or political persecution in Russia. The process was long. The hearings spanned over two years. Their travel visas ran out. They couldn’t leave the country, yet they couldn’t call it home.
The First Church of the Nazarene in South Charleston gave them assistance. Even before they had legal authorization to work, the church gave them jobs. It gave them a place to stay. It gave them support.
On the day of their final hearing in 2009, the day they’d learn if they could stay for good, Violetta had a hard time keeping her head up.
The testimony had taken hours. Ivan’s translator had done a poor job. The attorney opposing their asylum had done an even better job. She had worked hard to convince the judge that Russia would be a safe place for the Armenian couple to live.
In his comments, the judge commended the attorney on her work. Violetta remembers him telling her, “You did a brilliant job.” And she had.
But then he paused before delivering his verdict.
On the day of the naturalization ceremony, Violetta told her husband, “I feel like a bride.”
He asked, “Well, what am I?”
“You’re a groom. We’re marrying America.”
Since their U.S. citizenship became official last month, Violetta said it still feels fresh.
Sometimes Ivan will wake up and say, “Ah, we are Americans.” “Yes,” she’ll say “We are.”
Their South Charleston apartment is bigger than anything they had before. They have three dining room tables at which to feed visitors. They love visitors.
They have cozy couches and comfy pillows.
“America for me was a country of wonderful candles, smelly candles … and all kinds of ribbons and pillows,” Violetta said.
They’ve covered their walls with photos. Pictures of their daughters — both of whom married Danish men they met through their church and who now live in Denmark. Pictures of the four grandkids, Olga’s and Julia’s children.
They stay busy. Violetta teaches English as a Second Language at the University of Charleston and West Virginia State University, and she has a full-time medical coding job. Ivan is a maintenance worker for their church.
Now, when they go to bed, Ivan likes to tell Violetta, “Goodnight, my American wife.”
“Goodnight, my American husband.”
Reach Anna Patrick at email@example.com or 304-348-4881.
Photo Caption 1: MailIvan and Violetta Petrosyan embrace at their South Charleston home in front of a wall lined with photos of their daughters’ families. (Photo by Sam Owens/Charleston Gazette-Mail)
Photo Caption 2:
Violetta Petrosyan adjusts the American flag that Ivan stuck in his button-up shirt pocket before the start of the ceremony. The Armenian couple were granted asylum in 2009 after fleeing from Russia. (Photo by Sam Owens/Charleston Gazette-Mail)
Photo Caption 3:
Laughter filled the courtroom as Violetta Petrosyan gives Judge Joseph Goodwin a hug during the official citizenship certificate presentation during the Naturalization Ceremony at the U.S. Court House in Charleston on Jan. 7, 2015.
(Photo by Sam Owens/Charleston Gazette-Mail)