By the time we finalized the layout for Ara Oshagan’s photo essay about the Armenian diaspora in Lebanon, his decade-long project comprising memoir and documentary, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was underway, with horrific consequences. The bitter resonance between histories was hard to miss. Wars and persecution have been reliable drivers of forced migration around the world for centuries. Tens of thousands of Armenians fled a systematic slaughter by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. As of this writing, just three weeks into the war in Ukraine, more than 3 million Ukrainians, almost half of them children, have fled their country. As staggering as this rate of displacement is, the number is expected to double by the time this issue is in hand.
The European Union has demonstrated extraordinary compassion for Ukrainian refugees crossing its borders. Of course, that compassion will be tested as the numbers grow—inevitably, the “psychic numbing” that tends to follow large-scale humanitarian disasters begins to settle in. This time may be an exception, but if that’s the case it might have less to do with pure altruism than with a more practical empathy, since just about every democratic state has skin in this game. As goes Ukraine, so might go the West.
Who knows what Ukrainians will return to, if they’re able to return at all? An exodus of this scale could well mean that a massive portion of people will be permanently ruptured from the culture and country that shaped them. This phenomenon, in all its variations, has come to define the twenty-first century so far. Whether climate-induced or following economic collapse, or in the wake of large-scale violence of one kind or another, displacement is the alarming denominator of our time.
One result of that displacement, of course, is diaspora, an ancient idea that has evolved to give textured meaning to the experience of upended cultures. Nearly all diasporic peoples have been forced into their circumstances, but what exactly distinguishes diaspora from an immigrant community preserving a sense of itself? Arguably it’s the limbo they find themselves in, a culture interrupted, a lack of closure.
“Typically, people think of it as an event, that you’re just migrating from here to there,” Oshagan told me. “But it’s really much more of a structure. You take your history with you, and a lot of times your community is forced to move, and so the culture comes with you too. Displacement really doesn’t go away. Even if you go back, you can’t go back to what you were. You’ve lived in a different culture that mixes into who you are. It isn’t that you’re an immigrant, that you can go back and reverse it. There is no reversal. It becomes structurally part of who you are and how you live.”
In that sense, diaspora is neither a precursor to return nor a step toward full assimilation, but a multidimensional identity. Oshagan sees potential in that state. “For me, diaspora is a very creative space,” he stressed. “You’re living in multiple spaces—psychologically, linguistically—and these kinds of interplays will create new possibilities.”
There’s something to be said for his inversion of the more common implications of what it means to be diasporic. Oshagan has the advantage of an artist’s imagination, but he also knows first-hand, as a third-generation diasporic Armenian, the stress and confusion of disconnectedness. The results show across his body of work, including the visual chronicle featured here.
The fate of Ukraine and its citizens is an agonizing open question. To speculate on new futures in the midst of war feels almost cruelly oblivious. And yet the prospect of finding creative potential in dire circumstances is tempting, too, and so I lean a little on Oshagan’s impulse to extract possibility from disruption, even violent disruption, if only for the sake of imagining a way to wrest control back from the anarchic horrors of right now. This, to me, is not a diminishing of these emergencies but a way of investing in a fragile faith.
— Paul Reyes