Notable Alumni Interview Series #5: Anoush Baghdassarian

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Sophia Liu

Anoush Baghdassarian (Class of ‘13) received her Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School, her Master’s Degree in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, Spanish, and Holocaust Studies from Claremont McKenna College. Baghdassarian co-founded Rerooted, an archive documenting the Armenian community of Syria. Baghdassarian received the 2022 Andrew L. Kaufman Pro Bono Award for working an unprecedented 4,000 pro bono, or free-of-charge, hours during her time at Harvard Law School. She will work at the International Criminal Court as an International Legal Studies Fellow and return for a clerkship on the Second Circuit in January 2024.  

 

Sophia Liu: How was your time at Great Neck South High School? When did you attend? What was your most memorable experience?

 

Anoush Baghdassarian: I attended Great Neck South High School from 2009 and graduated 2013. My time there was amazing, empowering, and inspiring. I really felt like I was supported by every teacher in every subject and in extra help to pursue different ideas and extracurriculars. I really thought I got the most out of it that I could. 

 

My most memorable experience would either be being the president of Theater South or writing a play about the Armenian Genocide in Mr. Weinstein’s creative writing class my senior year. I had this idea and he said, “Absolutely, you should do it.” I wrote it all in his class and then I introduced it at LEVELS in the Great Neck Library and the main library. I had my friends from Theater South and other theater friends from Great Neck participate in the show, and it was really, really meaningful.

 

SL: That was your play, FOUND, right? What inspired you to write the play and why did you choose playwriting as the form to tell this story?

 

AB: Since fifth grade, I’ve done theater in school. Then in high school, we moved on from only musicals to the winter play, the musical, the opera, and the one-acts. I really immersed myself with Dr. Levy, Mr. Marr, and Mr. Schwartz. I loved acting so I spent my summers in high school going to theater conservatories. I went to Stella Adler, USDAN, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In my last summer before college, I spent a month in England at the British American Drama Academy. I thought theater was very powerful. Theater allows me to bring people into another world and have them empathize with something that they otherwise might not know. I guess theater isn’t so obvious in that it’s showing you through the shared humanity that you have with somebody else. When you see a character feeling something that you felt, or going through something that you’ve gone through, you recognize the humanity that you have in common. Theater is didactic—it shows people differences and similarities.

 

I really loved acting, and the winter plays were something that I really enjoyed. I had also read so many plays in school and on my own. We read The Crucible in 11th grade in Mr. Graham’s class and I saw how powerful an allegory that was for the Red Scare. I thought playwriting was such a powerful way to talk about otherwise taboo topics, which is similar to my work with human rights. 

 

I learned in college that a woman named Lynn Hunt said that the invention of human rights coincides with the birth of the epistolary novel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded is one of the first versions of the epistolary novel in the 1700s. The book is from the point of view of a servant, and so for the first time, the aristocratic classes could read and feel and understand the perspective of a servant whom they otherwise wouldn’t interact with. The aristocracy could start to empathize with the servants and realize that they’re not so different and start to champion human rights. That was how I felt in high school—I really loved the power of theater to move people. 

 

I’m Armenian, and in sixth grade, I built this trifold poster board that I painted red, blue, and orange and pasted pictures on it from the genocide. From sixth to eighth grade, I asked my teachers, and they were so nice to let me go to all the social studies classes and present it. Ten years ago, when I was a high school student, the genocide was not recognized by America, and I didn’t learn about it in school, so I wanted to raise awareness about it. Growing up in Great Neck, a predominantly Jewish community, I was struck by the fact that when learning about the Holocaust, Hitler justified his actions to his men by saying that no one remembered the annihilation of the Armenians. That was Exhibit A of the idea that history repeats itself and without accountability, it could happen again. Hitler was saying, “Look, nobody got punished for that genocide of 1.5 million people, so we’re gonna get away with this too.” So I thought I would start off every presentation by asking students to raise their hands if they’ve heard of the Holocaust, and everyone would raise their hand. But when I asked them to raise their hands if they’ve heard of the Armenian genocide, every hand would go down. 

 

But then, years later, my Great Neck peers would write to me and text me to say they were learning about the Armenian genocide in college and they knew about it because of me. So I was achieving the goal I wanted of raising awareness in hopes that history wouldn’t repeat itself. Writing FOUND was putting my love for theater and raising awareness together. I’m so thankful that Mr. Weinstein was open to that and excited about it.

 

SL: Have you pursued playwriting after high school? 

 

AB: In college, I wrote two plays. I double majored in Psychology and Spanish with a Holocaust and genocide studies minor. I wrote the first play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It didn’t go anywhere. Then, my first and second semester senior year I wrote a play in Spanish about the Argentine dictatorship. During the last military dictatorship, Argentina had over 30,000 disappeared people. 

 

I studied abroad in Argentina. Film had a huge role in gaining justice. Movies helped shape public perception because they helped repeal the amnesty laws that the dictatorship had, which meant that anybody who had perpetrated something couldn’t be held on trial.

 

I think it’s important to be nuanced. I don’t ever make any characters black and white, without nuance. This is where my psychology background comes in and why I wanted to study the psychology of perpetrators and why ordinary people could do this over and over again. There are many mechanisms of moral disengagement that help people convince themselves that what they’re doing is okay. For example, there’s dehumanization, in which you start to call the other group the other, or a virus, or a cancer, or a cockroach so that it’s easier to harm them. I think it’s very easy for people to cross that line between being a victim and being a perpetrator. In the play I wrote, I played with the idea of somebody who was both really loved, but also had committed crimes and the human dynamics of good and evil. 

 

SL: Was there a teacher at South that particularly influenced you?

 

AB: I can’t choose one. I really loved all of my teachers at South. I loved that everyone made time for me—I could go to extra help all the time for any subject and every teacher would be there excited to help me and answer my questions. The math and science teachers would spend so much time with me when I didn’t understand anything, since math and science were not my forte. 

 

English teachers were super influential in the books they chose for us. They were excited about the books, and I still remember all the books we read in high school and the messages they taught me. I loved how fun every teacher made each class, like Mr. Graham, Dr. Manuel, Ms. Hastings, and Mr. Amelio. Mr. Weinstein was so encouraging and helpful with my play. I treasure my relationship with each one of them.

 

SL: Did you do any clubs or sports outside of theater? 

 

AB: I played soccer my freshman and or sophomore year. I played lacrosse for three years. I was the president of Key Club, and I probably did some other clubs that I can’t remember. 

 

SL: Much of your work centers on your Armenian heritage, on healing and reconciling from the Armenian genocide. How were you initially exposed to your family history and how did it inform your work now?

 

AB: I think I was initially exposed just by growing up. I went to church on Sundays and Sunday school until 11th grade. 

 

But the story I like to tell is that I had to constantly explain my name and where I’m from. I would answer that I’m Greek and Egyptian and Hawaiian and Argentine and American, but really, I’m Armenian. I reiterated that over and over again, telling the story of how my great great grandparents came from the genocide to America. That was a way for me to continue to be influenced by my history and to share it with others. 

 

Then, at family reunions, I heard stories about the genocide, like how one of my relatives survived by his mom putting him in her pant leg and walking down the dock hoping that he wouldn’t cry so that he wouldn’t be killed like other babies at the time. I heard about how my mom’s side of the family helped the Armenian diaspora and how my great great grandfather led orphans out of historic Armenia into Jerusalem and Syria. 

 

One of the other theories that I’ve learned later in school that helped me put words to the feeling that I was having growing up in this term called ethical loneliness. Jill Stauffer, a philosopher, defines this as the experience of being abandoned by humanity, compounded by the injustice of being unheard. I think it appropriately describes what it feels like to be a community whose dignity has been denied and whose truth is denied over and over and over again by the trading state. 

 

That feeling is also indignation, a word I learned from Ms. Hastings during my SAT studying. It’s having the open wound poked or poured salt into over and over again by the denial of the truth. And that denial of the reality I knew was motivating in a way. I wanted to help alleviate that sense of ethical loneliness, so I just started writing the play and going into work in human rights. 

 

When I was a freshman in college, I went to the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont Mckenna College, and I asked if I could produce my play. And they said, “Absolutely. We’re going to help as a co-producer.” I assumed that one day in my four years, when I was a senior, I would produce it. But they’re like “No, no, you can produce it now, this year.” 

 

That year, I ended up working with the Mgrublian Center and also helped them put on a play with survivors of human trafficking. They had written about their experience of being trafficked and were the actors in the play, which was so powerful. 

 

Then, I worked on asylum cases and edited and helped publish memoirs of the Armenian genocide. My interest in human rights led me to look beyond my community and to prevent genocide from happening anywhere else so that other communities can be spared the century of suffering Armenians have experienced. 

 

SL: You’ve interviewed hundreds of Syrian Armenian refugees for your project Rerooted. Is there a certain story that has stood out to you? 

 

AB:  I love Rerooted. It’s been probably the most meaningful project I’ve worked on to date. There are a couple of stories that stand out, but every single person that I’ve interviewed has been resilient and inspiring in their own way.

 

One story stood out because of the unfortunate and extreme conditions that this family suffered and their resilience. Their kids were kidnapped by al-Nusra, a terrorist group. And the mother said, “I have to go get them. And the father said, “No, you can’t,” but the mother said “No way. I’m getting my kids.” Then she went and she saved them. And now they’re living all together. But that wasn’t even the end of it. Then they moved to another part of Syria and had bombs rain down on their houses. And then they moved to this other area where people had lied to them and tried to take advantage of their vulnerable situation. And then finally, when I met them, I think it was their fourth move around. The strength and resiliency they still had energized me to keep going forward and working on Rerooted. One of the goals of Rerooted is to ensure the harms faced by the Syrian Armenian community are documented and included in the justice efforts for Syria.

 

A different story that’s also memorable because it upholds another aim of Rerooted—preserving the Syrian Armenian heritage, culture, and language because the Armenian that we speak in the diaspora outside of Armenia is an endangered language by UNESCO. We ask people to talk about their genocide story, their life in Syria and Armenia, and then their journey out of Syria and in a new country. 

 

One woman said that when she was flying from Syria to Armenia, she saw Iraq, which is in our historic Armenia, and she started crying on the plane. And then what’s really beautiful to me also is that when she got here, when she would buy vegetables, she’d get them in a little plastic bag, and the bags would still have dirt in them, because they were fresh. And she’d said she’d always keep the dirt at the bottom of the bag because that’s what her parents and grandparents would have done for Armenian soil after the genocide. 

 

SL: Rerooted not only documents Syrian-Armenians, but provides educational resources to discuss Syrian Armenian history with students. Why was this important for you to include and how do you feel such history should be introduced to younger audiences?

 

AB: Rerooted has made lesson plans. I believe in the power of stories and the best way to learn is through personal stories. I think watching a play or reading Anne Frank is more impactful than reading a textbook about the Holocaust. When I was first looking into Syria, it was all statistics: four million refugees, this many this, etc. Then, in the summer of 2016, there was a picture of a baby washed onto the shore of Greece and a lot of people began talking about Syria after that. Images and personal connections invoke empathy. 

 

With Rerooted, we wanted to capture personal stories to preserve the rich educational and cultural history and traditions of the Armenian community, but also in the name of justice, help people be moved to act. Preservation, education, and justice all go together. Education is a way for us to serve preservation and justice. 

 

For middle and high school and college, we have lesson plans where teachers can use the testimonies to teach students about the war or about being a religious or ethnic minority in the Middle East. The lesson plans are a way to include the testimonies into a school curriculum, but there’s so many different ways to learn from them. 

 

SL: You graduated from Harvard Law School with an astonishing 4000 pro bono hours. The requirement to graduate is 50 hours, so you did 80 times the requirement. Was it a goal to achieve a certain number of hours? What keeps you going when the work is pro bono and unrequired?

 

AB: No, I had no idea I did that many. I was just doing. I just like to do. I wanted to do as much as I could to help others and so every opportunity that would come up, I would say yes. 

 

There was a war that broke out in 2020 between Armenian and Azerbaijan during the pandemic. I spent a lot of my time during the pandemic working for that cause. I got friends together from around the world to write reports to the United Nations about the conflict and the abuses Armenian people were facing. I did a lot of pro bono work for Rerooted through clinics at school. One of my clients ended in April, but I continued until June because I loved it so much and I got so much meaning from it. I don’t think my days would be as meaningful if I were not upholding human rights. 

 

SL: What really resonated with me about your work is your unrelenting hope. Was there something that instilled such steadfast character in you? And how can we all carry your optimism? 

 

AB: First of all, I never take no for an answer. There’s always a way to achieve something. If someone tells you there’s no way to achieve justice or whatever else, you don’t accept that. You find a way. Be stubborn.

 

I think it’s a privilege to have this type of hope because I’m further removed from the conflict. My senior year of high school, when I went to interview people at the Armenian Old Age home in Bayside a woman told me “Why do you still care about this? It happened a hundred years ago, we’ve moved on and it’s not going to happen again.” I haven’t lost those battles yet. Maybe it’s a foolish hope, and maybe that’s not the right answer because it insinuates that if I lose more times, I’ll lose hope. 

 

Hope is also an unspoken lesson from my family who survived the genocide by helping the orphans and starting new communities first in the Middle East—Jerusalem, Syria—and then in South America. There’s this famous quote by the Armenian poet William Saroyan who says about the Armenian people: “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.” That’s one of the most moving quotes I know because it resonates so truly with me. I have this innate sense that when I meet anyone from Armenia, we’re rerooted. The title “Rerooted” is a play-on word: Armenians have been rerouted so many times, but everywhere they go, they reroot themselves and build thriving communities. I heard my history of resilience to recreate and plant new seeds and the community hasn’t given up. Every year, for a hundred years, there have been protests to commemorate the genocide. When the community around you doesn’t give up, you don’t give up. 

 

One thought I always had is what’s the alternative? I appreciate criticism, but I have practical optimism of a better future. There was never any type of criminal accountability for the Ottoman Empire back then, but now we had a number of methods and mechanisms that came out of the Holocaust like the Geneva Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations. With all the tools we have now as lawyers, we can bring that justice. 


The best answer is the people I work with. They have so much hope. The woman before was an anomaly. Most people I’ve worked with, such as the asylum seekers and trafficking survivors, have hope. And how can you not have hope when the people you work with have hope? You’d be doing a disservice if you didn’t share their hope. 

 

SL: What can the average person do to become more cognizant of human rights issues globally and support endeavors like those you undertake?

 

AB: Generally, read the annual reports from Human Rights Watch about each country. If you want to learn more, that’s a condensed way to see what’s happening in the world. 

 

I think that once you find an issue you’re passionate about, try to find a local NGO working on that issue and reach out. I love cold emails. That was a huge part of all the opportunities I’ve had—I saw something that looked great and emailed asking how I could get involved. And I got responses. 

 

If you have the time and ability, lend a helping hand and offer help to an organization you support. That can go a long way. 

 

How you can help my work specifically: Rerooted takes interns! If someone at Great Neck South has skills they can offer to Rerooted, we would be more than happy to consider you. 

 

SL: What advice would you give to high school students or anyone in the process of figuring out themselves and their future?

 

AB: My first piece of advice, which is really cliché, is to follow what you’re passionate about. Do what you enjoy and what brings you happiness. If you’re doing something you don’t like, stop doing it. There’s so much to learn now, in college, and beyond. Be curious and ask questions everywhere you go. Never write anything off as unimportant or uninteresting until you genuinely learn about it. Be exceptionally curious and never lose the thirst for learning. 

 

Don’t be afraid to create things. Be innovative. You have so many ideas and go act on them. Find someone to support your ideas. When I wanted to write my play, Mr. Weinstein supported me, and when I wanted to put it on in college, the Human Rights Center supported me. All I did was ask them. 

 

Ask for help and ask to help. None of my success comes from a vacuum or was just me. Everything has been because I asked people to take a chance on me and they did.

 

SL: What are you working on now?

 

AB: I’m doing a joint report with Harvard, Yale, and Wellesley College and an organization called the University Network on human rights violations from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. For Rerooted, it’s our fifth year and we’re writing a five-year report about what we’ve accomplished. I’ll be at the International Criminal Court next too. 

 

SL: Thank you so much for speaking with me and thank you so much for your work. Is there anything else you would like to ask? 

 

AB: Thank you. Thank you to everyone at Great Neck South for a wonderful foundation and education. None of this could happen if I didn’t have people who supported me. I believed in myself and that came from a network of support that my teachers at Great Neck South were a part of. It’s thanks to them and this community for fostering the belief that I can make an impact.