WESTBROOK — City Council Vice President Anna Turcotte heads to Armenia next month to dedicate a forest she helped plant in tribute to those lost in the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Azerbaijan.

The Memorial Forest in Talin, a joint venture between Turcotte and the Armenia Tree project, is being planted in memory of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the pogrom in Baku, Azerbaijan, which took place in January 1990. 

When Turcotte was 11, her family was among the 350,000 Armenians pushed out out of Azerbaijan either by fear or by force in the late 1980s and 90s. Her family fled Baku in 1989 due to unrest there and relocated to Armenia before coming to the United States in 1992. Twenty years after relocating to the United States Turcotte published “Nowhere: A Story of Exile,” based on the childhood diaries she wrote about fleeing from Baku and settling in North Dakota.

Turcotte will be on hand May 7 as the last 100 of the 2,000 trees are planted and the site and a khachkar – an Armenia stone cross – will be blessed by the Armenia Apostolic Church. She will remain in Armenia for a week and a half to work with the Armenia Eye Care project in small villages across the country.

Turcotte said she wanted more than just a typical memorial to honor the ordeal her family and so many others went through. 

“I wanted something alive and connected to the Earth,” she said.

The Memorial Forest, made possible by $21,000 in donations from individuals across the world, will feature 500 fruit trees that will supply fruit to residents in and around Talin. It will also be a place for people to visit to mourn the loss of lives and Armenian cultural sites in Azerbaijan.

“There is a parking lot over my grandparents’ (burial site). The forest helps to have a place to mourn what we lost. It is not just the people killed, but the places we left behind,” Turcotte said.

The effort, a joint venture between Turcotte and the Armenia Tree Project, began in 2018, the 30th anniversary of the pogrom in Sumgait.

“The Armenia Tree Project is really interested in partnerships of all kinds. We are really excited to work with Anna,” said Jason Sohigian, deputy director.

The Armenia Tree Project was started 25 years ago by Carolyn Mugar, an Armenian-American from the Boston area, as a project of the Armenia Assembly of America. Since then, the organization has planted 5.7 million trees and in October will host a forest summit at the American University of Armenia to reflect on the last quarter century and its future.

While Sohigian said the organization is excited to play a part in the Memorial Forest in Talin, Armenia Tree Project is “really interested in the linkage between trees and people” and planting trees in a way that will help the environment, but the community as well.

As part of the Memorial Forest effort, Sohigian said the Armenia Tree Project will be launching an environmental education campaign to teach people about trees, why they are important and how to take care of them. 

For her political-social achievements and her efforts in diplomacy, law and political science, Turcotte was awarded the Mkhitar Gosh Medal by former Armenia President Serge Sargsyan in 2013. It is the country’s highest civilian honor. Turcotte has also received a gratitude medal from Bako Sahakyan, president of Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent country recognized as part of Azerbaijan, and has garnered awards from the Armenian National Committee of America.

Turcotte’s travels will take her out of the country for both the first reading of the municipal budget on May 6 and the second reading of the budget a week later on May 13.

“This is the first budget vote I am missing,” said Turcotte, a city councilor since 2015. “I have contacted the administration and the mayor. I feel this (memorial forest project) is a very important part of my history and the history of the Armenian people.”

For more information about the Armenia Tree Project visit www.armeniatree.org.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected] or on Twitter @mkelleynews

Westbrook City Council Vice President Anna Turcotte is interviewed by a Canadian documentary film crew on the steps of an ancient church in Khndzoresk, Armenia. Turcotte will be back in Armenia next month to plant a memorial forest in Talin.

Volunteers plant trees in Talin, Armenia, in November. The forest, a joint venture of the Armenia Tree Project and Westbrook resident Anna Turcotte, will serve as a memorial to Armenians forced to flee Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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