After a joint letter from more than 30 members of Congress, a letter from local Armenian leaders, years of community pressure and a petition drive on a website, the White House has agreed to exhibit in the near future, likely this fall, a rug made by Armenian orphans more than 90 years ago, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said on Wednesday.
The rug, woven by orphans of the Armenian Genocide in 1920, was presented to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925 as a symbol of gratitude for American aid and generosity for U.S. assistance during the genocide.
“It’s an incredibly important historical artifact literally produced by the hands of the survivors of the genocide,” Schiff said by phone Wednesday, adding that he was pleased by the development. “It’s a tangible piece of evidence that speaks volumes about American contributions at the time.”
Measuring 11 feet, 7 inches by 18 feet, 5 inches, the Armenian orphan rug has more than 4 million hand-tied knots and took the Armenian girls in the Ghazir Orphanage of the Near East Relief Society 10 months to weave. It is set to be displayed in an area accessible to the public, Schiff said.
At the time, President Coolidge noted that, “The rug has a place of honor in the White House where it will be a daily symbol of goodwill on earth.”
The rug — which has been in storage at the White House for decades — was supposed to be released for exhibition in a Smithsonian event for the launch of Hagop Martin Deranian’s new book “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug.”
However, the rug was not displayed at that time, raising concerns among the Armenian community and some lawmakers.
The genocide of 1915 to 1918 claimed the lives of roughly 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. Modern-day Turkey disputes that genocide took place, claiming the victims were much fewer in number and killed during the violent chaos of World War I and its aftermath. The United States has also not officially recognized the genocide.
The rug not only can teach White House visitors about the genocide, but it also can shed light on the American philanthropic work to support survivors, Schiff said.
Schiff, along with 32 other Congressional members, sent a letter to President Obama in 2013 urging the administration to allow exhibition of the rug.
“We applaud Congressman Schiff's efforts and are elated that the cry of our orphans will be heard loud and clear to all the deniers of the Armenian Genocide,” said Lena Bozoyan, chairman of the Glendale-based Armenian Relief Society of Western USA.
Local Armenian leaders held a press conference and urged President Obama to let the tapestry be displayed and recognize the Armenian Genocide last November — the same day he visited DreamWorks Animation in Glendale. There was also a petition on Whitehouse.gov, which urged President Obama to display the rug.
One of the leaders who spoke at the press conference, Nayiri Nahabedian, a Glendale Unified School District board member, called the announcement “good news.”
“These opportunities give us a chance to remember and gives some of us a chance to learn for the first time,” Nahabedian said.
Berdj Karapetian, chairman of Glendale chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America, said he was thankful for the opportunity, but it shouldn’t have taken so much time and effort. He blamed political concerns related to Turkey’s rejection of the genocide as the culprit.
“This is a reflection of how much influence the Turkish government has over the Obama administration’s policy on the Armenian Genocide,” he said. “It has taken years of congressional and community efforts to secure the public display of the rug.”
Follow Mark Kellam on Twitter: @LAMarkKellam.