Friday is reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s birthday. But it also marks the 100th anniversary of an atrocity that’s shaped his identity since the day he was born: the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by soldiers from the Ottoman Empire, widely considered to be a genocide.
Ohanian is Armenian on his father’s side, and his great-grandparents fled the country after the massacre. For him, there was only one way to spend his 32nd birthday — with his father, in Armenia.
“This is where I want to be,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post, via Skype, on his way to Armenia to commemorate the centennial.
Visitors to the company he co-founded were also greeted with a reminder of the anniversary on Friday: an altered, somber version of its mascot standing in front of the Armenian flag, according to Washington Post.
In doing so, reddit joins others, such as Pope Francis, Kim Kardshian, Kanye West, and heavy-metal band System of A Down, in calling attention to the massacre.
Ohanian said that for him and thousands of other Armenian Americans, the United States’s decision not to use the word “genocide” is profoundly painful.
“Every Armenian kid, from the time we are kids, all know about this terrible thing that happened,” Ohanian said. “[Genocide] is not something that’s unique to Armenians, of course. But the hook is always that there are people who don’t recognize what happened — that the people who did it say it never happened.”
Ohanian also made the massacre the subject of reddit’s weekly podcast, “upvoted,” in which he spoke about his own family’s history with his father, Chris, and his grandfather, John. Ohanian’s great-grandfather survived the massacre. His family did not.
“He never told me enough about what happened except that his parents were shot by….” John Ohanian said in the podcast, his voice breaking with emotion. “[By] Turks riding horseback. In the chest,” he continues, after a moment’s pause.
One soldier started to attack Alexis Ohanian’s great-grandfather with a sword, but was stopped by another soldier who said the boy was too young to die. He was then sent to an orphanage in Turkey for the next “eight to 10 years” or so, though John Ohanian said in the episode that he’s not sure about that, because his father never wanted to talk about it.
Alexis Ohanian believes an open recognition of the massacre would go a long way to healing that lingering pain, and let Armenians focus on other things — including the country’s promising prospects as a regional tech hub.
On this trip, he also plans to visit the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, a free digital learning center in Yerevan, Armenia that allows students to work with new technologies and take classes. Uber executive Raffi Krikorian serves on the center’s board of advisers; he, like Ohanian, is one of a handful of prominent Armenian-American tech executives. (Apple co-founder Steve Jobs also identified with the Armenian community, as his adoptive mother was a survivor of the massacre.)
Over time, Ohanian said he hopes that Armenia can follow the model of Estonia, another former Soviet country that has emerged as a high-tech leader — most notably as the birthplace of Skype.
But it’s hard to look to the future, Ohanian said, when there’s so much dispute about the past. He still holds out hope that the United States will recognize the massacre as a genocide. And, he said, the sooner, the better.
“I’d like for the next April 24 to be a chance to head into the next 100 years,” he said.