Fresno, and the San Joaquin Valley, became a refuge for survivors of the Armenian Genocide. There, thousands of refugees driven out of their homeland had the opportunity to pick up the pieces and, on the way, created what became the hub of the Armenian-American community in California and the Western United States.
It was no different for the Sahatdjian family, who escaped the Genocide, not entirely unscathed, and after a tumultuous journey wound up in the San Joaquin Valley. They left behind their home, their thriving business, but more important their homeland to settle in the area. Their will and determination to survive has translated into one of the largest raisin packing establishments in Fresno County—Victor Packing.
Three generations of Sahatdjians have nurtured this business, which began as a farm in 1928 and have grown it into a facility that provides organic California raisins to consumers not only in the US, but Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East.
Through it all, their struggle as Genocide survivors has shaped a family rooted in their Armenian heritage and proud of their place as one of Fresno’s preeminent business owners.
Today, the Sahatdjians are a fixture in Fresno and active members of the Armenian-American community there.
Veteran community activist and leader Mourad Topalian recently went to Madera, on behalf of Asbarez and Horizon Armenian Television, to meet with and talk to two generations of this venerable family. Their stories inspire and serve as a lesson of sheer resilience for future generations.
Topalian first met Sarkis and Iris, the patriarch and the matriarch of the Sahatdjian family in their home in Fresno.
Sarkis, who by his own account will turn 92 in January, recounted his parents’ experiences as Genocide survivors and as newcomers to a strange land. Their story has a familiar ring to most survivor refugees, yet it is unique in their approach to the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“The reason my parents picked Fresno is that I had one aunt who was here after the 1895 massacres. Her husband decided to leave the country after that massacre. After the 1915 Genocide, that my father and mother were both in, she was our sponsor,” explains Sarkis “In 1923, when we left Constantinople (Istanbul), we had to go to South America, stay there one year because the Armenian quota was filled. So, we had to stay in Buenos Aires for one year and then in 1924 we were able to come and complete the quota of Armenians to Fresno.”
Sarkis says that his immediate family was lucky enough to survive the wrath of the Ottoman decree of Genocide. “However I had a whole family of cousins—my mother’s older sister died in the marches. The only one that survived out of a family of 6 was the oldest son, and he was about 13 or 14 years old, but the rest of the family perished.”
“It’s like a fairytale for someone who hears it,” he says, “but for the person who loses it, it’s painful.”
Sarkis was the older of two sons born to Vagharshag (Victor) and Makrouhi Sahatdjian. His brother, Haig, recently passed away.
“I worked as a teenager in canneries, that’s where our folks got their start in life in the new country. They were like the migrant workers of today. They went from one cannery to another. Asparagus season was Rio Vista, California. [For] peach season they would go to Yuba City and later on they went to Emeryville, which is a suburb of Oakland, California during the pear and fruit cocktail season,” recounts Sarkis.
“In the winter months they worked in packing houses, either figs or raisin plants. That’s how we got a second start in life. As a teenager, I started that trend. However, when I became old enough there was talk that World War II might happen, so I got a job working for the Navy. I worked on a destroyer, named USS Shaw #373,” Sarkis says.
Four years after coming to America, Victor Sahatjian bought a farm, which would become the stepping stone for the family’s large and successful business today.
Far from being a farmer, Victor was the owner of a successful tannery business headquartered in Garin (Erzerum) with branches in Constantinople (Istanbul), Trabizon and Ethiopia and offices in Marseille, France. Owning a farm was a new venture. “He said why don’t I buy a farm and see what the neighbor does and I’ll do the same and I’ll have my own independent business,” Sarkis says of his father.
Sarkis and his brother, Haig, worked on the farm, and to make ends meet, Sarkis also drove a school bus. In 1949 the Sahatdjian family bought a 40-acre vineyard in Madera, where the two brothers worked part and in 1963 the brothers started Victor Packing Company to process and package their own crop of raisins and purchase and sell raisins from other farmers in the area.
Today, Victor Packing Company is the world’s largest in the production and market-share of golden raisins and leading producers of organic raisins.
The Sahatdjians’ success has not deterred them from being an integral part of the community. In fact, their experiences as survivors and refugees have made their inherent ties to the homeland stronger.
“Because I had the misfortune of not being in the homeland to learn Armenian, and because we were moving around, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to Armenian school to learn the language and I feel like I’m a man with the right arm missing,” says Sarkis with lament, wiping off the tears in his eyes. “I was just fortunate enough that in our home we spoke Armenian and I understand it enough and speak it enough, but not reading it you don’t get the benefit. That’s the time I know I’m missing something.”
“What a different man I would be if I could do both and I told that to my grandson just a couple of days ago. He just became an attorney and I told him what a different person you would have been if you could speak Armenian too,” Sarkis says, whose wife, Iris, agrees with his sentiments.
“They’re asking him to speak at the Pontifical Visit that’s going to take place here. When they asked him to be the chairman of that event is when I told him what a different person you would have been if you could speak our language,” he adds.
For a country like the US to provide such opportunities to his family and for the service he and his family have brought to the US, Sarkis is disappointed that the US government has not properly recognized the Armenian Genocide and continued to fall victim to Turkish lobbying efforts, which calls the “croockedest thing in the world.”
Sarkis enthusiastically and emotionally discusses the re-establishment of Armenia’s independence saying “when I see other countries helping, my deep feeling is that they let us go to the wolves during World War I and today you got China trying to help, you got Japan trying to help and you got this country sending millions trying to help.”
“And, inchbess hayeren gsen, devagan ellah azadutyune. (As they say in Armenian, may the independence be lasting). We hope it becomes lasting…”
At the sprawling Victor Packing Company plant, Sarkis’s son Victor, who is named after his grandfather, meets with Topalian and gives a tour of the vast operations and observes each steps of the packing process, which initially begins with the stemming of the raisins, then the they are washed and then they are laser sorted and they go through a final human sort, once that’s done the raisins are put in the boxes and are shipped.
Now the family—and the company—owns 48 vineyards and farm about 1,500 acres. But, Victor explains that they buy most of the raisins from other growers and process about seven or eight percent from their own acreage.
“I grew up on this property. Farming is in my blood and it’s sort of my first love,” says Victor, adding, “It was truly a family effort to get to where this business is today. It took the effort of each and every one of us to make this business a success. There’s not any one of us that could say we could’ve done it alone, because we couldn’t have. So, it’s truly a team effort—a family team effort.”
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve done it the right way,” says Margaret, Victor’s sister and the daughter of Sarkis and Iris. “We try to be very ethical. We are ethical to our customers. We’re honest. When we hire people we tell them we do things very correctly here. And, we’re fair to everybody and we’re respectful to anyone who walks in the door.”
The siblings take pride in being able to provide jobs to members of the local Armenian-American community. “We like to hire as many hye employees as possible,” says Victor.
“I’m proudest of our business culture that we’ve tried to build here. And, we are also try to give back to the community—the local community and the Armenian community, as well. We’re grateful and we feel blessed that we can back to our schools, churches and perpetuate our culture. Because those are the things that we feel—that I feel—contributed to our success,” explains Margaret.
“I’ve visited Armenia twice and I’d love to go back anytime. It’s very exciting. I hope that we can keep it thriving. There’s a lot of work to be done there. The whole world has changed and we just have to continue to help and hope things turn out well,” says Margaret.
“I’ve been to Armenia three times. The first time I stepped foot there, it was really like a homecoming. When the plane landed and I got off, I didn’t feel I was at a foreign place at all. After visiting there a couple of times, I know there’s a lot of catching up to do. It’s sort of unfortunate that the country is landlocked and there’s a lot of unemployment. I look forward to the day that the country would prosper and be better,” adds Victor.
Margaret’s involvement in the community is inspired by and rooted in her mother’s and grandmother’s service to the community.
“Both my grandmothers were in the ARS. I remember there was this ARS book and in it there’s my grandmother taking the train to Boston to the convention as a delegate. My mom was also in it. When I was 20, my grandmother said that there was a wonderful program the ARS had, it was the Summer Studies Program in Boston. I went there and it was a wonderful program indeed. So, when I came back, I thought that this is a great organization, they clearly do great things and I’m gonna join. I joined probably when I was 25. I’ve been on the board of the local Sophia chapter and I was a member of the Regional Board,” says Margaret.
“It was at the ARS Summer Studies that I met the Vehapar—Vehapar Sarkisian (His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia and His Holiness Karekin I, Catholicos of All Armenians)–he was then the Archbishop in New York. They took our group and he gave us a lecture and I was so impressed,” adds Margaret.
Victor says the Fresno Armenian community has changed, but adds that every time it weakens there’s a new wave of Armenians that come in from somewhere and they revive it.
“I think it’s a vibrant Armenian community. The immigrants from the Middle East have come and revived it. After that, we had the Armenians from Armenia that have come” and added their mark to the community.
Margaret says the Armenian school is active and thriving. She explains that the arrival of a new wave of young professionals in Fresno has had a very positive impact on the growth of the community.
“The more institutions Armenians have in Fresno, I think the better the community will hold together. Fresno State has a good Armenian program and a lot of activity revolves around the speakers they bring. That was a good boost, good shot in the arm, for the community’s continuity so to speak,” explains Margaret. “The church continues to be very active, as a cultural institution. There are a number of organizations, the ARS, the ARF, the Hamazkayine… All the institutions we have… The more the better.”
Margaret proudly says that she reads Armenian news “voraciously.” Among the most recent issues that have caught her attention has been the efforts in Congress to urge Turkey to return Armenian Churches to the community there and the AYF Youth Corps program.
She says if Turkey’s “feet can be held to the fire, it would be wonderful. If their tour guides can stop taking people to these Armenian Churches and say that these were just here from the indigenous people, without saying they’re Armenian… If there’s a day they can say this is an Armenian Church and there was a Christian community here, which in this century they should be able to that, it would be wonderful. I’d love to see those churches and other institutions returned to Armenian control.”
“I’m excited to hear that there’s a possibility that Turkey might be able to be more cooperative and return those properties to the people that built them and to the people they belong to. As Margaret said, it’s a political thing they’re doing to get into the EU. I hope there’s something that could happen that would keep that promise alive. We’ve had promises made to our people by Turkey that have been broken several times that it’s difficult to believe that it might happen. But, I hope it does,” Victor concurs.
“To influence our youth is the key to keep the generations interested,” says Margaret in acknowledging the Youth Corps program. “We have to get our kids there [the homeland] and engaged and what better way to have them volunteer there. And also to bring something home, which is that they belong there. To take ownership of Armenia and Armenianism,” Margaret concludes.