He has led people on the pilgrimage for several years, witnessing them encounter for the first time the home of their parents or grandparents that they had long heard about.
“It’s a dream come true. They always dream about their parents’ and grandparents’ cities — where they were raised, where they were educated, where they walked,” he said.
For Glendale resident Hovsep Fidanian, who traveled with Der Yeghiayan to the area last year, the pilgrimage was both enlightening and heartbreaking.
“It was a pilgrimage that evoked a lot of happiness on one hand and sadness on the other,” he said.
Along his travels, he saw old Armenian architecture, and particularly many churches, in ruins.
“You see all these windows broken and properties abandoned and there’s no way — if you have any sense of being a human being — not being affected by these things,” he said.
Der Yeghiayan encountered his own family’s ancestral home in Kharpert and the church where his great-grandfather served as a priest before he was killed in the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
Der Yeghiayan was born and raised in Beirut, named after his grandfather, his family’s sole survivor of the genocide. His grandfather had moved to Wisconsin in 1912, working in a factory and sending money home to more than 40 members of his family in Kharpert.
But by the time his grandfather returned to the village where he grew up, everyone had been killed.
Der Yeghiayan, who said he carries the legacy of his family, enjoys bringing others of the Armenian diaspora closer to their ancestral roots. As a peacemaker, he said he is known to befriend the Los Angeles counsel generals working for Turkey.
Once in 2004, as a regional district governor for Rotary International, he prayed at the Martyrs Monument to honor the 1.5 million genocide victims in Yerevan alongside Erhan Çiftçioglu, who served then as a Rotary district governor in Turkey. The next year, he was invited by Çiftçioglu to serve as a keynote speaker in Ankara at a peace conference, and there he urged Turkey political leaders to renovate old Armenian churches.
“I make no enemies whatsoever — not as a Rotarian but as a Christian. It says in the Bible, ‘Love your enemies.’ That has to be implemented through my deeds, my actions, my words,” he said, adding, “I plant seeds of love and compassion, not seeds of hatred.”
At Mashdots College in Glendale, Der Yeghiayan teaches several educational courses. The campus also offers certificate programs spanning from paralegal studies to early childhood education and career technical classes in computers and medical billing.
He strives to counsel the students, many of whom who are of Armenian descent and new to Glendale. Even more recently, he serves refugees from Syria.
“It’s not just a college, it’s a second home,” he said.
For the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Der Yeghiayan is serving on a committee that plans to honor the centennial at the Rose Bowl. He also plans to return to Western Armenia in 2015 for another pilgrimage.
Of the year 2015, he said, “This is a great opportunity for Turks to extend their hand of friendship and tell Armenians, ‘This is what we owe to you,’” he said. “If we don’t resolve our differences, the next generation will have a very hard time resolving the differences.”
Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.
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