As an undergrad trying to add classes at UCSB my first quarter there, I was faced with a choice. Budget cuts had cancelled a lot of classes in my major area, political science. The only other class I saw that was available was Geography 20A, the study of the Oceans and Atmosphere. It meant that I could either be kicked out for not being registered, or I could take three classes and stay enrolled. I think we all know what the obvious choice was.
Within a few weeks I got into a rhythm in the class, and talked to my professor, Tommy Dickey, about my heritage. I told him I was Armenian and the first thing he said was “Fridtjof Nansen.” The first thing I thought was, “that’s not an Armenian name,” but before I could think of a thing to say about this awkward sounding name, Professor Dickey began explaining to me who this man was.
Fridtjof Nansen was a jack of all trades. If you were to see a photo of Nansen, you would think he was the guy from the Dos Equis commercials. While he might not be the most interesting man in the world to all of us, he did accomplish many feats in his life. He got his doctorates in Zoology and Neurology, and was an avid skier. In fact, he skied without poles! He explored the world, and much of what we know about the North Pole came from Nansen’s research. According to the Nobel Peace Prize website, “He possessed the physical endurance to ski fifty miles in a day and the psychological self-reliance to embark on long trips, with a minimum of gear and only his dog for company.” He traversed across Greenland, and famously skied across Norway, his country of origin. But what does this man have to do with Armenians? As it turns out, his strong religious conviction and his upbringing from truly humanitarian parents gave him the understanding that he can make a difference in the world.
He was integral in the independence of Norway from Sweden and later served as the Norwegian ambassador to England. As World War I devastated much of Europe, Nansen managed to secure an important position in the League of Nations. His responsibilities included repatriating 500,000 prisoners of war, most of who were stuck in Russia, which was suffering from famine and poverty. Then he devised what was known as “the Nansen passport” for ethnicities whose countries no longer existed, or did not have documentation.
Finally the help came for Armenians. In the last decade of Nansen’s life, he advocated for the repatriation of Armenian refugees into Soviet Armenia. While it met little success, he managed to repatriate 10,000 Armenians to Yerevan, and secured safe havens for Armenians in Lebanon and Syria. He was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work. His model for repatriating Armenians back to Soviet Armenia was put to use again after World War II, as many Armenians, including my grandparents were sent to populate the struggling Armenian SSR. According to the website Armenianhouse.org, Nansen was proud of his visit of to Armenia and of the Armenian people. He wrote in his memoirs about it. “At this time the only place where it is possible to settle Armenian refugees is Soviet Armenia. Several years ago devastation, poverty and famine were prevailed here, yet now peace and order are established and the population even became prosperous to some degree.” In fact, Nansen wrote two books about his journeys and spoke fondly of Armenians. The books, Gjennern Armenia (Across Armenia) and Gjennern Kaukasus til Volga (Across the Caucasus to the Volga) were pivotal chronicles of Post-Genocide Armenian life. The books have been translated into six languages, including Armenian.
Nansen was an interesting man in his own right. He was a successful scientist, explorer and humanitarian. An odd choice of classes due to California budget cuts had introduced me to the life and times of this extraordinary man. I would be hard pressed to believe I would encounter this man in another class, unless I was doing research on a college dissertation on mammals in the ocean, among Nansen’s many areas of expertise. Lucky for me, I am an intern at the ANCA-WR who had the chance to hear this story from a professor who knew of my people and our struggle, and had curiously encountered Fridtjof Nansen just as I had.