Tested UND grad fights for Armenian refugees.
In late September, tens of thousands of Armenian refugees fled from Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan territory.
Azerbaijan, which is bordered on the north by Russia, the south by Iran, and the east by the Caspian Sea, had claimed control of the long-disputed area. One UND graduate familiar with the decades-long conflict immediately arranged a trip to help.
“The 120,000 Armenians just pushed out of that region are not safe and face genocide,” said Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, ’00. “That’s the same region they were bombing when I was 11. And I’m 45.”
Anna is an Armenian refugee who fled Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1989. Her family spent three years as refugees in blockaded Armenia, waiting to start a new life in the United States. Since arriving in Wahpeton, North Dakota, in 1992, Anna has mastered English, graduated from high school, college and law school, worked at the United Nations (UN) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), and is now a bank executive. She married and had two children, has been elected to her city council three times, and started a charitable foundation.
She also wrote and published a book, which then-14-year-old Anna found therapeutic. “It’s a farewell to my homeland and to my life as I knew it,” she said of “Nowhere: A Story of Exile.” Anna edited it during high school and college, and put it away. “I wrote the book based on my childhood diaries. It was for my children, not to be published. When I had my second child, my daughter, something clicked. I needed to publish it. The conflict was still going on and I hoped to make a difference.”
Within a month of publishing in 2012, Anna was invited to speak about Nagorno-Karabakh on Capitol Hill. The day she testified, Anna heard the Azerbaijani language and felt the fear she felt as a young girl in Baku. She recalled her father telling her to put her head down if she passed Azerbaijani rioters. “And that’s what I did in D.C.,” she said.
She began receiving invitations to speak worldwide and quickly realized she could help Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The speaking engagements meant time away from her family. Learning that her son’s school was overcrowded, she wanted to make a difference closer to home. She was elected to the Westbrook, Maine, City Council in November 2015 and has been re-elected twice. She is currently council president, the first woman and the first immigrant to hold the position.
She launched the Anna Astvatsaturian Foundation in 2021. Through it, she has helped renovate schools and bomb shelters, provided medical kits, solar panels, 3D printing labs, planted a forest and much more. Hearing the news from the area, she traveled to Armenia in early October.
“I do this to get my mind off all the bad memories and focus on others,” Anna said.
At UND, Anna grew into who she wanted to be. “I loved my time at UND,” she said, receiving a double major and minor in four years while working.
Anna wanted to become a humanitarian lawyer. She chose a law school in Portland, Maine, because it is near the UN, where she worked while in school. She landed a competitive clerkship for the ICC at The Hague in the Netherlands.
Right before her time at The Hague, a spinal cord injury left her temporarily paralyzed. That health scare ultimately led her back to Maine where she works in the financial industry and is a champion for Armenians.
And though a doctor told her she may never walk again or have children, she proved him wrong. She did walk and she has two children. “I’m kind of stubborn,” she said. “You can’t tell me what to do.”