Howell dentist inspired to give back by grandmother’s survival after Armenian genocide

Originally posted on Livingston Daily

Howell dentist Shant Bedikian knows how food insecurity impacts a family. His own family escaped genocide and religious oppression in the Middle East. Access to nutritious food was not a given.

His grandmother Azadouhi Bedikian was a survivor of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire, which occurred between 1915 and 1916. 

One night when Azadouhi was just a girl, Turkish soldiers massacred most of her family, Bedikian said. The Armenian genocide during the WWI era involved mass killings, deportations and forced assimilation of Christians into Muslim Turkish culture.

Azadouhi and two of her younger siblings were the only ones to survive the massacre of their family and many of their neighbors, he said. 

“The kids ended up in orphanages,” Bedikian said. 

He said were it not for the Near East Foundation, which formed in 1915 in response to atrocities committed against Armenians and Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire, his family would not be thriving today. His grandmother ended up in Syria.

“If it wasn’t for groups like missionaries who supplied food and water, then I don’t know.”

The family is Armenian Orthodox, a denomination of Christianity. Before the massacre, Bedikian’s family members were pharmacists.

“Grandma met Grandpa in Syria,” he said. “Then they went to Lebanon and then France.”

His family began immigrating to the U.S. in the 1970s, beginning with Bedikian’s uncle.

“When my dad came here he had $1 to his name. They had to build their American dream.”

His mother’s side of the family also left the Middle East.

“Mom is from Iraq. Part of it was the Iranian Islamic revolution,” Bedikian said. “They thought it would hit multiple countries and left.”

Bedikian, 40, grew up in Southfield and Birmingham. He is raising his family in Novi. He graduated from dental school at New York University in 2007 and started his dental career working for a hospital. He worked at Bright Side Dental locations for a few years, most recently in Sterling Heights. 

Earlier this year, his dream manifested. He opened his own dental practice, Sincere Smiles Dental, at 1070 W. Highland Road/M-59 in Howell.

While he is living the American dream, he does not take food security for granted.

“Growing up, food was, you better finish your plate. The dinner table is sacred.”

Gifts of milk

On Thursday, Bedikian was among about seven volunteers at a Gleaners Community Food Bank food drive at Fowlerville High School. 

For every new dental patient he sees, Bedikian donates 12 gallons of milk to Gleaners’s M.I.L.K Movement, which stands for Making Investments in the Lives of Kids.

Milk he donated was among the food items distributed at the drive. People also picked up other foods, including frozen chicken, vegetables, juice, canned goods and dry goods. 

Bedikian said he learned the M.I.L.K. Movement was underfunded and needed a committed donor. 

“Food security is big for us. My family was immigrating to multiple counties,” he said.  “My wife emigrated from Iraq, and it’s important to us. Providing food is one less thing for people to worry about.”

Ideal Practices, which helps dentists open new firms, also has a program that helps people start businesses in impoverished countries overseas, many in Africa. 

“For every practice that opens in the U.S., they help people start up a business in another country,” Bedikian said.

He said he also donates to Aid Beyond Borders, a charity that provides aid to Armenian villages, including people displaced by last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict over a disputed region in Azerbaijan.

Food insecurity in Livingston County 

Emily Hamilton, a community partnership specialist for Gleaners, said upwards of 100 families receive groceries at each of their food drives. They hold food drives around the county, including in four school districts — Fowlerville, Howell, Hartland and Pinckney — and usually get a minimum of 30 families within a two-hour time frame. 

“In 2019, data was telling us in Livingston County food insecurity was at 9%, but we knew that was not the case anymore because we were seeing it at our food panties and mobiles,” Hamilton said.

She said Feeding America released projections for 2021, which estimate food insecurity in the county rose to 10.3%. 

“That is about 19,500 people,” Hamilton said. “It’s staggering because we don’t think of that here. I think people think, not here.”

Amy Verhelle-Smith is the food nutrition director at Fowlerville Community Schools. 

Verhelle-Smith said Fowlerville schoolchildren have benefitted from free school meals for breakfast and lunch, but there is still a great need for healthy groceries.

Gleaners food drives are open to anyone in need and promoted by participating school districts and senior centers.