The amazing story of Yvonne Botto in the UNESCO spotlight

Press Release: On 21 November, the French office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), in collaboration with the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Azerbaijan to UNESCO, presented the book La vie rêvée d’Yvonne Botto (The Dream Life of Yvonne Botto), published by TEAS Press, at the headquarters of UNESCO, in the heart of Paris. Around 100 guests, including diplomats, journalists, academics, students and lovers of Azerbaijan, attended the event.

During his opening speech, H.E Anar Karimov, Ambassador, Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Azerbaijan to UNESCO, explained: “Azerbaijan is one of the cradles of humanity, and an example of peaceful coexistence between peoples of different nationalities and religions. My country has become synonymous with acceptance and tolerance, trust and confidence between people of different faiths who live alongside each other with mutual respect. It is in accordance with this spirit and principles that we have organised today’s event at the UNESCO Headquarters, a global organisation that is at the forefront of promoting peace and dialogue, mutual understanding and tolerance, as stated in its Constitution.”

Mr Dendev Badarch, Head, Social Transformations and Intercultural Dialogue Division, UNESCO, said: “The story of Yvonne bridges nations and cultures. This book will be a source of inspiration, and restores our faith in goodness and humanity.”

Mrs Marie-Laetitia Gourdin, Head, TEAS France, then took the floor, saying: “Yvonne Botto illustrates how the personal history of a human being can be mingled with the Great History of Humankind. Yvonne's life is so extraordinary that it attracted the attention of the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, during his visit to Azerbaijan on 11 May 2014. He declared: “Thank you Mrs Botto for giving us confidence here in the French Republic, and this sign of friendship between our two countries ... You are the example of the friendship between France and Azerbaijan.”

Mrs Marcelle Botto, Yvonne’s cousin, was also present at the event. In a moment full of emotion, Marcelle shared her memories about Yvonne – from her extraordinary story to their letter-based contact during Soviet times, up until they met each other in 2011, due to TEAS who brought Yvonne to Le Fayet, her childhood village in France. She commented: “Yvonne’s story is a story of love before everything. She accepted all the hardships, initially motivated by love for her husband, then by love for her children.”

The event was then followed by a book signing session with the author, Shain Sinaria, and a mesmerising concert of ethnojazz by the virtuoso Emil Afrasiyab, one of leading artists of the young generation of Azerbaijani jazzmen, duetting with accordionist Anvar Sadigov, National Artist of Azerbaijan.

A French emigrant who came to live in Azerbaijan after the Second World War, Yvonne’s romantic story entranced the French media in 2011. The story began in the summer of that year, when TEAS noticed an article on Yvonne Botto by journalist Sabuhi Mammadli in the Azerbaijani media. Sabuhi had travelled to the Imishli region of Southern Azerbaijan, near the Iranian border, to report on those people who had lost their homes during the great floods that ravaged the region, including that of Yvonne. He discovered that Yvonne, originally from Haute-Savoie, left France in 1947 to follow her husband, a former Soviet soldier of Azerbaijani origin, and settled with him in the small village of Murguzalli in the Imishli region. He died soon after their marriage, but she decided to remain for the sake of her son.

Yvonne eventually returned to her homeland after a gap of 64 years, thanks to TEAS who rallied forces to find members of her family in France and helped with her visa and transportation to the country. In October 2011, at the age of 83 years, Yvonne was finally able to return to Le Fayet, her childhood village, and visit the graves of her parents and brother who passed away without being able to see her again.

Prior to the event, TEAS has also organised a guided tour of UNESCO headquarters for Azerbaijani students. After being welcome by H.E. Ambassador Karimov, they met with a representative from the Human Resources department at UNESCO who informed them about internships and job opportunities.