Some 22,000 Armenians fled to their ancestral homeland due to war in Syria
Sosy Mishoyan says the two times she escaped death in Syria were a “miracle”.
The Aleppo teacher was taking her sons, Rupen and Sevak, to school when a bomb fell on the street. The second time, a gunshot whizzed past her ear, so close that she could hear the sound of the bullet.
It was only then, three years into Syria’s civil war, that she and her family – packing only their clothes – made the 1,400-kilometre journey to Armenia. They joined the exodus of an estimated 22,000 Syrian Armenians who fled to their ancestral homeland as Syria’s society unravelled.
Like many of the thousands of Syrian Armenians still in Yerevan, Mrs Mishoyan thought the move would be temporary. “We were [in Syria] and we are waiting, thinking: ‘It will finish, it will finish, it will finish,’” she tells The National speaking from a library in downtown Yerevan. But four years later it still hasn’t.
Mrs Mishoyan and her family are part of a community shaped by displacement. Many Armenians in Syria, neighbouring Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries are the descendants of those expelled from modern-day Turkey by the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
This traumatic legacy shaped many Syrian Armenians’ attitude to the country’s civil war. The community – like other minorities – was afraid of hardline Islamists among the anti-Assad rebels’ ranks and largely put its faith in Syria’s government.
Mrs Mishoyan also had to adjust from being part of a community renowned for its business acumen to struggling to get by in post-Soviet Armenia. In the landlocked republic of about 3 million people, the World Bank says the average per capita income is just $4,000 (Dh14,700) a year.
Now making a new life in Armenia working at a linguistics institute and researching a PhD, Mrs Mishoyan says she has no plans to return to Aleppo, even as her sons forget their Arabic and pundits claim the war is winding down. Despite describing Syria with the Armenian word “hayrenik” or homeland, she says: “It is not easy to build and rebuild, build and rebuild. We have no ambition to go to another place”.
Despite the dangers, her parents – father Hrant and mother Lena, both in their 70s – returned to Aleppo late last year. Like many of the older Syrian Armenians who fled, they struggled to adjust and build new lives, even in the relative safety of Armenia.
Their memories of a time when Arabic-speaking Christian Armenians lived as part of the community in Syria proved too strong.
These are memories are also shared by younger Syrian Armenians. In a smoky Syrian Armenian-owned cafe in downtown Yerevan, 25-year-old Meghurdij Dono recalls growing up in Aleppo.
“I loved it so much. You never felt if someone was with another nation or another religion … Everyone helped each other and supported each other,” he says. But, like Mrs Mishoyan, the economics graduate eventually fled as the fighting got worse. Again, he thought it would be a short break until the violence calmed down.
His sister, who was living in Cyprus, saw a Facebook video of gunfire in Mr Dono’s neighbourhood and bought him a ticket to Armenia. They all thought it would be for two or three months but six years later, Mr Dono is still in Yerevan.
Unlike other Syrians who fled to Europe, many in the Syrian Armenian community either already had Armenian citizenship or were able to take residency once in the country due to their ancestry. But the feeling that the move would be temporary meant many of the arrivals didn’t plan for remaining long term, exhausting their savings and struggling to adapt to their new reality.
A lack of housing for the new arrivals was a serious issue, and many neglected to transfer their savings or property from Syria at first. Jobs which had sustained them in Syria – such as producing gold and silver jewellery – were not suited for Armenia’s ailing economy.
“Yes, they weren’t prepared,” Mr Dono says. “Seventy per cent who came to Armenia, they weren’t prepared.”
According to Sophie Nersisyan, a project manager with the Mission Armenia NGO in Yerevan, although Syrian Armenians had some advantages over other groups displaced by the war – such as the right to stay in Armenia, knowing the local language and having a network of community ties – many struggled to find new homes and now face the same low wages, high unemployment and a lack of housing endured by local Armenians.
In some cases, even supposed advantages – the right to take Armenian citizenship – came with a caveat. Just as many displaced Syrian men of fighting age do not want to return for fear that they will be drafted into the army, Armenian citizens have to register with the military at a time when the country is still locked into a long-simmering and sometimes bloody stand-off with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Karabakh region.
Armenia is safe, but the country – the third-largest recipient of Syrian refugees per capita in Europe – has gone through political turmoil. A street revolution led by former journalist Nikol Pashinyan swept the government of former ruler Serzh Sargsyan from power last year. Armenians, fed up with years of autocracy and corruption in the Caucasus’s poorest country, are optimistic that Mr Pashinyan – now the prime minister – offers a fresh start.
Some Syrian Armenians are anxious about the changes that are coming. Other arrivals, like Mrs Mishoyan, enthusiastically took part in the street protests to remove Mr Sargsyan.
The future is one thing, but the past is another. Just as the Ottoman legacy crops up again and again in conversation with Syrian Armenians, many local Armenians came to Yerevan after being driven from their homes in bitter fighting with neighbouring Azerbaijan after the Soviet Union fell apart. This collective memory of displacement and violence runs deep.
“I guess every Armenian has got that in their DNA,” Mr Dono says.
At a time when Christian communities in parts of the Middle East face violence or intimidation, the dispersal of Syria’s Armenians is another blow to the region’s diversity.
Armenians have lived in the UAE for decades, their numbers swelling with those fleeing Lebanon’s civil war and the Iranian revolution. More than half of the Armenian community here has roots in Syria.
One of them is Sharjah resident Hrach Kalsahakian, whose father was from a historic Armenian community in Latakia. He says many Syrian Armenians still put their faith in the Syrian government and are optimistic about going back some day. But he is also clear about how the conflict has taken its toll on his community.
“A lot of industrial areas of Aleppo were destroyed and looted. So everybody lost a lot of things,” he says. “The Armenians had, let us say, 40 churches; some of them were destroyed completely, even the famous Armenian Genocide Museum and centre in the city of Deir Ezzor.”
Some Syrian Armenians in the UAE took in family fleeing the conflict, but the pain of displacement makes life a struggle, particularly for older people. “When you are old, this kind of thing makes you become depressed and very unhappy,” Mr Kalsahakian says. “So some of them died, even here, out of depression, probably, out of being uprooted.”
But diaspora links remain strong – Armenian President Armen Sarkissian visited the community in Abu Dhabi last month – and the Armenian presence in Syria, although under threat, persists.
“It will be finished when there are no Armenians left [in Syria],” Mr Kalsahakian says. “But currently there are something like 10,000 people out of the estimated 70,000.
“Only when there are no Armenians, then you can say it is finished.”