• Lara on a hike in northern Lebanon. Even during such moments of reprieve, she thinks back to her life in Syria. "The meaning of happiness has changed," she says.

  • Saghatel at the Art River cafe in Aleppo, his pride and joy. He chose to remain in Syria, despite its closing, to work on humanitarian issues and civil society initiatives.

  • Avo stands before an Armenian church in Aleppo during the filming of "Icon of Spirit", a documentary on the Syrian Armenian community. Now his time is focused on refugees.

June 1, 2013 | Magazine Archive

VIGNETTES OF A COMMUNITY IN DISTRESS

By Alison Tahmizian Meuse

The upheaval in Syria has forced the entire Armenian community to reassess its existence and priorities, often with no or idea of what the future might hold in store. This uncertainty is especially poignant for the young generation, who never considered leaving their country. For some it holds new opportunities, for others despair, but for all it translates to a life they never planned.

The following profiles introduce us to four young people from Aleppo, two of whom continue to live in their embattled country and two others who fled to neighboring Lebanon. Their struggles, vision and perseverance provide a window into the situation facing all Armenians, and indeed all Syrians, at the current juncture.

Lara: Armenian at heart, Syrian by blood

Back in Aleppo, Lara served as a school counselor, adored by her colleagues and greatly satisfied working with children. “There they called me ‘teacher’. Now this word is missing from my life,” the 26-year-old says.

Now in Lebanon, living with her sister, parents and cousins, everything has been turned upside down. She was lucky to find a job related to her field of psychology, working with Syrian refugees like herself.

Every day at the Karagheusian Center in Bourj Hammoud—a working class Armenian district of Beirut—she hears the concerns, tribulations and needs of people she once knew as well to do. On one afternoon, a woman broke into tears—it was her first time ever asking for charity. “We were never like this. We were comfortable back in Syria,” says Lara.

At her workplace, which traditionally focuses on the local Lebanese Armenian community, a special section has been opened for the Syrian Armenians. Lara, another Syrian Armenian woman and a Lebanese Armenian man spend their days registering refugees to be eligible for critical UNHCR support.

“All day I’m hearing the same thing as I’m living. When I go home, I feel their feelings. From the morning till the night I feel their stress. They have no money, no house, no job…they’re unhappy.”

Lara describes her first days in their humble apartment in Beirut as not only emotional, but claustrophobic, with she and her extended family sharing only one bathroom. “They don’t keep the area clean,” she says as she walks down her unfamiliar street, saddened by where she is living. At dinner she watches how much she eats to make sure everyone has enough.

“The most important thing for people is physical security: good food, enough food, a place to live, water—when you don’t even have this, you can’t feel safe,” she says. As a psychologist, she explains that the next priority is social well-being—having good friends; self-esteem—having fulfilling work and feeling useful; and then self-actualization—to feel complete.

“No one can feel safe because they feel their other half is in Syria: their friends, their relatives. Because our basic needs are not satisfied, the whole pyramid (of needs) is weak.”

Even the simple detail of being obliged to purchase bottled water in Lebanon, rather than drinking from the tap, is a distressing change. “Every society has a history, a weather… We breathed Syrian air and drank from the faucet. This became part of us,” she says.

When Lara traveled to Armenia for the first time last year, she felt at home. “I felt this is where I belong. I loved the nature and everything about it. I didn’t want to go back to Aleppo.”

Lara thought maybe Armenia was her place, but now that she’s been forced to live in Lebanon, she misses home. She recalls that even in Yerevan, she surrounded herself with Aleppo friends, unable to relate to local Armenians.

“Armenia is in my heart; Syria is in my blood; but Lebanon is my present,” she says, enunciating the dilemma of the Diaspora. “Armenian people don’t know where they belong. All the time we are in conflict.”

Lara will soon embark on a new chapter with her sister and her sister’s fiancé, who plan to be wed in June. Her parents will then return to Aleppo, since her father could not secure work in Lebanon.

“Every night he stays up. My mother tries to say, it’s not in our hands,” she says. “I know that the people are innocent in this conflict. It’s the politicians above us who decide.”

The wedding will be far from what the young couple foresaw when they were engaged in Aleppo. Few friends and relations will attend, though the most important people will be present: Lara’s parents and the parents of the groom, who will make the journey from Aleppo to Beirut.

Most unsettling for Lara is that she will live with the new couple. “They will start their new life with me. It’s not right, but our parents are going back and I have no place else, what can we do?”

“I have changed as a person. Every two months I’m changing with the situation. All Syrian people are unstable like this,” says Lara. “We have gotten so much older than we are. The meaning of happiness has changed.”

Saghatel: With the people

Saghatel, whose name means “a question to God”, is distinguished not only by his unique name, but also by his support for the Syrian uprising and his triumph over great challenges.

When he lost his sight from diabetes in 2004 he was studying political science in Armenia. Faced with this new reality, he returned home to his family in Aleppo, his degree in hand, to face an uncertain future. But he hardly pauses when he explains this chapter, his face lighting up as he recounts founding his cultural café in Aleppo, the first of its kind.

“I started the Art River café in July 2005 with one room and seven tables. There was no alcohol, no cigarettes allowed, no argileh. Everyone told me no one will come,” he laughs.

But come they did and by the eve of the revolt, the café had expanded to two branches complete with an art space, a library and a performance stage.

When the first protests broke out in March 2011, activists gathered for several meetings at Art River, but today it is locked up—no one can come and go in the militarized area. 

Saghatel has had several close encounters with both the regime forces and the rebels. When Art River was still open, he was informed by state intelligence that they were aware of his activism, and that his blindness would not provide him cover.

On a separate occasion, he was stopped on the Aleppo airport road at a checkpoint manned by the hardline Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra. “When the man saw I was blind, he said God be with you,” he says.

Under the enforced secularism of the ruling Baath Party, religious activity was heavily restricted in Syria, giving devout people little outlet, Saghatel explains.

“We have to work with them and not make the same mistake,” says Saghatel. “These (religious) people are part of my community. If the revolution has an Islamic color, it is only because they are angry at the regime and the country is 70 percent Sunni.”

Saghatel puts his beliefs into action, participating in civil society building workshops, aiding in humanitarian efforts and working with fellow activists to bring religious communities together to combat sectarian fears.

In his view, Armenians are not fully integrated into the larger society, and the upheaval poses a key question of how deeply they are tied to their birthplace.

“When the revolution started, the Armenians said, ‘I don’t want freedom’,” Saghatel says. “But we are a people who lived through genocide—1.5 million killed because we wanted a bit of freedom. Now the Syrians want some too.”

Saghatel admits that there is little choice but to remain outwardly neutral in a warzone, but he believes there is another way to sustain the historic bonds between Armenians and Syrians. 

“We cannot say we are against the regime. But we can say we are with the people.”

Avo: Creating the future in the present

Avo united opposition activists and regime supporters alike when he was held in regime detention last November, a rare occurrence in a divided country. For days, his photo and name were spread throughout social networks in an effort to secure his freedom. Twenty days later, he was released without charge.

“I do not know why people are linked to the land of their country in which they live, but I’m sure that this feeling appears during ordeals and crises and popular movements,” he says, speaking of Syria.

While many have fled the embattled city of Aleppo, Avo cannot fathom leaving.

“I never wanted, nor want, to leave my country,” he says.

While the Armenian community often relies on self-help for its strength, Avo finds his calling in working with refugees of all backgrounds.

On the recommendation of an Armenian friend, Avo began volunteering early on in the crisis with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), one of the key associations in the country, and “perhaps the most vital on the ground,” he says.

A graduate of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, he has channeled his training in the field of theater, cinema, documentaries, and development projects toward his refugee work.

“I think that all problems can be solved, and I think that everyone has his role in such periods,” he says, adding that intellectuals and artists should engage with all classes and mindsets of the society to open a dialogue among them. Avo is working to fulfill his role by teaching theatre to the displaced, especially women.

“Every day I meet displaced people from areas throughout Aleppo where battles are taking place. They make me feel as if I were one of them; there is no need to break down the barriers between us because there are already things in common,” he says.

Recently he began work on an interactive theater project with displaced women in Aleppo, who have taken shelter with their families in public schools. The project is part of Theatre of the Oppressed, invented by a Brazilian director. The goal, Avo explains, is to give the women space to express their views, ideas and aspirations, and also to speak about their daily struggles.

“Their problems may be related to the violence, the fighting, the poverty or abuse. It is important that we re-produce the reality and together try to find appropriate solutions to all the problems raised,” he says.

“It is very important to offer them material assistance, and to find them shelters to live that can offer a little security and comfort… but listening to them and building a genuine and honest dialogue and creating a certain freedom of space for them to express themselves is also very important.”

Avo recalls one day when his team was meeting with the women, which was particularly poignant for him.

“I saw a magnificent scene, which sums up a lot of things despite its simplicity: Veiled women were sitting on the seats of the study, a nun sitting in their midst, and an old Armenian woman from the neighborhood sitting in the corner listening to their concerns. She visits them every day to reassure them. She does it voluntarily and they love her unconditionally.”

“Because of these people, I want to stay here… because hope is here,” he says. 

“It is true, there is hostility and hatred, and there is mutual violence, but this is normal in such circumstances, and this is a natural result of the fighting,” he says. “What brings people together is not ideas or class, but the bonds of misery and loss.”

For Avo, the future of Syria is not a menacing unknown. “The future is a very short distance from the present.”

Taline: ‘If I die, let it be in my country’

When fighting between the army and rebels broke out in her hometown Aleppo last summer, 28-year-old “Taline” fled with her family. “They said it would only take two weeks for the army to bring things under control,” she says.

But it would not come to pass, and hostilities in Aleppo settled into a deadly stalemate for long months. Shortly after an August wedding, Taline and her family left. “It was the last time I had my friends all together.”

Taline traveled back to Aleppo only once, to take her bar exam. She only had two days warning from a friend back home, and she did not hesitate. The exam was critical to prove she had earned her degree in Syria. Many students face the same pressure to return to take critical exams or stay and complete their studies.

The plane from Beirut to Aleppo was the simple part of the journey. But on the highway from Aleppo airport, Taline remembers ducking in the taxi for fear of stray gunfire on the route that has been the scene of intense battles. Once back in her birthplace, she felt home. “My friends and I did our hair, went shopping, visited our friends, drank wine,” she recalled with emotion. They were limited to several neighborhoods still under tight government control, including the Armenian ones. “Those were the best days of my life,” she says of the trip.

Taline’s family is safe in Beirut, but her father worries about the future of his business in the country. “He has been paying money through his worker for the rebels not to touch his depot,” she says. The worker’s son, a key leader in the Free Syrian Army, has promised to keep it from being raided.

“Our whole destiny is in the hands of that worker,” says Taline. “We would send someone to check on things, but then maybe it will bring more attention and it will get looted anyway.”

The businessman was torn for weeks as to whether he should make a second payment they demanded. He had little way of knowing if the factory components were still there. On the other hand, he wanted to trust his worker, and to have a business to which his family and employees could return.

Taline is careful about what she says: “we don’t know who is going to win.”

In late April, Taline finally heard the news she had been dreading. The depot guardian informed her father that a group of gunmen had come and raided the place. The guard recognized them as comrades of the worker’s rebel son.

“If these rebels cared about the future of the country, they would let the businesses continue; they would not be selling factory parts across the border to Turkey,” Taline says earnestly.

“Is this freedom?” she demands with emotion. Her family is not alone. Syrians of all backgrounds have suffered from kidnappings and robberies as criminals take advantage of the chaos and civilians resort to theft amid the dire economic crisis in the country.

In her heart, Taline wants to go back to Syria no matter what; in her head, she knows she may have to start preparing other options for her future. Speaking of her hometown Aleppo, she recalls a tolerant place where she and her Armenian friends were valued as part of the society.

“In college my friends were mostly Armenian or Christian, because we grew up together. But when I started working at the public courthouse, it was in a working class neighborhood and the government employees were happy we were there. They were proud we were part of their community,” she says.

“On the way back from Aleppo to the airport, I sat up straight. I did not care anymore. I said ‘If I die, let it be in my country’.”

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