Coping with Crisis

On helping Syria’s Armenian community reconcile with the reality of war

Over the past five years, Chairman of the AGBU Syria District Committee Nerses Nersoyan has been instrumental in coordinating the activities of AGBU’s Syrian Armenian relief efforts and for the Syrian Armenian Committee for Urgent Relief and Rehabilitation. An agricultural specialist with more than two decades of experience as an associate scientist for the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, Nersoyan also served as CEO of the East Mediterranean Olive Oil Company in Aleppo. Together with a team of dedicated staff and volunteers, Nersoyan has worked tirelessly to help alleviate the widespread suffering and poverty facing Syria’s Armenian communities amidst the ongoing conflict that has devastated the Middle Eastern nation.

Q: How has the ongoing conflict in Syria impacted the Armenian community? 

A: As the conflict in Syria began to encroach upon the borders of the major cities of Aleppo, Kamishli and Damascus—home to large Armenian communities—the main points of entry were closed, causing food shortages and prices to skyrocket to the point where families could no longer afford to buy even basic staples, such as bread, meat, eggs and cereal products. In Aleppo, for example, electricity was virtually non-existent as was access to clean water since the company responsible for water distribution was located in a part of the city controlled by the opposition forces. Many families struggled to heat their homes and cook food during the winter due to the scarcity and exorbitant cost of fuel. As the conflict intensified, other urgent needs included medication and safe housing. The safety of the Armenian community is at risk every day. At the same time, the community has been devastated economically as widespread unemployment spread throughout Syria.

Q: What help has AGBU provided to Syria’s Armenian communities to alleviate some of that burden?

A: AGBU was the first to establish an Emergency Committee to organize and distribute humanitarian aid to Syrian Armenians in Aleppo, Kamishli and Damascus. In order to help those communities cope with the shortages and help ensure their living conditions were at least tolerable, the committee assigned volunteers to first identify every family, establish what their needs were and prioritize those with children and elderly. During the last four years AGBU alone has distributed more than 40,000 food baskets to Armenian families in need. In addition to basic food staples, the baskets included drinking water and cleaning supplies. At the same time we have funded more than 50 medical procedures for wounded Armenians and covered the hospitalization and medication expenses of close to 400 other patients. AGBU has also provided financial support to more than 1000 families forced to flee their homes and to families who needed to rebuild after their homes were partially destroyed by mortar bombs.

In order to ease the burden on families with children and elderly grandparents, AGBU provides necessities, such as powdered milk and warm clothes for the winter season, and with the permission of municipal authorities, we distributed butane gas canisters at the AGBU Center in Aleppo to enable families to cook and use hot water. To address the chronic shortage of electricity, we provided financial support so that those families could obtain up to 8 hours a day of light and power from private electrical networks. AGBU also collaborates closely with the Syrian Armenian Committee for Urgent Relief and Rehabilitation, which includes Armenian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant leaders, the major Armenian National Organizations, AGBU and HOM. I should also mention that the Jinishian Memorial Program, Karagheusian Foundation and the Syrian Armenian Red Cross each have their individual programs providing much needed and greatly appreciated support to the Armenian community.

Q: Prior to the start of the conflict it was estimated there were one hundred thousand Syrians of Armenian descent living in Syria. How many have left and how has that exodus and internal displacement affected the community? 

A: We have lost more than half the entire Armenian community and today we estimate less than 40 thousand Armenians remain in Syria. Parallel to the outward migration from Syria to Armenia, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, many Armenian families were also internally displaced, having to move to more safe coastal areas where their security is less at risk. Aleppo has borne the brunt of that exodus and suffered many repercussions as a consequence. We lost many of our best and brightest talents—people who had expertise in so many fields including community organizers, teachers, artists, cultural association directors and religious leaders. It’s the greatest challenge facing our community as we simply don’t have the people to replace them and those who can are typically much younger and lack the necessary experience. Everyone, but especially the community’s senior leaders have had to take on more than one responsibility to make up for the drastic loss. We have had to work very hard to reorganize the community. At the same time we are doing what we can to help boost morale and comfort the community during this crisis. Here at AGBU, every day our center in Aleppo welcomes as many as 100 youth and family members who can benefit from our generators, electricity, clean water, working bathrooms and internet service until 9:00 PM. Often just being together as a community under duress affords them comfort and solace.

Q: How have the schools adapted and what has been the impact of the conflict on schoolchildren?

A: I would estimate nearly 50 percent of all students fled Syria following the outbreak of the civil war.  With the exception of a few schools situated in cities in Eastern Syria where the fighting was so intense that Armenians were forced to leave for safety reasons, there has not been a major disruption. A small number of Armenian schools, for which the reduced number of students no longer warranted them, were incorporated into larger schools as part of a re-organization. In one case where a school could not be re-organized and was facing closure, AGBU stepped in with a special donation to ensure it continues to operate. In order to maintain continuity in the level of education, the Syrian Armenian Committee for Urgent Relief and Rehabilitation, along with the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Armenian communities of Germany and France generously provided funds to all of the Armenian schools in Syria to cover 50 percent of their budget. For families who are no longer able to afford to pay their children’s school expenses, AGBU will provide all the costs of tuition, books and other related expenses.

The impact on the children however, is substantial and continues to be a major preoccupation for the Syrian Armenian community. Our priority is the children’s safety and that is why we suspended bus service to the schools and only this year have been able to resume the service in a few of the safer neighborhoods. As a community we are trying hard to help the children cope with the conflict and come to terms in ways they can understand what they are witnessing daily—including in some cases deeply traumatic events. At AGBU’s Aleppo Center, we host hundreds of local children daily where they can benefit from free activities including arts, dance and sports. To help the younger children express their emotions and fear, several experts from AGBU’s Saryan Academy of Arts invited dozens of children to draw what they experienced. Their illustrations were truly remarkable and depicted scenes no child should ever have to witness, but we hope by using painting as a form of art therapy and talking about their concerns we can reduce their anxiety and fear. 

Q: On a personal note, how difficult has it been to remain positive as the leader of the AGBU community in Syria throughout all this time and hardship you have witnessed?

A: As a senior leader of the AGBU Syria community, I too struggle to remain focused and positive especially when confronting difficult circumstances, but I feel it’s my duty to offer hope to my colleagues and to the many volunteers who are sacrificing much of their time and safety to assist their fellow Armenians. The encouragement and moral support they provide gives me the strength and motivates me to continue in my role to ensure we are as prepared and able as possible to fulfill AGBU’s mission to provide financial, physical and moral support to all Armenians in need. 

Q: What message do you have for Armenians in the rest of the world and the international community more broadly?

A: I would like them to know that there will always be an Armenian community in Aleppo. We are all hoping the situation will improve in the near future so that Syrian Armenians can start rebuilding their community and restore Aleppo to its status as the mother community of the Armenian diaspora. But right now the community is in desperate need of your help and I urge all Armenians around the world to heed the call to help their brothers and sisters in Syria.

Q: What is the best way for them to donate? 

A: The single most important way people can help out is by making a financial donation as it is difficult to bring any other items or resources into Aleppo or any other city because of the ongoing war. All of the donations will be used in the best way possible to help those most in need. We can also tailor your donation to any particular cause or project you wish to support including but not limited to, education, children, elderly, orphans and helping the injured. 

Originally published in the February 2016 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.