Thousands of ethnic Armenians are among the 2 million Syrian nationals who are now refugees of the devastating 2.5 year uprising-turned-civil war. Most Syrian Armenians, accustomed to city life in Damascus and Aleppo, have relocated to other urban centers like Beirut and Yerevan. But for those hailing from far-flung provinces like Hasakeh, the possibility of fanning in Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR) resonates more deeply. Many fellow Syrian Armenians pray for a political resolution and safe return home, but these families hope to stay and carve out a future in their homeland.
The apartment building of the Syrian Armenian families looks like a mansion from afar, set atop a majestic peak in the Lachin Corridor. The mountainous passageway linking Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh has been a lifeline for the people of Karabakh since the conflict with Azerbaijan began in 1988. But for these newcomers, who have seen devastating clashes firsthand, the prospect of conflict is not a deterrent.
A step into the former guesthouse reveals the true circumstances of these families. Inside, the building is divided into sunlit bedrooms— one for each family—and a large common room on both floors. While some of the families are cramped together, the enormous balcony with sweeping panoramic views of the countryside offers a relief from communal living.
There are currently some 30 Armenian families spread out in several locations in Karabakh. Local authorities are working to help these families with the scarce resources they have: the government provides rent-free accommodations and land for planting. Like all Karabakh residents, their children have access to public schools. Many of the Syrian Armenians now in Karabakh are farmers. Some equipment is hard to come by or too expensive to rent, and AGBU plans to purchase three tractors to make farming easier. Last year, Syrian Armenians planted over 1,200 hectares of land, and they are hoping to match or surpass that harvest in the coming year to survive.
Many of the families hail from Kamishli, Hasakeh and Ras al-Ayn, located in the largely Kurdish-populated northeast region of Syria. Today, they are starting anew in a homeland most had never seen, motivated by promises of aid and a patriotic dream.
Milad, 30, hardly makes eye contact when he talks to a strange woman. He speaks broken Armenian, having lived his entire life in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh. Moving to the land of his forefathers has been both an opportunity and a struggle.
It was a long and complex journey for Milad, his wife and two children to reach Karabakh. In 2011, when the conflict was beginning to militarize, he travelled to Istanbul in search of work. But the cost of life was exorbitant and his application for a visa to Sweden to join his cousin was unsuccessful. Upon his return to Hasakeh, Milad found that the conditions in Syria had deteriorated even further. When a massive bombing hit the Damascus security headquarters in July 2012, killing the Minister of Defense and other top officials, Milad felt things would take a turn for the worse and the family prepared to depart once again, this time on a flight to Yerevan.
Like his fellow Syrian Armenians in their new home, he headed straight to Karabakh, after learning that conditions were better there for families without substantial financial reserves.
"I told all the Armenians I know to come,” chimes in Savo, a graying father of two young children living in the apartment.
The 58-year-old has a different story. He had been living between Ras al-Ayn, located on the SyriaTurkey border, and Lachin since 2004, when he started a mechanic shop in Karabakh. But when fighting intensified in Ras al-Ayn, he decided it was time to move his family to safety, permanently.
"I started my business here in 2004 and since then I've wanted to live here. Then we heard they were going to start giving housing and agricultural land for free." He remarks dispassionately, "All the Armenians left Ras al-Ayn."
Life is not perfect in Karabakh. He and his wife Vera live in a cramped room with their children, mattresses lying on the floor next to their twin-sized bed. They long for a home of their own. But like the other families, they agree that conditions are better than they would have had in Armenia.
"I talked to Syrian Armenians in Yerevan and they want to come here. The only problem is we need a house of our own," said Vera.
In this building, five families, with nine children between them, share the washroom and kitchen on a rotating basis. It can be stressful at times, they admit, but they also feel it provides a family atmosphere in a new land.
Nelly, who arrived in June from Aleppo with her three children and husband, admits that it can be challenging to share the same kitchen with four other mothers. But she says that the sense of community is also important so far from home.
"We're the Arabic house in Armenia," laughs Nelly, originally from Syria's northern province of Raqqa. "We came to Karabakh because... in Yerevan rent costs at least $300 a month. It's far too expensive for us."
Nelly smiles as she hangs the laundry on the large terrace. After the grueling two-day car ride from northern Syria to Turkey, to Georgia, then to Armenia and finally to Lachin, she is relieved to have a secure place to stay.
Nelly says that her neighbors back in Aleppo felt a twinge of jealousy when they learned she was leaving for her motherland. "Especially the Assyrians," she said, speaking of the ancient Christian community. 'They remark on how lucky we are to have a homeland. They say you have a country to go back to—we don't."
Perhaps the living situation is most challenging for the young adults, who have little to do in their new home.
Raffi, 22, took his computer with him on the long journey from Hasakeh to Kamishli, the flight to Damascus, then to Aleppo and finally to Yerevan. He has been living in Lachin for six months, working as a security guard for the apartment building, but he is still not sure if he will stay.
He spends his days with 17-year-old Christian, the closest to his age. Christian is eager to move to Yerevan for university in the fall, bored in the mountains with few transport options available even to go to Stepanakert, the NKR capital.
For the adult men, the main challenge is to secure a steady income.
"In Syria, we lived on $100 a month; here, a prescription costs $15. If I can't find work by the end of the year, we'll have to leave," Milad said. "I don't want to stay until I run out of money."
The Syrian Armenians are getting by largely due to free housing. Those benefits are not available to the locals who also survived a brutal war and whose economy remains hampered by closed borders and the instability of a precarious truce. Nonetheless, the Syrian Armenians say they have not encountered hostility. And they say they are catching on to the local Karabakh dialect.
"Sometimes you might hear people comment about us receiving aid, but this is just small talk. In general, people are very happy that we are here as Armenians coming back to live in the homeland," said Vartan Boghoss, who has become a community leader for the Syrian Armenians.
Vartan lives in a nearby two-story building, formerly a home for priests and repurposed for the Syrian Armenian refugees. Like the other building, it is somewhat isolated, perched on a dramatic overlook alongside a stone church. He sets up a plastic table and chairs on the gravel outside and proceeds to pour traditional Arabic coffee. "With cardamom," he beams with pride. The spice was one of the precious items the family packed from home.
When asked how he felt about being resettling in a frozen conflict zone after escaping a war, Vartan said: "This is the land of my grandfathers. If war comes, I'm ready to pick up a weapon to defend it."