An influx of foreign residents and visitors is changing the face of Armenia
By Nareg Seferian
A quick walk from Republic Square, an LED sign lights up for a store. The place advertises itself in Armenian, English, Russian, and Farsi. Four languages, four entirely different scripts—a doubly literal and figurative sign of Armenia as a crossroads of cultures with a lively tradition of global trade cutting through borders.
Over the past decade and more, as Armenia and Armenians have reached out to the world for business, education, or tourism, foreigners have been beating a small, steady, and lasting path toward the country. According to the Migration Service of the Republic of Armenia, 18,856 foreign citizens had received temporary, permanent, or special residency status by the end of June, 2019, half of whom were from Russia, Iran, and India, with Syria and the United States trailing not too far behind. The numbers have been a bit erratic over the past five years (see figure), but a recent upward trend is notable.
About half of these foreign citizens—9,344 individuals—are categorized as being of Armenian origin. This means the other half are foreigners looking to live, study, or work in the country. This is a development which, stereotypically, takes many Armenians by surprise, because the country is known for its high emigration rate.
“It is well known that citizens of Armenia have been leaving for years, especially to EU countries as asylum-seekers—recently this number has decreased, by the way,” Nelly Davtyan, the public relations coordinator for the Migration Service, says.
In fact, for the first time since 2006, more individuals entered Armenia than exited in 2018—there were 15,313 more arrivals than departures. The total numbers include seasonal migrants, tourists, and immigrants. But the figure is all the same an indication of a changed dynamic, at least in the very immediate term.
“Few know,” Davtyan adds, “that Armenia is also an asylum-providing country, one that offers international protection, as it has joined the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
Indeed, it may be unexpected to think about the Republic of Armenia as a refugee-hosting state—2,226 individuals were granted refugee status in the country between 1999 and 2017, with particular upticks following the wars and violence in Iraq, Lebanon, Georgia, and Syria. There are people of Armenian origin among the refugees, but also just other civilians fleeing unrest in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. People from Africa find it particularly challenging to adapt to life in the rather homogeneous country. However, with the assistance of government agencies and local and international organizations, Armenia has become an unexpected temporary or permanent new home for thousands.
Demographic shifts have been in flux especially in Yerevan, and most visibly with the increase in the Indian community. A trend dating back to the days of the USSR, students from India have been coming to Armenia for decades. In recent years, Armenia has eased its visa policy, particularly facilitating the entry of Indian citizens who are residents of Gulf countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman). As a result, there has been an influx in Indian tourists, as well as entrepreneurs.
Balu Vignesh Thavidu Rajan, originally from Chennai (formerly Madras), in southern India, spent over a decade receiving his education in Yerevan. He had heard of Armenian Street and the church in his native city, but nothing more than that when he gained admission to the medical university in 2004 upon the recommendation of a friend. “That is how I ended up—no, started up—in Armenia,” he energetically recalls.
Today a public health professional in Saudi Arabia, Balu credits the fulfillment of his dreams to his rich experience in Armenia. “I have started to say to people, visiting Armenia is the most dangerous thing for the human heart, more than smoking, excess salt intake, and alcohol combined.” Why? “Well, you try being in Armenia, just for a day, and then you will regret not living there for your whole life. Even today, I think my future will be always around Armenia.”
Balu’s experience was overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately, there have been numerous cases of scams and human trafficking of Indians in Armenia. YouTube has videos in Hindi warning Indians to research Armenia and visit first in order to explore business prospects, rather than giving in to promises of high-paying jobs or immediate access to Europe.
It is understandable that Armenia needs to maintain strong ties with India. “But there should be serious thinking in the visa policy and entry requirements at least,” Balu recommends. He notes that bribing authorities to convert tourist status to residency status was not difficult in the past.
What about Armenia’s attractiveness for diasporan-run businesses? The experience of Syrian-Armenians has attracted the most attention in recent years. Restaurants and the service culture in Yerevan are particularly noted as having received a boost from the thousands who have made their way to the city from Aleppo and elsewhere.
Hovsep Balmanoukian from Aleppo, a 2010 participant of AGBU’s Yerevan Summer Internship Program, moved to Yerevan in 2012 and is currently continuing his studies in the Boston area while still keeping engaged with Armenia. He remembers with fondness the life and times of the Armenian community in Syria, now much depleted. “We were the most trusted with an excellent reputation. People would drive 400 kilometers only to repair their car by Armenians.”
For over three years, Balmanoukian and his family ran a restaurant in downtown Yerevan, attracting mostly a diasporan and tourist crowd. This was his second foray into entrepreneurship in the country. “When I moved to Armenia, I felt very welcome. I personally benefited from a loan sponsored by a government agency and launched a textile factory which functioned for two and a half years,” he recounts.
Balmanoukian does not regret having to shut down his businesses in Armenia—rather, they were excellent life experiences. And he generally holds an optimistic view of Armenia’s future, given the recent political changes. As long as a destructive war does not break out, “In ten years, I expect to see a more prosperous Armenia with a brilliant generation.”
Not that the current generation doesn’t shine. “As a mother of young kids, I often felt that Armenia was the perfect place to be,” recalls expat Christel Oomen, who recently returned to the United States after a stint in Yerevan. “In the beginning I was very surprised when young men offered to carry my baby stroller up the stairs, or grandmothers and grandfathers offered my kids cake and candy on the street. Also, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of kids stores and fun parks around town. It was wonderful to live in such a kid-friendly environment for two years,” she says.
Communication was a challenge for Oomen, though, as Armenian remains the dominant and largely inaccessible language for foreigners. The country is very affordable, however, and there are cultural activities to do and places to go. “The tourist sector is still very much in development and, even though there are new initiatives all the time, it’s all very small scale,” she adds. “Armenia as a country is under the influence of its neighbors and global trends,” Ooman says. “But I think Armenians are smart and practical, so I think they will continue to modernize and develop their economy, while, at the same time, preserving their culture by continuing to raise their kids with a strong cultural identity.”
What will Armenia look like for the kids in the country today as they mature into adulthood and raise children of their own? What is in the cards for the next ten or fifteen years?
There is a lot going on in Armenia at present which points to a more diverse future, whether one looks at restaurants and hostels run by people from the Philippines or the Netherlands, seasonal farm workers from Tajikistan, the constant ebbs and flows of tourists from Iran, to say nothing of the increasing Chinese investments in the country, besides the Indian community and the ongoing engagement from the Diaspora.
For many Armenians—at the very least those of stronger nationalist persuasions—reserving the homeland for Armenians alone might remain a priority. That would be understandable, especially given what is mostly remembered from recent Armenian history. But it is difficult to square that notion with the more liberal and cosmopolitan perspectives, as well as the diverse populations to be generally found in places where a majority of Armenians live—places where Armenians are a minority, most often a minority free to maintain its culture. That nationalistic notion is also uncomfortable when one considers the minority populations of Yezidis, Assyrians, Molokans, and others, who form long-standing segments of society in the Republic of Armenia.
In fact, it is difficult to point out any place in history that has been active, dynamic, and prosperous while maintaining ethno-national or religious homogeneity, whether ancient Athens or Rome, modern New York or Moscow, or even medieval Ani or Sis. The experience of Ireland over the past few decades could serve as an example for Armenia. There, too, a rather homogeneous society saw a quick influx of immigrants from all over the world in the wake of a business boom. Nonetheless, the Irish national culture remains as strong and distinctive today as it was before its economic transformation.
It is safe to say that the very solid Armenian identity, which adds to so many places where it is found, can also flexibly take on and accommodate elements of cultures from other parts of the globe. An Armenian melting pot may be on the back burner. But something may be said for a nice helping of stew.