In the first half of the 20th century, Armenia’s repatriation program brought thousands of intellectuals, artisans and merchants from the Middle East to the struggling Soviet nation. These Diaspora Armenians introduced their own traditions in business and cuisine, some of which were absorbed and are now part of everyday life. Many others found the conditions adverse and would go on to resettle in the West at the earliest chance.
Today, independent Armenia faces one of its biggest demographics challenges since: to integrate the nearly 9,000 Syrian Armenians who fled their adopted country for the homeland.
By Julia Hakobyan
Photos by Nazik Armenakian and Bradley Secker/Transterra
Students of the Cilician School in Yerevan are used to visits from journalists. Since its opening last October, the school is the most visited in Armenia. Students are quick to tell about the places they visited in Armenia, monuments and churches they saw. They turn a bit shy when asked whether they want to stay in their motherland.
For these young Armenians from Syria, whose parents escaped from the 26-month conflict and took refuge in Yerevan, it is not a simple question. On the one hand, they, the fourth generation of genocide survivors, were brought up to love their historical motherland. However, in reaching Armenia, they left behind everything that was familiar.
“I love Armenia because I saw many beautiful churches, which I only saw before in books,” says 10-year-old student Rozalia Mrjoian. “But I miss Aleppo. We left our home and all of our property in Syria, and many of our relatives are still there. I can’t wait until we can go back to our homes.”
The civil war in Syria, which broke out in March 2011 with protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and morphed into an all-out insurgency, has forced half of the once prominent 80,000-strong Armenian community to flee. Many have sought refuge in Lebanon, Europe or the United States, while a significant part of Syria’s Armenians headed east to the historical motherland. According to various estimations, the number of Syrian Armenians in Armenia is close to 9,000.
In private conversations, many families confess they do not view Armenia as a country for permanent residence. They say they had spent summer vacations in Yerevan before, but as soon as they found themselves in Armenia long-term, they discovered drastic differences between their superficial impressions and reality.
The children, meanwhile, remember their life in Syria with nostalgia.
“I miss playing piano. I don’t play now, because there is no piano in our Yerevan house,” says eighth-grade student Lucy Sousani. “In Aleppo I attended piano classes for six years, but I did not complete the final year at the musical school. When I entered the seventh grade, we left Syria.”
Lucy’s family moved to Armenia in September, where she was enrolled in one of the public schools in Yerevan.
While approximately 100 Syrian Armenians are enrolled in Yerevan’s No. 114 high school, most families jumped at the opportunity to send their children to the Cilicia school, a piece of continuity amid a new life of uncertainty.
“I studied there for a month only; it was difficult for me because of the Eastern Armenian dialect. I was so happy when this school was opened. I transferred here and met many of my friends from Aleppo,” says Lucy, 14.
Future of school tied to Syria’s fate
The Cilician School was opened by the initiative of the Syria-based Cilicia charitable organization. Its founding was supported by Armenia’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Diaspora, guided by the order of President Serzh Sargsyan to foster appropriate conditions for the Syrian Armenian children. The school budget is $7,000-8,000 a month, the bulk of which the Yerevan municipality has covered since January.
The school is attended by 300 students and has 16 teachers—all Armenians from Syria. The teachers’ salary of $300 a month is slightly more than teachers earn in traditional Armenia public schools.
The headmaster, Nora Piliposian, says the future of the school hinges on the political situation in Syria, as many will return as soon as there is a chance.
“When the school year started last September, many Syrian Armenian families did not know what to do—to enroll children in public schools or wait until the conflict is over and return. This school was opened to give children a chance to study the Syrian curriculum, so when they go back they will not be behind,” says Pilibosian, who for 20 years worked as an English and Arabic language teacher in Syria.
In Syria, children attend community schools in order to study Armenian language, history and religion in their mother tongue as supplemental courses. The core subjects, however, are taught in Arabic, and the Cilician School has continued this system in keeping with the Syrian national curriculum.
The Arabic curriculum has caused some criticism in Yerevan, which was enflamed when local media outlet Slaq.am produced a video reportage in March on the school’s “scandalous details”:
“Children are not allowed to learn Armenian history, the posters in Arabic language on the walls say: ‘I love Syria, Syria is my home’ and the lessons start with Arabic marches. Children do not know Armenian holidays; do not know her national heroes. Does Armenia, which sustained its national identity through the ages, need such a school?”
The report was met with fierce backlash on social networks, where Syrian and local Armenians alike accused the outlet of deliberately provoking a cultural conflict. Despite the widespread condemnations, many Syrian Armenians were nevertheless hurt by the sentiments expressed.
Tamar Yeranosian a mother of two students at the Cilician School, says her eyes filled with tears when she saw the report.
“Our ancestors founded the Karmoji charitable organization in 1946 to fundraise and provide children from poor families with a chance to attend the Armenian school. Our community put so many efforts into preserving the Armenian language and Christianity in an Arab country, and all of a sudden we face such accusations in Armenia,” says Tamar. “It was very painful.”
“Why should Syrian Armenians react with hostility to Arabic? It is the language of the country that hosted our grandparents who escaped from genocide and provided Armenians with all chances for a worthy life,” she says.
Tamar now works as a manager in the newly opened Oriento restaurant, founded by fellow Syrian Armenians.
“I am not forced to live here; I could go to Europe. But I want to stay here for the sake of the children,” she says.
In Syria, the major task of the community was to help the youth retain their Armenian identity in an Arab environment. Children were used to the routine within the Armenian community, attending Armenian schools, church, Sunday schools and cultural centers.
The Cilician School students have participated in a number of events dedicated to the mother tongue, including a festival dedicated to Mesrop Mashtots—the founder of the Armenian alphabet. Some students participated in the TV program “Children’s Planet,” while others have recited Armenian poems at cultural events.
Apart from those sporadic events, the Cilician students have not had the time or opportunity to be successfully integrated into Armenian life.
And while Syrian Armenian children are fluent in Armenian, they have faced challenges in Yerevan due to the difference between their Western dialect and the Eastern dialect spoken.
Parents agree that if they decide to stay in Armenia for the long term, it is better for their children to be enrolled in the public schools to feel part of the larger society and master the local dialect. But as long as there is a faintest hope to return, they prefer their children to continue with the Syrian curriculum.
The children fondly recall a life back in Syria that revolved around the Armenian sporting clubs, cultural institutions and schools.
“Every week me and my friends gathered in the club,” says 14-year-old Garo Keshishian. “I miss that a lot.”
In Yerevan, Garo says he likes visiting Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, and he likes that everybody around speaks Armenian.
“Most of all I miss my room in Syria,” says the teen. “I had my own room, while here I have to share it with other family members.”
“And I really miss cheese fatayer (Middle Eastern pastry),” he laughs. “Here they can’t do it properly.”
‘Some left with only passports’
Authorities in Yerevan say Armenia is ready and is obliged to accept its compatriots and provide all kind of assistance, otherwise—as President Serzh Sargsyan said—“it would not have the right to be called the motherland for all Armenians.”
The Government of Armenia simplified the visa process for Syrian Armenians, exempting them from state fees for visa extensions. Cars with Syrian license plate numbers also were freed from taxes.
Most importantly, the youth have been enrolled at kindergartens, schools and universities free of charge; more than 100 students received scholarships; and some 200 Syrian Armenians found jobs with the help of the Diaspora Ministry.
The Armenian General Benevolent Union has founded a special committee to coordinate support to Syrian Armenians. About 600 families in Armenia have received a three-month stipend for rent ($100-$150 each month) and 180 families were given $50 coupons for groceries, which can be used once per month for up to three months.
Over 1,000 people received winter clothing delivered from Germany in time for the winter. But more is needed—like so many Syrian refugees, some Armenians fled with only their passports in hand.
Now AGBU has another initiative in the works: a long-term program with the UNHCR (the United Nations’ refugee agency) in Yerevan will offer various professional trainings to Syrian Armenians, from language lessons (English, Eastern Armenian, Russian) to web design. It is expected that several hundred will attend the courses, which at some point will be available to locals as well.
The Diaspora Ministry recently announced that it plans to build residential districts in outlying localities around the capital—including Ashtarak, Echmiadzin and Masis—where Syrian Armenians will be offered apartments below market price.
Officials admit that there is a long road ahead to properly provide for the economic and social integration of the Syrian Armenians, an objective that is hampered by the absence of a systematic approach or comprehensive program.
‘How do the locals manage?’
Syrian Armenians face an uphill battle when navigating Armenia’s tough economy, high taxes and “European” prices.
Professionals say they cannot secure a job that meets their standards without government connections, while artisans say the market is isolated and underdeveloped.
“When living in Syria, we sometimes used to say ‘Syria is difficult for business’. But we were saying that before coming to Armenia,” says Harout Kzirian, who owned a car parts shop in Aleppo. “Now we know Armenia is very difficult for business. The reasons are the absence of a relevant market and high cost of goods.”
Harout, who now serves as a manager of Sbidag Syrian restaurant, says his business was thriving in Syria, as customers would come from Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon.
Left with few options, some families consider the possibilities of leaving to another country, the most popular choices being Lebanon, France, Cyprus, Canada or the United Arab Emirates.
Others, just like the locals, have started viewing Russia as a potential country for migration. Russian language courses have become popular among Syrian Armenians, who after getting Armenian passports will not need visas for Russia—home to an estimated 2.5 million Armenians.
“I have been in Armenia for eight months, and I really wonder how the locals manage. Life is very expensive. Only seasonal fruits are cheap,” says 31-year-old Kevork, who had a computer business in Aleppo. He says a newly-established business in Syria was not taxed for several years. “This is how Syria was promoting businesses. In Armenia the opposite is true—it seems all is done to complicate doing business.”
Whether for patriotic intentions or out of necessity, many Syrian Armenian families have nonetheless dug in and started anew, opening restaurants, bakeries, shops and at least one dentistry clinic in the hopes of creating a sustainable business model. And they are steadily making their presence felt in the small capital.
Aleppo’s aroma in downtown Yerevan
The exotic flavors of the Middle East tempt passersby into the small bistro Gaidz, where the Jabaghchurian father and son deftly roll out dough and bake it in a big stove with meat or vegetable stuffing.
“Hajis!” they call out.
One can guess the Jabaghchurians are not locals as soon as they greet visitors with the Western Armenian word for “please/welcome.” Since Syrian Armenians began arriving in Yerevan two years ago, it has become a recognizable greeting in restaurants, stores and streets.
“This is bread with zaatar and this one is lahmajoun,” the Jabaghchurians say, explaining the subtlety of Arabic cuisine to guests in their modest bistro of five tables, located in one of the yards of downtown Yerevan.
In Syria the Jabaghchurians owned a restaurant, which they opened 15 years ago. The son, Gaidzak, opened his own restaurant a year ago—destined to fail as fighting overtook their native city of Aleppo last summer.
“We never could expect that one day Syria would be in war,” says the 25-year-old. “Our government was strong…we felt strong. But that’s what happened and we are here.”
Gaidzak’s family came to Armenia last summer for a btuit—a short visit of a few weeks, just “till the conflict is over”. Like the rest of the Syrian Armenians, they saw their sojourn turn into a wait-and-see life.
“Regardless of how the situation will develop, everything has changed—beautiful cities are destroyed, people are dispersed. Life will never be the same for us,” says Gaidzak’s father Krikor.
The Jabaghchurians hope the bistro’s revenue will be enough to cover the living expenses for the family of four. They say only in that case can they stay in Armenia.
“Syria is our home and we miss it a lot. We enjoyed respect there and had a secure life,” says Krikor. “But we have to reconcile ourselves—at least we found ourselves in Armenia, not on foreign land. People in Yerevan are nice; everybody around is Armenian. It is something that infuses confidence in us. I would like my children and grandchildren to live in Armenia. It would be a great honor for me.”
‘We must stay in Hayastan’
In a small, one story rented house in Yerevan, the Syrian cat Vani seems to feel the mood of his owners, the Hatzagordzian family, and attentively follows conversation on the political situation in Syria and life in Armenia.
The family came to Armenia last October and as Joel Hatzagordzian says “we are lucky, we had a narrow escape, as my oldest son was a draftee.”
Like many fellow Syrians, the Hatzagordzian family of four left everything behind when they fled. Vani and a few suitcases were all they managed to bring to Armenia.
Joel’s husband, a metal turner, found a job where he earns $200-$300 a month—a modest salary even by Armenian standards and not enough to sustain a family.
Another $200 is provided by their 21-year-old son, Garegin, who abandoned his studies at Yerevan State University to support his family. His brother Njdeh, 17, is a high school student.
“I did not have to pay for the university, as the costs were covered by the government. But now it is not the time for education,” says Garegin, expressing hope he will continue his education later on.
There is an aroma of Arabic coffee in their simply furnished home, for which they pay $200 per month. “I was so glad when I found Arabic coffee in the supermarket in Yerevan,” says Joel, remembering with tears their home in Aleppo’s Nor Gyugh district, where the windows looked at Zvartnots Church.
“We hardly make ends meet,” says Hatzagordzian, 39. “We pay rent and communal expenses and there is little left for living. Everything was three to five times cheaper in Syria, and people would earn five to ten times more than the average wage is in Armenia.
“We are not sure if we can make the same business here. Everyone is complaining about taxes. In Syria, the tax inspection and business relations are simple—once a year you visit the inspection and pay taxes. Here, people pay each month the amount we paid once a year.”
Despite the hardships, brothers Garegin and Njdeh say they enjoy being in Armenia. “We have to stay in Hayastan,” say the brothers, who were named after the Armenian national hero Garegin Njdeh.
A new page for Baghdasarian shoes
In the recently opened Vana shoe store on Abovyan Street, Antoinette Baghdasarian carefully helps customers make the right selection.
“Can I give you advice, dear?” she asks a young woman who holds with one hand her six-months-old baby on her thigh “Don’t hold your child this way, otherwise his legs will grow crooked,” she says to one customer, who takes the advice and starts asking more questions.
Antoinette knows a lot about legs and podiatry. She and her husband Movses had a large shoe store, Hovig, in Aleppo where they sold shoes produced in their own factory they opened 26 years ago. Now at Yerevan’s Vana, they sell shoes transported from the Aleppo warehouse, where production has stopped.
The Baghdasarian family of six say they intend to stay in Armenia for at least a couple of years, depending on whether their business succeeds.
“We left in Aleppo a big home in Villaner district, a shoe factory and a store of 400 square meters,” says Antoinette’s 37-year-old son Hovig Baghdasarian, who has two daughters of his own. “Our families, like most Armenians in Syria, enjoyed the most tranquil and secure life one can ever imagine. Many Arabs were regular clients of our store, as they appreciated the goods produced by the Armenian manufacturers.”
Speaking of his business in Yerevan, Hovig says he heard that it would be difficult to start a business because of bureaucratic protraction. “But I was consistent and succeeded,” he says. “Business is something that requires time and devotion. In Yerevan, just like in Aleppo, I go to work in the morning and come home late in the evening”.
The family has a house in France, but they decided to try to settle in Armenia for the sake of the two children.
“The European environment differs a lot from our traditional Armenian social lifestyle. The Armenian environment is the best we can offer our children,” says Hovig.
From the Arab World to Eastern Europe
While Yerevan may provide an Armenian setting, the social norms of the Caucasian capital differ greatly from the Middle Eastern culture of the Syrian Armenians.
“Men’s and women’s roles in Armenia differ from those we had in our community,” says Sosi, 29, a mother of two. “Most women don’t work in Syria, as the breadwinners are men.”
“In Armenia most women work,” she adds. “It would appear the market is more favorable to women, but that is not the case. Here I know a family where the man does nothing and his wife works at a bakery. She once suggested that he get a job there too, but he angrily refused.”
On the other hand, many Syrian Armenian women say they enjoy more gender tolerance in Armenia than they did at home. Young women are able to be alone in the street in the evening without facing harassment, something that was not taken for granted in Syria.
Syrian Armenians say they generally enjoy a friendly atmosphere in Yerevan, but are sometimes troubled by the local social customs. Others say they have experienced discrimination because of their nationality.
“Some locals treat Syrian Armenians as strangers,” says Maral Keshishian, 45. “They look at us askew as if we came to steal their jobs or space. They say ‘you do not know Armenian, you do not know history and have another culture’. It is so insulting.”
Syrian Armenians are especially irked that they are criticized for Arabic when Russian is such a common language in the former Soviet republic.
“We sustain our Armenian culture and traditions better in Syria than some in Armenia. Some locals speak Russian, others use many Russian words when they speak Armenian and it is okay for them. Whereas our children’s native language is Armenian and when we speak Armenian, we never use a single Arabic word.”
Maral says some local Armenians try to take advantage of the Syrian Armenians’ situation, especially when it comes to rent. “They say ‘you are from Syria, you are rich’. It is true that Armenians in Syria were well-off, but people forget that we escaped from Syria leaving all our property.”
Like many, Maral understands that the reason some locals are unsympathetic to the Syrian Armenians is the harsh economic environment that so many face. “A family of three needs at least $1,000 a month to get by in Armenia, but half of the Armenian population cannot afford proper nutrition. It is very sad,” she says.
‘The real motherland’
Most Syrian Armenians remain in limbo, not ready to fully settle in Armenia but also unsure of the prospects for return. Not only has key infrastructure in Syria been damaged, there is great concern that the fabric of society has been forever altered.
Sarkis Rshdouni, 25, says he would not return to Syria no matter how the conflict might be resolved. In Armenia, the young man has realized his long-awaited dream: last year he became a student at Yerevan State University’s department of history.
“I was 17 when I graduated from high school and my father insisted that I be involved in the family business since we owned a factory and a network of stores. I was carried away from my intention to study history. When we came to Yerevan I thought this is my chance,” says Sarkis, who is combining his studies with his work at TeleTrade Armenia as an Arabic translator.
“This small land is all that remained from the once powerful motherland. I believe people have to settle here and together build the country. The formula of living in Armenia and overcoming difficulties is very simple—you just have to love it. Those who could not stay and left did not have the chance to see the real Armenia and all its advantages.”
Sarkis has no doubts that this is the only place for his distressed community to rebuild.
“Syrian Armenians have to stop viewing Armenia as a spiritual motherland and have to realize it is the real motherland.”