While armenia faces domestic challenges arising from issues such as constitutional reform, energy tariffs and the implications of membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, the tiny republic is not entirely isolated from events that threaten to redefine the broader regions of the post-U.S.S.R. and the Middle East.
The ongoing war in Syria continues to threaten the country’s large Armenian community centered in Aleppo and Kessab, where AGBU and other diasporan agencies have focused aid efforts over the past few months, reaching out to support those in
The non-Muslim population of Iraq—which includes a few thousand Armenians—is also under threat by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an extremist Islamist group. The group’s language of terror had a chilling tone for Armenians in particular, as militants warned Christians and other non-Muslim minorities to convert to Islam, pay a fine or be executed. In its attacks, ISIS militants have persecuted and killed both non-Muslims and Muslims who reject their hardline brand of Islam.
In the process, ISIS has gained control of vast portions of Syria and Iraq, notably Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city that has historically been home to a majority of the country’s non-Muslim community, including Assyrians and Armenians. Before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of Iraqi Armenians was estimated to be around 20,000. That estimate has dwindled to around 8,000, as many have fled to Syria, Jordan, Armenia and the West.
Although Iraqi Armenians have not been singled out by ISIS, the country’s Yezidi population, which has a strong Armenian connection, has been the target of what some international observers have called a genocide.
Yezidis—originally from northern Iraq—are defined mostly by their pre-Islamic religion, which incorporates elements of Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Although their religion sets them apart from Armenia, they are nonetheless linked to the country in that the largest Yezidi population in the former Soviet Union is located in Armenia.
Since the fall of the U.S.S.R., much of the Yezidi population fled to Europe. However, as many as 40,000 Yezidis currently remain in Armenia. They mostly work as shepherds and live in the tented compounds that dot the foothills of Mount Aragats during grazing season.
It has become customary for Armenian officials to congratulate the Yezidi community when they celebrate the New Year each April 16. This summer, however, Armenia acknowledged its relationship to the community by approving aid to northern Iraq, where the Yezidi population was under siege in the region of Sinjar.
President Serzh Sargsyan approved plans to send about $50,000 in aid to the Iraqi Yezidis, while Yezidi leadership in Yerevan called on Armenia for continued moral support.
When ISIS attacks on the Yezidi community began, dozens of Yezidis in Armenia began staging demonstrations outside Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan’s office, pleading for the country to intervene. Parliament Deputy Zaruhi Postanjyan also appealed to the prime minister to grant asylum to Yezidis seeking refuge in Armenia.
Continued Concern for Syria
The ongoing civil war in Syria has reduced the once 80,000-strong Armenian community to about 50,000. Among those who fled, some 12,000 moved to Armenia. Those remaining in Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, Kessab and elsewhere continue to struggle to survive three years after the violent conflict began.
ISIS militants have furthermore desecrated Armenian landmarks, such as the Holy Martyrs Church in Deir-ez-Zor, which contains the remains of victims of the Armenian genocide. The church served as a revered pilgrimage site for Armenians living in Syria and neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were reported to have died during the march to Deir-ez-Zor, which was ordered by Ottoman authorities in 1915.
In Syria’s largest city of Aleppo, Armenians continue to pack up their belongings and leave for the suburbs of Yerevan or for Kashatagh in the embattled province of Nagorno-Karabakh. Those who have chosen to remain in Syria have grown accustomed to life in a war zone.
“In the past when people heard the sound of a bomb explosion, they would rush inside. Now people walk in the streets and will continue on their way even after hearing a bomb explode somewhere,” says Hakob Mikaelian, head of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Aleppo chapter. “People have reconciled with reality. The atmosphere of fear was great during the first year of war, but people have become accustomed to their fears and have found ways to live safely. For example, we choose safer streets or stay in rooms that don’t have windows facing the street ... otherwise our whole life would have become stagnant.”
After the incursion into Kessab, attacks on ethnic Armenians in Syria continued in late May and June, when anti-government forces launched missile strikes on the oldest Armenian neighborhood in Aleppo—Nor Kyugh. The missile strikes and bombings caused major damage to the majority of Armenian buildings in the quarter, notably three schools (Karen Yeppe School, Zavarian College, Sahagian School of Aleppo) and three kindergartens (Zvartnots School, St. Gregory the Illuminator Church kindergarten and Holy Trinity Church kindergarten). Homes, offices and shops belonging to Armenians were either partially burned or completely destroyed in the attacks. There have also been numerous incidents of looting and attacks on an Armenian nursing home in Aleppo, the National Shelter orphanage, the Gulbenkian maternity hospital and various cultural centers.
The bombardment of Nor Kyugh killed 22 people and injured 77 to varying degrees.
Mikaelian reported residents of the first and second districts of Nor Kyugh had to move to the quarter’s safer third and fourth districts as a result of the strikes.
“Many moved to live in the Suleimaniyeh and Villas areas where the functioning schools and clubs are located. It is there that the only functioning church—Surp Asdvadzadzin (Church of the Virgin Mary)—is located,” he says.
The war forced the Aleppo Armenian community to make many adjustments, but the community is determined to carry on with their lives. So while the war rages, classes continue in Armenian schools; theater and dance performances are staged and sporting events and concerts are held.
Only two of the 10 Armenian community clubs in Aleppo—Kermanig Vasbouragan and Tekeyan Cultural Association—are closed.
Mikaelian says that it was only possible to revive community life through a combined effort.
“The Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical Churches, Hunchakian, ARF (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and Ramkavar parties, AGBU and Armenian Relief Cross of Syria joined forces right from the beginning. They sounded the alarm that a charity should be set up for the homeless and unemployed, so that aid could be provided to them once a month. A central body was formed. Each union made a contribution for the relief effort to commence. AGBU made a decision to raise an additional $1 million to aid Syrian Armenians—a move that was received with great enthusiasm,” says Mikaelian.
A separate body was formed within AGBU to organize aid to 2,700 families. For three years, 500 of those families have been visiting AGBU for essential aid. For the New Year, they are given wool blankets and warm clothes and on Easter, sweets are also provided.
“2,700 is a variable number, because some emigrate. New people become poor and submit applications. When they come to get the aid, we also treat them to sweets, coffee and tea. We also provide medical care,” added Mikaelian.
AGBU Deputy Director Hovig Eordekian says that the Union’s humanitarian assistance and aid efforts have two components: organizing aid for Armenians in Syria and creating assistance programs for Syrian Armenians who have moved to Armenia.
“The programs are carried out with contributions raised through a number of major fundraisers organized by AGBU. Today these amounts have exceeded $1.9 million. Different chapters in different countries also organize fundraisers to provide support to Syrian Armenians. All this has been continuous and the number of donations keeps rising,” he says.
Eordekian attaches a particular importance to the continuing existence of AGBU Lazar Najarian—Calouste Gulbenkian School, which is the Union’s largest school in the diaspora.
“None of the students has been deprived of the opportunity to attend school. It is important that our structures remain firm and carry out their mission,” he says. “At this moment, the number of students has dropped from 1,500 to 700, but the school works, people receive salaries.”
Armenians in Aleppo have also learned to cope with everyday difficulties, surviving without electricity, running water, and fuel for several months. Schools and unions that once used to have wells had to reopen them. People who once owned businesses now earn their living by selling fruits or barbecue meats in the street. While prices for food items in Syria have tripled. One kilogram of meat used to sell for $12, now it costs $36.
Still many Armenians in Aleppo, like Mikaelian, insist they are not about to leave their native city. “We certainly will continue to stay and live here, because we cannot leave our institutions. Syrian Armenians have established institutions that are necessary for their existence.”