Armenia tries to help as Christian Armenians flee Syria

Armenians Fleeing Anew as Syria Erupts in Battle

Source: USA Today

An estimated 7,000 of Syria’s Christian-Armenian community have arrived in Armenia since the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

YEREVAN, Armenia — Sarkiss Rshdouni escaped the fighting in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo months ago but cannot shake memories of what he witnessed.

“I was with a friend when I heard gunshots,” said Rshdouni, who is among hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the war in his country. “It was fast — second by second, the sound was getting closer. I saw mass shooting, people running.”

Aleppo is home to more than 80% of Syria’s Armenian community, and those who are still there remain at the center of the battle for control of the country.

On Thursday, Syrian rebels continued to try and dislodge government forces from the country’s second-largest airport just outside Aleppo. The airport stopped commercial flights weeks ago because of the fighting but it is used by Assad’s military to resupply troops and launch airstrikes against rebel positions.

Rebels on Thursday also captured most of an oil field in the energy-rich northeast in Hasaka province along the border with Iraq, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, which erupted nearly two years ago, has left more than 2 million people internally displaced and pushed 650,000 more to seek refuge abroad in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has been engulfed in fighting for months between government forces and opposition militias, including al-Qaeda-allied extremists. People there are dealing with shortages of food, medicine and electricity during the coldest winter in the Middle East in two decades.

The Christian-Armenian community in Syria is relatively small — between 60,000 and 100,000 people according to estimates — but its history has added to its unease. Armenians in Syria are descendants of people who fled to Syria after escaping a genocide against Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in World War I.

Many worry the same can happen in Syria, where the Christian Armenians are again at the mercy of Muslim factions at war, and they are desperate to get out.

“Syrian Air has rerouted all flights because of the conflict in Aleppo,” said Gevorg Abrahamyan, press secretary of Zvartonts International Airport in Armenia. “There’s a flight arriving once a week now from Latakia (in Syria) to Yerevan.”

Upon arrival in Yerevan, they still face a struggle. Armenia is a former republic of the Soviet Union landlocked by Turkey, Georgia and Iran. Unemployment is estimated at 20%, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Syrian Armenians are arriving every week,” said Firdus Zakarian, chief of staff at the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora’s commission for Syrian-Armenian issues. “It is hard for Armenia. We do not have the strongest economy, but we are trying to do everything we can so they don’t feel more pain.”

To date, the Ministry of Diaspora estimates that more than 7,000 of Syria’s Christian Armenian community have arrived in Armenia since the start of the conflict.


Syrian Armenians wait at the departure gate at Zvartnots Airport in Yerevan, Armenia. Syria’s approximately 50,000-strong Armenian population is largely middle class, living mainly in Aleppo. Many left behind businesses, properties and, in some cases, significant savings in Syria’s banks.(Photo: Diana Markosian for USA TODAY)

Armenian authorities are trying to find ways to speed the exit from Syria and make the adjustment to life here easier. The authorities have simplified the visa process out of Syria. Elementary schools have been established that teach classes in the Arabic language that Syrian-Armenian children have grown up with, according to a familiar Syrian curriculum.

One such school is the Cilician School funded by a charitable organization and the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Diaspora in Armenia. There are 300 students and 16 new teachers, all of whom lost their jobs in Syria.

“It was difficult for them at first, but they are now slowly adapting to their new lives,” said Nora Pilibosian, director of the Cilician School in Yerevan. “Of course they miss their homes, their relatives and their toys, but they are adjusting.”

While many new arrivals are finding housing in Yerevan, a small minority of the Armenians fleeing the conflict in Syria have become settlers in the breakaway southern Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Vartan Boghossian, 30, left Syria with his family in September for Nagorno-Karabakh. He lives in communal housing, sharing a kitchen and a bathroom with five families.

Boghossian says it was his dream to come to Armenia but now faces the challenge of rebuilding his life.

“I want to stay here,” said Boghossian, who took his citizenship exam in the summer. “Life is difficult here. There are few jobs and everything is expensive. But I want to find extra work to help me stay and live normally.”

Neighboring Azerbaijan claims Nagorno-Karabakh as its territory and it has issued an official note of protest to Armenia about refugees settling in the disputed region.

Many of the refugees planned to stay in Armenia for a few months, but some now think they may never get back home.

“It is not the same Syria anymore,” says Rshdouni, who is among the few refugees who has found work. “To watch my people killed, the city’s destruction. I can’t even imagine this.”