Yerevan, Armenia “If things get better in terms of work, we won’t even think about returning to Syria, because Syria after the war won’t be the same as before. It has lost its security and all its other good points. The best thing we had in Syria was security. I don’t believe that security will return.” In the words of Maria Basmadjian, who came to Armenia in January 2013, there are already “godless, fearless” extremists in Syria who are not at all like her former Muslim neighbors.
Syrian-Armenians differ from others fleeing the Syrian civil war in that by coming to Armenia they aren’t considered refugees. The majority of their forefathers came from this region 100 years ago, having been forced to leave what is now Turkey due to the consequences of the genocide. Before 2011, there were some 80 000 Armenian citizens in Syria. Around 60 000 lived in the city of Aleppo. According to Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, there are now more than 12 000 Syrian-Armenians residing in Armenia.
No internet or telephone service in Aleppo
37 year-old Maria came to Armenia with her husband and two children. She relates that they never expected to come to Armenia and spent one month in Dubai at her sister’s place. “We said, let’s at least get away for a month and forget our troubles.” However, a few days before returning to Aleppo the family found out that the airport was closed. It has been two months since they’ve heard from relatives. There is no internet or telephone service in Aleppo. “We only hear that they are well.”
The lifestyle of Armenians who lived and worked in Syria is greatly different than in their homeland. “For us, just one family member, the father, would work. Families of six or seven would get by nicely and we’d even save some money,” relates Lena Haladjian. She, after arriving in Armenia in 2012, created the Coordinating Center for Syrian-Armenian Issues (CCSAI) NGO.
Many who have relocated to Armenia, according to Haladjian, lived for a long time off their savings and never looked for work. They held out hope of returning to Syria. They weren’t familiar with Armenia and wages were less than in Syria. “They finally saw that Armenia is like this and that these are the wages. If they don’t work, they won’t even get that. Today, thank God, a good many work,” says Haladjian. Additionally, she notes that most people from Syria now work in the jewelry, food prep/sales and retail sectors in Armenia, in addition to driving taxis and automotive repairs.
Seven months ago, when Bedros Kirazian leased a stall in the underpass leading to the metro at the Hraparak Station, there were only five stalls in total. Over the subsequent months, other Syrian-Armenian businesses set up shops in the underpass nicknamed “Haleb Market”. There isn’t much foot traffic in the underpass. Bedros, who sells spices brought from Syria, Lebanon and Dubai, as well as Syrian soap, says their greatest concern is advertising; to get the word out about the market. “Even the locals don’t live well here. The government can’t even help them. So how can it assist us? But it’s our fatherland. We have to develop it. If we work as one, we can do everything, the locals and the Syrians”, Bedros believes.
“It’s always money, money, money”
Nerses Aroian, who works nearby, proposes that the government refrain from levying taxes from them for one year, or at least to cut the taxes in half: “So that we can get on our feet.” He relocated to Armenia nine months ago with his wife and a one year-old child. Two months ago he leased the stall where he sells lamps and spare parts for vacuum cleaners. He pays 40 000 AMD, about US$80, per month for a few square meters of space. He pays another 50 000 AMD ($100) in taxes and utilities. The family pays 100 000 AMD ($200) a month for the apartment where they live.
Like many others, Nerses’ family received a 60 000 AMD ($125) rent stipend for several months. However, he believes that all the money sent from overseas to assist Syrian-Armenians doesn’t reach them. “The money that’s coming is from the outside. Not all of it reaches us. Where is that money? We’re not seeing even a quarter of the quarter being sent.”
Vahram Der-Ohanian, who started a fast-food business in Haleb Market, remembers that when he wanted to put two tables outside his shop he was told that he’d have to pay an additional 30 000 drams ($60) on top of the 60 000 dram ($125) rent.
“There are such things in Syria but not like paying 30 000 every month, more like once a year. So now they’ll jack up the electricity rates. So how will we pay it all – the apartment rent, store rent? Make it once a year or even once every six months. It’s always money, money, money,” says Vahram. His 39 year-old wife hasn’t been able to find a job. Most local employers offer work to women under thirty, whether they’re from Syria or Armenia.
Fatherland doesn't mean “father”-land
Kevork Safar, who used to produce shoes in Syria and has done the same since relocating to Armenia, remembers that when he started the business back home the Syrian government freed him from all tales for four years. In Armenia, he says that while Syrian-Armenians are offered loans with relaxed conditions, they still require a local cosigner (guarantor) to the loan in addition to tons of documentation, and they don’t understand why.
“Yes, this is my fatherland. But when I see that my father doesn’t look at me, doesn’t give me money, is just out for his own pleasure… I don’t recognize such a father. A mother isn’t just a person who gives birth. A mother also raises that child. Yes, it’s my homeland, but it doesn’t allow me to eat, so I must go somewhere where I and my family can eat,” says Kevork. His son, Antranig, who designs shoes, says that tax sector must be improved for the country to develop.
The language difference is one of the main factors hindering communication between locals and Armenians from Syria. Eastern Armenia has historically been influenced by Russia and there are numerous Russian words used in daily usage. In Armenia, Russian is an obligatory subject to be taught. Most Syrian-Armenians do not know Russian.
23 year-old Elizabeth Giragosian, a professional hotel manager, says that prospective employers demand a knowledge of Russian for her to work in her field. “[Learning] isn’t difficult, but I don’t feel the necessity in Armenia. That’s to say, all the Russians who come here already know English,” says Elizabeth. She, like many other Syrian-Armenian young people, work at a café. “The cafes pay the most. We can work elsewhere but the wages are very low and don’t correspond to our rents and daily needs.”
Five Syrian-Armenians and two local Armenians work alongside Elizabeth at her job. Manager Tavevik Movsisyan says they place an importance on knowing English and that the Syrian-Armenian employees are “responsible and diligent,” but that they place no difference when it comes to being a conscientious worker.
No mandatory social payments by hiring Syrian-Armenians
Nouneh Sargsyan, who opened a pub in a tourist center in Armenia, has the same opinion. She placed an announcement in a Facebook group about jobs at the pub to help Syrian-Armenians. Nouneh adds that collaborating with Syrian-Armenians also resolves a social issue given that, according to her, employment centers in the provinces of the country cover up to 50 000 drams ($100) of the rents of those working in these areas. Thus, Syrian-Armenians can have work and not worry about paying rent. Also, a manager of a Yerevan café who wished to remain anonymous said that many employers hire Syrian-Armenians just in order to be free of paying mandatory social payments.
One of the fundamental problems facing Syrian-Armenians is their unfamiliarity with local laws. When Vahram Der-Ohanian registered as an individual proprietor on January 28 he paid a 5 000 dram ($10) fee. But a few days later he received a letter asking for another payment of the same amount. It turns out that if the payment had not been made on the last days of the month, but a few days later, he wouldn’t have had to pay for January at all. “No problem, it’s a tiny amount. It’s over and done with. But at least they should have told us given that we’re foreigners,” Vahram says.
Maria Basmadjian still doesn’t know if her 14 year-old son George will be drafted into the army after receiving Armenian citizenship. Before applying, she was told nothing about the matter and assumed that, just like in Syria, her only son wouldn’t be drafted. When Maria raised her concern she was told that she misunderstood what she had been told.
Another large contingent of Syrian-Armenians fleeing the civil war has headed to Lebanon. Jacques Kevorkian, who also started a fast-food business a month ago, believes that Lebanon isn’t a safe haven either. “The place is hanging from a thread. It can explode at any second and war can erupt,” says Jacques.
Cost of living in Syria is cheaper than in Armenia
Many Syrian-Armenians left for Canada, Australia, Sweden and elsewhere – some directly and others after moving to Armenia. There are up to 10 000 Armenians left in Syria. Many, especially the older folks, don’t want to return. Many now in Armenia have relatives back in Syria. They say they want to get their relatives out of the conflict zone but cannot since they are barely making a living themselves. “It’s dangerous. But if they come here and can’t find work, how will they live? Work is the most important thing. A person must go on living,” says Elizabeth Giragosian.
One of the reasons that some have stayed in Syria is that work can be found there despite the war, and that the cost of living is cheaper than in Armenia. In addition, those going to Armenia will have to pay rent for a place to stay. It’s a well-known fact that rents have gone up in Yerevan after the conflict in Syria started.
If peace were to return to Syria (although a segment of the people I spoke to do not believe this will occur), many will return to sell their homes. They say that they will then buy a home here in Armenia and won’t have to pay rent anymore. Perhaps the Nor Haleb residential neighborhood project, planned for a site thirteen kilometers outside Yerevan and to be financed by benefactors and Syrian-Armenians, might one day become a reality.
Lena Haladjian says that the eventual victor in Syria has great significance. If the extremists gain control, returning is ruled out. If the Assad regime stays in power, perhaps many will return. Take Zvart Kazanjian, a teacher, who lives with her sister and 98 year-old mother at the Catholic Church residence. She is now taking cooking classes but if she doesn’t find work she will return to Syria. “Like it or not we’ll have to return. We need money to live here, right? At least we have a house there.”
Armenians, whether from Armenia or Syria, continue to live together in the homeland until the conflict in Syria is resolved. “We started to get established here without feeling it. Slowly, we’re getting established,” says Lena Shamlian, citing two changes she’s noticed – local Armenians have started to prepare for New Years early and close their shops later. “People want to help us in any way possible. But they too don’t have the means,” says Nerses Aroian.
“The generation must change”
Relations aren’t always smooth; otherwise Vahram Der-Ohanian wouldn’t have cause to remember the words written on his door stating “He’s a Haleb Armenian.” “There are many problems that time will resolve. There are no quick fixes. The generation must change,” says Lena Haladjian.
When speaking of various problems, Syrian-Armenians stress that they are universal for middle class citizens living in Armenia whether native or from Syria. “True, we grew up in different lifestyles, but when we live together in one region, we’ll understand one another. You take something from me and I’ll learn something from you,” says 23 year-old Mgrdich Karaydjian, and notes that he learnt a lot in Armenia from the moment he had to work. If his friend Garo Madarian could change one thing about Armenia it would be “the government. It should be wiser and more educated.”
Maria now sends her 14 year-old son George to Arabic lessons. The boy spent one year following the Syrian curriculum here in Armenia but was obliged to learn the subjects in Armenian. He was told, “There is no Syria left. You have no need for Arabic.” George is now preparing for entrance exams for pharmacology college.
He goes to Arabic lessons for two hours every week. Maria also sends her four year-old daughter Naya. “I want my kids to know Arabic very well; also Russian and English. Perhaps we shall never be able to return in our lifetime but I want to retain my birthplace and its language. I feel a need to do so,” says Maria.