3 Dec 2004
Return Journey: Refugees from Turkmenistan struggle to adjust to Armenia
By Arpi Harutyunyan
Most of a group of 205 Armenians who were airlifted to Armenia from
Turkmenistan have returned to that country.
The group were flown to the republic over the past two years ago with the
help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) following a
crackdown on illegal migrants by the Turkmen authorities.
Rubik Zohrabyan, 52, from Goris, is one of the few who has not gone back to
live in Turkmenistan. He does not even want to remember recent times, though
his living conditions have been satisfactory. As he says, he has been doing
every job except crime in Turkmenistan: he has been a carrier, a driver, a
shoemaker, a trader, a cook.but he has not complained because he earned
“Life is easy there, whoever wants to work can find it. We had gas, light,
water, the transport is free of charge.Nobody bothers us. I was happy in
that country,” says Zohrabyan.
He left Goris aged 26 because he realized he could earn more money in
Turkmenistan and traveled there with his wife to work with his uncle because
he was unable to provide for his family in his motherland. He settled there
and the couple had two sons.
Only a few of the Armenians from Turkmenistan remain in Armenia
But during the last few years life for Armenians in Turkmenistan became more
difficult because of their lack of citizenship.
“For several years there have been checks at people’s homes to find those
without citizenship. My house had two doors, so that we could leave through
one of them when the police approached. If we had been caught, we would have
had either to serve three years in prison or pay $5,000,” explains
Earlier this year, he returned to Goris thanks to the International
Organization of Migration and his family will also be back soon. They want
to sell their property in Turkmenistan and resettle in Armenia.
“There is no way back, and I am glad. For the last 15 years I have slept and
woke up with the idea of coming back to Armenia in my mind. My heart has
always been here, in Turkmenistan I lived only physically. I am now in my
motherland: I don’t need anything else,” says Zohrabyan.
He says that one of the reasons he doesn’t want to leave Goris is that he
has got a job there and can provide for his family. He works as a locksmith
at a hydro-electric station.
In contrast to Zohrabyan, others feel sad that they have come back to
Armenia without preparing for the life that awaited them. They mostly live
in poverty: few have found jobs in Goris and the money they brought back
with them has finished.
“You know, I wouldn’t have thought I would face such problems: we don’t work
for already 7-8 months, we buy everything on credit,” says Nvard
Hakhverdyan. “I just wonder how we are going to pay back our debts. Whatever
money we brought we spent in a month or two. We would rather go on living in
fear than think every morning that the children are hungry.”
Nvard’s two children were born in the city of Mari in Turkmenistan. They
lived there for 6 years from 1998 to 2004. Her husband, 38-year-old Vahan
Melkumyan, was a small trader who says that $100-150 dollars a month was
enough to provide for a family of four.
This year Vahan’s family returned to Armenia.
“We were romantic to think we were coming to our homeland to help build it.
But now all that seems funny, when we realize that you do not exist for your
state. No one will pay attention even to those dying of hunger,” says
It is already 10 months that Nvard and Vahan quarrel every single day. The
husband blames the wife for making him return to Goris and finding
themselves in poverty as a result.
According to the IOM, more than 20,000 Armenians live in the Turkmen cities
of Ashgabad and Mari. The majority are illegal migrants without
registration, who therefore have a status of temporary dwellers. They will
live until they are expelled or return of their own accord.
In 2002 upon the initiative of the IOM and the Embassy of Armenia in
Turkmenistan 113 people were returned to Armenia. A second repatriation took
place in January 2004, when 92 people returned to Armenia.
“We were aware there are many Armenians in Turkmenistan who wanted and
needed to come back to Armenia. We addressed the Embassies of Turkmenistan
and Armenia and got support,” explains IOM Program Officer Ovsanna Babayan.
“Then we asked for financial support from the governments of the Netherlands
and Great Britain. As a result 205 Armenians returned home for free.”
The majority of those who returned to Armenia are dwellers of Goris, the
second largest city in Syunik marz after Kapan. According to the
municipality, the population of the city is 23,500, although local people
insist that many left for abroad even though they remain registered in
Babayan explains that once a chain migration began from Goris to
Turkmenistan, people began to follow their relatives there one after
“The mentality in the Goris area is such that as soon as one leaves for a
country others follow him. In this case, it was Turkmenistan,” says Nelson
Voskanyan, the Mayor of Goris. “However, the migration from Goris to
Turkmenistan occurred mainly before the 1980s. There isn’t any more. The
municipality does not keep information about the numbers of emigrants and
Many of the Goris people met by ArmeniaNow had left Armenia for Turkmenistan
in the1990s. The main reason was the social crisis that existed in all the
cities and villages of Armenia after the collapse of the USSR, as well as
the Artsakh war. Goris was no exception and, since hardly a single resident
of the city did not have a relative in Turkmenistan, many left for that
The family of 38-year-old Karmen Ishkhanyan left in 1992. It was the hottest
period of the war and their apartment block had suffered from shelling by
Azerbaijani forces. Besides, the children were young and they needed
care,something Karmen’s husband Haykaz Hakobyan couldn’t afford.
“During the war, three or four shells fell only on our building. Together
with the neighbors we moved to the basement to be a little bit safer.
Besides, we didn’t have any means of earning a living and my son decided to
move to Turkmenistan to make money,” recalls his mother, 68-year-old Genofya
Haykaz and Karmen took their youngest son aged only a few months with them
to Turkmenistan, leaving their two four and five-year old daughters with the
grandmother. They lived there for 10 years.
“We were well-off in Turkmenistan, I had no complaints. My husband used to
repair cars and managed to provide both for us and the family in Goris. But
we couldn’t stay there anymore because we did not have registration” says
They returned to Goris in 2002, but they already think about going back and
are sorry they left their life there.
“Life is boring here. We have become old during these two years. It’s
abnormal, but at this age already we live in memories. We will likely move
there again. It’s ok if we live on the run, in exchange we will have the
means to live,” says Ishkanyan.
Her words anger the grandfather of the family, 70-year-old Henrik Hakobyan.
Of course, he realizes that his son cannot earn enough money in Goris but he
does not want to hear about them going back.
“I have five sons, three of whom are not in Armenia. I haven’t seen my
middle son for 14 years, and I don’t know my grandchildren. If this son
leaves again, I will not be able to stand missing them. But there is no
other way. I don’t know.”
Of the 20 families returned from Turkmenistan, ArmeniaNow managed to find
only five. Others have left for Turkmenistan again, driven in many cases by
the same reasons – unemployment which means an inability to provide the