More Armenians Flee Syria Amid Fighting In Aleppo

Naira Bulghadarian

July 25 2012

Ethnic Armenians continued to flee Syria on Wednesday as heavy fighting
intensified in Aleppo, the country’s second largest city and economic
and cultural center of its 80,000-strong Armenian community.

About 170 of them arrived in Yerevan on board a Syrian Air aircraft
early in the morning. The plane flew back to Aleppo shortly afterwards
as Syrian government troops reportedly massed around the city partly
controlled by rebels.

News reports citing Syrian opposition sources said that the Syrian
army pounded rebel fighters there with artillery and attack helicopters
throughout Tuesday. According to Reuters, the rebels battled government
forces by the gates of the historic old city.

“When we reached the airport the situation was very chaotic. There
was gunfire,” said Tsovinar Khangikian, an Armenian woman from Aleppo
who arrived at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport together with her sister
and their children.

â[email protected]~Kâ[email protected]~K”Until now things were fine. There were some problems around
[Aleppo] but things were quiet in the city,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian
service ( before bursting into tears.

“We have fled shelling,” said Khangikian’s tearful sister. “We
have come here to take some rest and then return and carry on with
our life.”

Both women said they left their husbands behind to look after their
properties in Aleppo.

Speaking on camera, other Aleppo Armenians painted less dramatic
pictures of the crisis in Syria. “We are having hard but not
catastrophic times,” said one man. “Our army is strong.”

Officials from the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora were for the first
time on hand to give the arriving Syrian information booklets and
asking them to fill out questionnaires on their personal data and
the length and purpose of their stay in Armenia.

About 100 other Syrian nationals, virtually all of them ethnic
Armenian, boarded Syrian Air’s return flight to Aleppo despite the
apparently worsening situation in and around the city. About half
of them were young people who travelled to Armenia two weeks ago to
participate in a festival organized by the Armenian General Benevolent
Union (AGBU), a leading Diaspora charity.

Margarit Avetian, another returning passenger, left Syria early this
month to receive Armenian citizenship. “The situation seems to be a
bit worse than it was before we came to Armenia,” she told RFE/RL’s
Armenian service (

Avetian got her Armenian passport after what she described as
a bureaucratic hassle in Yerevan. “The bottom line is that I got
it. I’m pleased and proud to have a passport,” she said, adding that
she and her relatives are increasingly contemplating a permanent move
to Armenia.

According to immigration authorities in Yerevan, some 6,000 Syrian
Armenians have applied for Armenian citizenship since the start of a
popular uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in early
2011. Some of them are thought to have already taken refuge in their
ancestral homeland. There is no government data on the number of such
persons, though.

Hampig Shimshirian, a businessman from Damascus, also arrived at
Zvartnots on Wednesday. Shimshirian said he owns a clothing factory
and two houses in the Syrian capital and is now planning to stay
in Armenia with his family for good. “We always wanted to settle in
Armenia and the war has accelerated our move,” he explained.

Harut Kakajian, another businessman, imported Chinese toys to Syria
and neighboring Lebanon before settling in Yerevan with his family
last week. “Business [in Syria] has come to a halt,” he said. “There
are goods but nobody buys them.”

Kakajian acknowledged that doing business and finding other work in
Armenia is also challenging. “If there were jobs here there would be
more people moving here,” he said.

The Armenian government is being increasingly accused by domestic
opposition and other groups of providing little assistance to Syria’s
Armenian community and especially its members relocating to Armenia.

Government officials reject the criticism.

“Relevant government bodies are prepared to provide all kinds of
assistance to those Armenians who come to Armenia,” insisted Firdus
Zakarian, head of a Ministry of Diaspora task force that was set up
recently to deal with the refugee influx.

â[email protected]~Kâ[email protected]~KSpeaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Tuesday, Zakarian
dismissed opposition calls for the government to make contingency
plans for evacuating Syrian Armenians en masse. He said such an
operation could only spread panic in the community. The situation in
Syria still does not warrant an Armenian exodus, the official said.

Still, Zakarian’s ministry did ask the Armavia national airline last
week to increase the frequency of its weekly Yerevan-Aleppo flights
and lower the price of their tickets. Armavia replied that it is
ready to do that if it receives financial support from the government.

Also last week, Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian met with
representatives of major Diaspora Armenian charities, including the
AGBU, to discuss ways of helping the Syrian Armenians. According to
Zakarian, they expressed readiness to provide financial and other

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