Hands Across Borders: The Syrian Crisis And The Armenians


Monday, November 5th, 2012

The crisis in Syria promises to become a protracted human tragedy. The
brutality being exacted by both government and rebel forces has already
resulted in a level of devastation that to rebuild neighborhoods,
buildings, institutions and also lives will require years if not
decades. Rebel forces continue to battle on the streets of Aleppo,
Damascus, and other cities in order to topple the minority Alawite
regime of Bashar al Assad. International human rights groups are
already condemning the dozens of cases of war crimes being perpetrated
by both sides.

And the Armenian community who for centuries had been living in
relative peace and prosperity, whose numbers swelled following the
Armenian Genocide when hundreds of thousands found some initial
semblance of refuge, is now facing decimation. War, after all,
doesn’t discriminate.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Middle East nor do I always
understand the very complex configuration of religion and politics
that have contributed to tension and civil war in the region. I
continuously have to refresh my memory as to which country is Sunni
and which one is Shiite and who is covertly or overtly supporting
whom and so on. But one thing is clear, the competing interests of
the Huzbullah in Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the
United States, Russia and others would seem to indicate that the war
in Syria is much bigger than Syria. What I do understand is the human
face of war because we here in Armenia are coming face to face with
it, on a personal and national level.

I remember the overwhelming feeling of pride laced with profound
sadness the first time I went to the Middle East. Over time and over a
course of different visits to different cities, I was struck not only
by the number of schools, churches and community centers we had built
but how we had contributed to the cultural mosaic, how we had played a
critical role in the establishment of trades and businesses and how we
had created a bastion of Armenian preservation and identity that had
sustained the Diaspora. The sadness came from the realization that our
numbers were dwindling and following the civil war in Lebanon, when
thousands of Armenians were forced to leave, often times with their
entire lives in a few suitcases and a few dollars in their pockets,
they left behind homes and businesses, and also a legacy that was in
danger of disappearing.

Our community in Syria is one of the most important and vibrant
Diaspora communities in the world. The majority of Genocide survivors
and their descendents can trace their rebirth following the attempt at
their annihilation to Syria. My mother was born in Aleppo and later
moved to Beirut where I was born. Her father, a survivor and orphan
had miraculously made it to Syria after being deported and losing his
parents. Our community in Syria therefore has a very important place
in our collective past and destiny. Our community in Syria was also
one of the first communities to extend its heart and resources and
energies to Armenia and Artsakh. And today, members of our community in
Syria are finding themselves in the middle of a war that has nothing
to do with them but one which they are having to confront.

In light of the difficult and threatening conditions in Syria,
the ARF in Armenia initiated the “Help Your Brother” program to send
assistance to the Armenian community. Many other Armenian organizations
around the world also consolidated their resources by raising money
to extend a helping hand to our compatriots there. A few days ago
Yerkir Media televised a special segment on the actions being taken
by the leadership of the Syrian-Armenian community as they struggle to
help one another, as they come together, putting aside their political
differences, to ensure their survival. Part of that segment showed the
hundreds of boxes of aid sent from Armenia by the Help Your Brother
campaign on a special charter flight from Yerevan to Aleppo.

Young Armenians in the homeland, members of the Armenian Youth
Federation, the Nikol Aghbalyan Student Association and dozens of
others spent days and weeks packing bags of rice, flour and other
food products including jams and preserves and cooking oil, placing
them in boxes and then loading them on trucks to be delivered to the
plane at Zvartnots Airport. These boxes of aid, packed by the hands
of young Armenians in the homeland were then unloaded by the hands of
young Armenians in Syria. It was a moving scene and a sentiment that
should not be lost on us: hands across borders, Armenia assisting
the Diaspora.

While many are unhappy with the way the Armenian government and
the Diaspora Ministry are handling the situation with the influx
of Syrian-Armenians who have come to Armenia to escape the war and
attempt to re-establish their lives here, the message that we must
take away from the Help Your Brother campaign is an important one. For
over two decades and beginning with the 1988 earthquake, the Diaspora
stood firm in its unconditional support of the Republic of Armenia,
raising millions of dollars and providing assistance and conveying
compassion. Today, when one of our Diaspora communities is under
threat, Armenia must show its unconditional support by raising money,
providing assistance and conveying compassion. These small tentative
steps being taken by the government and many organizations and
individuals in the homeland is a gesture that needs to evolve still.

After 70 years of Soviet rule which had deprived the dispersed
Armenians around the world of a lifeline to the homeland and one
which had deprived the Armenians of Armenia a connection with the
rest of the nation, the concept of reciprocal care and assistance
still needs to develop in the mindset of people here.

The experience of the Iraqi Armenians who fled to Armenia to find
shelter and safety served as an example of failure on behalf of the
government of Armenia and today many of our compatriots from Iraq have
left Armenia and those who remain continue to struggle desperately.

With the Syrian Armenian experience, officials are attempting to
design a structure of assistance, albeit with many shortcomings
and missed opportunities. There is no doubt that the Republic of
Armenia must begin to fulfill its mission as the parent, the one
who potentially has the resources and which must learn to take upon
itself the responsibility of coming to the assistance of those Armenian
communities that face physical danger.

The Diaspora who for decades organized itself, rebuilt lives and
institutions, who acted at times as a government in exile in order
to preserve Armenian identity and culture, who struggled to ensure
that the world not forget about the Armenian Genocide and struggled
ceaselessly to restore the Armenian people’s historic and legal rights,
intrinsically and naturally understands the need for collective action,
assistance and compassion. That is how we survived.

The Republic of Armenia must learn from the Diasporan experience and
using those tools must now act in an equally responsible manner.

Reimagining and redefining roles may be a difficult process. There
will be mistakes made and many misunderstandings. While we may be
unhappy or disappointed with actions taken or untaken, while we may
have expectations that are not realistic, while we may demand a more
comprehensive action plan on behalf of the government of our republic,
we must also remember the individuals who are genuinely trying to
help and all those young hands across borders who didn’t need to
understand any of this, all they needed to know was somewhere in the
world, a group of Armenians needed help and they rose to the challenge.

From: Baghdasarian


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