Armenians Fleeing Anew as Syria Erupts in Battle

New York Times
Dec 11 2012

Armenians Fleeing Anew as Syria Erupts in Battle

Published: December 11, 2012

YEREVAN, Armenia – At the newly opened Cilician School in this former
Soviet republic, the textbooks are in Arabic, photocopied from a
single set flown out of war-torn Syria. The curriculum is Syrian, the
flag on the principal’s desk is Syrian, and the teachers and students
are all Syrians.

They are also ethnic Armenians, driven by Syria’s civil war to a
notional motherland most barely know.

`Those who are coming here clearly want to go back,’ said the school’s
principal, Noura Pilibosyan, who came from Aleppo, Syria, in the
summer. `Armenian is our language, but our culture is Syrian. It is
hard to come here.’

Their ancestors fled the Ottoman genocide in what is now Turkey nearly
a century ago and flourished in Syria, reviving one of the many
minority groups that have long coexisted there.

Now, the flight of Syrian Armenians – one of many lesser-noticed
ripple effects that could reshape countries well beyond Syria’s
neighbors – is raising questions about the future of Syria’s
diversity. And it is forcing Armenia, which depends on its strong
diaspora communities to augment its otherwise scant geopolitical heft,
to make delicate calculations about whether to encourage their exodus
or slow it.

For now, Armenia is hedging its bets. It is sending aid to Armenians
in Syria, helping them stay and survive. But it is also helping them
come to Armenia, temporarily or permanently, by fast-tracking visas,
residency permits and citizenship.

`Our policy is to help them the way they tell us to help them,’ said
Vigen Sargsyan, the chief of staff to Armenia’s president, Serzh

About 6,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Armenia as fighting engulfs
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where an estimated 80,000 of Syria’s
120,000 Armenians live. More arrive each week even as a few trickle
back, unable to afford Yerevan or stay away from houses and businesses
they left behind unguarded in Syria.

Ethnic Armenians are a fraction of an accelerating flood of fleeing
Syrians expected to reach 700,000 by year’s end, mainly in Turkey,
Jordan and Lebanon. But since the Armenians, unlike other Syrians, can
easily acquire an alternative nationality, Syria could see one of its
vibrant communities permanently diminished.

Syrian Armenians are known for their gold and silver craftsmanship and
exquisite cuisine. They are also a critical component of Syria’s
connection to Russia and the West, serving an intermediary role
through their relations with the global Armenian diaspora.

Aleppo represents the last vestiges of Western Armenia, which was
historically divided from what is now modern-day Armenia by Mount
Ararat, a separation that through the centuries gave rise to different
languages and cultures.

While Syrian Armenians have remained officially neutral in Syria’s
civil war, as Christians many are wary of the rebels’ Islamist
strains, and as Armenians suspicious of the rebels’ Turkish support.

The Cilician School, with 250 students, reflects the ambivalence of
Syrian Armenians here: many want to return to their existence in the
diaspora, even as they are welcomed in their historical homeland.

`Armenia always said, `Come to your home.’ They always asked us to
come back,’ said a man who identified himself only as Harout and was
visiting a new Syrian Armenian club here in Yerevan, the capital.
`Honestly, I love Armenia, but I wouldn’t leave Syria. I am praying
just to go back.’

For Armenia, the Syrians’ arrival reignites a debate over how to
manage its relationship with Armenians in the diaspora: encourage them
to immigrate or keep them where they are, from the United States to
the Middle East, generous with remittances and committed to lobbying
abroad for Armenia’s interests.

Advocates of resettlement contend that Syria’s loss could ultimately
be Armenia’s gain. Not only do they want to protect fellow Armenians,
they want Syrian Armenians – often skilled, wealthy, educated and
entrepreneurial – to help the struggling post-Soviet economy, stem
high emigration and bring new ideas.

`Such diversity only enriches a nation,’ said Vahe Yacoubian, a lawyer
based in California who invests in Armenia and has advised the

So the government is easing relocation. Syrians in Armenia can use
Syrian drivers’ licenses, obtain free medical care and pay local
tuition at universities. Governmental and private groups help Syrian
Armenians find jobs and transfer businesses to Armenia.

A vociferous minority has seized on fears of violence in Syria – and
memories of the Ottoman genocide – to push for a larger nationalist
goal, the return of all Armenians to the country.

`This is our land – not L.A., not New York, not Syria,’ said Vartan
Marashlyan, Armenia’s former deputy diaspora minister and the
executive director of Repat Armenia, an organization founded in August
to `actively champion’ what it calls the `repatriation’ of Armenians
from around the world.

Syrian Armenians who yearn for Syria `want to be in the Aleppo of one
year ago,’ a setting whose peaceful coexistence may not return, he
said. Referring to estimates of genocide deaths, he added, `We lost
1.5 million people to this mentality that it will all work out.’

But homesick Syrian Armenians find resettling hard to contemplate.
They point out that nationalists like Mr. Marashlyan came to Armenia
by choice, not fleeing violence.

`They want to put the label `repat’ on me,’ said Harout Ekmanian, a
Syrian Armenian journalist from Aleppo. `I am a Syrian in exile.’

Few Syrian Armenians have heeded past calls to immigrate, even after
Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. They considered
themselves Syrian, speaking Arabic and Western Armenian, not the
Eastern Armenian spoken in Armenia.

Still, many contributed money and support to the fledgling state,
especially during a territorial war with Azerbaijan that ended in 1994
and still simmers.

Armenia, too, needs its influential Middle East diaspora to navigate
regional tensions, said Salpi Ghazarian, the director of the Civilitas
Foundation in Yerevan and a former Foreign Ministry official. She said
ethnic Armenians in Arab countries and Iran had helped keep the
dispute between Armenia, a largely Christian country, and Azerbaijan,
which is mainly Muslim, from gaining traction as a pan-Muslim issue,
urging their governments not to take sides.

Tehran’s Armenian community also promotes crucial trade with
neighboring Iran, she said. Armenia is landlocked, and its borders
with Azerbaijan, and its ally Turkey, are closed, making Iran a
lifeline. `If those communities disappear, those human relations
disappear,’ Ms. Ghazarian said. `Then we are left without good

Armenia has kept neutral on Syria’s uprising and has worked hard to
aid people inside Syria. In recent months, three cargo planes carrying
food and donations from Armenians flew from Yerevan to Aleppo, after
intense negotiations with both Syria, which has severely limited
external aid, and Turkey, which normally bans Armenian cargo from its

The aid was distributed in Armenian neighborhoods, but without regard
to sect or ethnicity.

`We consider Syria our neighbor,’ said Vahan Hovhannisyan, a
Parliament member who oversaw the effort. Armenians are `grateful to
Syria,’ he said, because after the genocide, `Syria gave them back

The government recognizes that Syria is the only home several
generations of Syrian Armenians know. It approved the Cilician
School’s Syrian curriculum and Western Armenian instruction. An
Armenian political party covers costs; tuition is free.

`They feel like Syria is their home,’ said Amalia Qocharyan, an
Armenian education official. `But the reality is they have two
homelands, Syria and Armenia.’

At the school, a class of seventh graders was asked who missed Syria.
They answered in unison, in Arabic.

`Ana,’ they said. `Me.’

Asked about life in Yerevan, they were quieter. They said they missed
houses and friends; one said he could not be happy seeing pictures of
fighting in Aleppo.

`In Aleppo, I used to see the Armenian flag, and I wanted to go,’ said
Vana, 11. `Here, when I see the Syrian flag, I just want to go home.’

This article was financed in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center
on Crisis Reporting.