Conflict pushes Syrian-Armenians to their ancestral homeland

In the final few days of July 2012, conflict broke out between rebels and the Syrian regime in the ancient city of Aleppo. Sarkis Rshdouni’s father was driving him to the airport, opting for the longest route in order to avoid the fighting on the main road. But they couldn’t escape it entirely.

“It was my first time seeing a military helicopter firing,” Mr. Rshdouni said of the trip.

The threat of violence was not what compelled the now 26-year-old to leave. Rather, it was Syria’s political leanings after the death of former President Hafez Al-Assad and rise of his now-embattled son, Bashar. According to Mr. Rshdouni, a Syrian-Armenian, the country became more aligned with Turkey, and this affected his community.

Aleppo
Aleppo city centre, June 2012. “The neighbourhood is partly damaged due to the ongoing war,” says Sarkis Rshdouni.

“Syria still hasn’t recognized the Armenian genocide…so why should I live there?” said Mr. Rshdouni, who is studying for a B.A. in history at Yerevan State University and working in the tourism industry.

Prior to 2007, the Syrian-Armenian community would travel to Der Zor, Syria on April 24th in order to commemorate the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. According to Mr. Rshdouni, if you dig in the desert just outside the city, you can unearth the bones of some victims of the genocide.

A century has passed since millions of Armenians were expelled from modern-day Turkey to the deserts of northern Syria. Used as a method of ethnic cleansing by Ottoman Turkey, they were not expected to survive. Mr. Rshdouni’s own paternal grandparents were part of this forced migration.

But like many minorities, they adapted and eventually thrived throughout the Levant.

Now, a new regional conflict is threatening the community’s existence. Nearly four years into the Syrian war, the same region where these Armenians were dispelled in 1915 is embattled territory. Several generations later, their descendants are finding safety in returning to their homeland.

About the size of Maryland and with a population of three million, Armenia has welcomed an estimated 10,000 Syrian-Armenians since the conflict began. The government is promoting integration by providing housing and education for refugees.

According to Dr. Rouben Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington D.C., 5,000 were recently granted citizenship. This is all but impossible for Syrian refugees in any other Middle Eastern country. Yet there are significant barriers to overcome since Armenia has a developing economy and an unemployment rate of approximately 20 percent.

“It’s really tough to sustain a life in Armenia, not only as a Syrian-Armenian, but generally, it’s really hard to live here,” Mr. Rshdouni said. Although many Syrian-Armenians have to work two jobs in order to make ends meet, Armenia presents a much better option than surrounding countries.

Yerevan
Yerevan, August 2014. Sarkis Rshdouni displays a bag of local Syrian chips. “They made their way to my hands all the way from Damascus; a childhood love.”

“There is no tent in Armenia,” said. Mr. Rshdouni, referring to United Nations-sponsored refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. In addition to providing a better living standard, Armenia is also more stable.

Large parts of northern Iraq are controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), where the U.S.-led coalition is conducting air strikes. Lebanon has been a fragile state for decades and is already home to about 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Now over a million Syrians have flooded its borders.

“It’s entirely unlikely they [Syrian-Armenian refugees] are going to seek refuge in Turkey given the historical background,” says Dr. Adalian.

From 1915-1922, Ottoman officials killed an estimated 1-1.5 million of the 2 million Armenians living under their control. Armenia will commemorate the centennial anniversary on April 24th, the same day Turkey plans to mark the anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign. This battle is seen as a defining moment in Turkish history, as the fading Ottoman Empire was victorious against Allied forces.

British journalist Robert Fisk commented that the timing is Turkey’s attempt to divert attention away from the memory of the campaign against Armenians. Turkey even invited Armenian President Serge Sarkissian to attend its ceremonies. He declined the offer.

Modern-day Armenia comprises the area ceded to Russian control following the Russo-Turkish war in the early 1800s.Western Armenia remained under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire.

Just prior to World War I, a nationalist reform movement called the “Young Turks” overthrew the Sultan, formed a new government, and sought to make the country more Turkish in nature. After the war broke out, the Ottomans aligned themselves with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fears abounded that Armenians would betray the empire, especially considering religious ties to Russia.

Armenia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, a distinction among neighboring Muslim-majority countries, where much of the community has lived for decades. Although geographically separated for generations, Armenian communities throughout the region remain linked by cultural, linguistic, and religious ties.

“We grew up very Armenian,” Mr. Rshdouni said.

He considers Armenian his first language and attended Armenian school. English is his second language. Mr. Rshdouni only used Arabic for daily activities like shopping and getting gas.

Yerevan
Sarkis Rshdouni in Yerevan, December 2014.

After nearly three years, Mr. Rshdouni doesn’t plan to return to Syria. He says he has nothing to go back to, especially considering his parents and sister joined him in Armenia two months after he arrived.

Although Aleppo was once considered a major center for the Armenian community in the Middle East, it changed when the Al-Assad family came to power, says Mr. Rshdouni. And now, the city is a conflict zone, between the Free Syrian Army, Syrian regime, and extremists such as ISIS and Al-Nusra Front.

“Beirut is the fortress for the whole Armenian community in the Middle East,” Mr. Rshdouni said of Syria’s neighbor to the west, fraught by civil war for decades. It appears this troubled context is what caused the Armenian community to strengthen and gain influence in Lebanese society. A cause for optimism, the Syrian-Armenian community can come back even stronger after the dust has settled in the current war.


Erica Wenig

Erica Wenig is an intern with CCTV-America in Washington D.C.

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