The Syrian Armenian Dilemma: Community Preservation or Out-Migration

In recent days, as violence continues to rage in Syria, various steps have been taken in Armenia to address the rather tenuous situation of the Armenian community there. After much controversy over Armavia’s rising airfare prices, which prompted critics to accuse the company of taking advantage of the Syrian Armenians’ marked vulnerability, Armavia announced that it would provide low-cost flights from Aleppo to Yerevan, reported Armenian news sources. The Armenian government, meanwhile, introduced an amendment to existing citizenship laws on July 26 that will allow Syrian and Lebanese citizens of Armenian descent to receive passports from consulates and embassies.

Taken on July 22, 2012, this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, claims to capture a fireball in Homs, Syria. (Anonymous/AP Photo)

Syrian Armenian journalist Harout Ekmanian, who is currently working for CivilNet in Yerevan, believes such steps are a matter of duty—not choice. “I won’t thank Armavia because of this. They must do this,” he told the Armenian Weekly, although he has reservations about how the national conversation on emigration and aid is conducted.

The issue of immigrating to Armenia is not as simple as one might imagine. First, many in the community are not willing to abandon the country—Syria—that they have called home for decades. Even if the will is there, abandoning homes and properties—temporarily or otherwise—has proven to be an impediment. The real estate market in Syria at the moment is suffering, and without financial security, surviving in Armenia will have its share of challenges.

“Do most Syrian Armenians want to leave the country? Can they? Is it right to leave?” asked Ekmanian. “In many cases, those who left their homes saw them looted and burned. We have the example of what happened to an Armenian photographer’s home in Damascus. Of course lives are more important than property, but most Armenians are below middle class…” he told the Armenian Weekly.

Armenia and the Diaspora

 Historian Ara Sanjian at the University of Michigan-Dearborn believes Armenians worldwide must provide moral and financial support to the Armenians in Syria, “especially if and when schools reopen in the fall.” Already, the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) has set up a fund to assist Syrian Armenian Schools.

Armenia and Armenians worldwide should “use every moment of peace to send writers and artistic groups to Aleppo and elsewhere to raise the morale of the people as much as possible,” said Sanjian. “[Some might] remember how [during the civil war] in Lebanon, artists and scholars used to come from Armenia and elsewhere and their events used to change the mood within the Lebanese-Armenian community, at least for a while.”

As to the efforts of the Armenian government, Sanjian believes that while they are well intentioned, the officials’ poor understanding of diasporan communities has handicapped them to some extent. “The Armenian government can do very little because of the situation on the ground in Syria, the poor economy in Armenia, and more importantly, because there is very little hard knowledge among the government officials and pundits in the media about the realities of diasporan life. The persistent lack of serious interest in analyzing the diaspora in the past has now shown its consequences. I hope that, in the aftermath of the Syrian crisis, more effort will be spent in academia and the media in Armenia to study the diaspora in depth and with realism,” he said.

Ekmanian, too, is critical of the Armenian government’s stance, and considers their efforts—“declaring some special treatments for Syrian Armenians, reducing flight costs, a few sentimental announcements by a minister or an administrative [official]”—insufficient. He believes that the government should instead be engaged in “serious dialogue with all the parties involved…to guarantee the wellbeing of Syrian-Armenians inside Syria… The Armenian government must include this issue in its foreign affairs priorities. None of this is happening and the Armenians are left to the mercy of the conflicting sides. Luckily, so far the Armenians haven’t been targeted, but are we waiting for that to happen to start acting?” he told the Weekly.

In an opinion piece published in Hetq, Ekmanian questioned the figures tossed around when talking about Syrian Armenian immigration to Armenia. He argued that many Syrian Armenians are not immigrating; rather, they’re seeking alternate destinations for tourism, because vacationing in Syrian summer spots, such as Kessab, may no longer be an option. He also argued that Syrian Armenians residing outside of Syria are more likely to vacation in Armenia rather than in Syria. “For the government of Armenia, it remains that they provide aid to only those who ask for it—be they Armenians from Syria or elsewhere. After all, Armenia must figure out whether it will be home to all Armenians, or just their tourism destination.”

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) is also cautious on the matter of immigration, arguing that Armenians must not be encouraged to abandon Syria. “People willing to come here must be helped, but we must not initiate their relocation,” ARF spokesperson Giro Manoyan told reporters in Yerevan.

In an interview with Yerkir Media, ARF Bureau representative Hrant Markarian noted that Armenians are an integral part of Syrian society, and as such it’s expected that instead of fleeing, Armenians remain and weather these difficult times with their neighbors. He stressed, however, that in no way does he blame those Syrian Armenians who wish to immigrate to Armenia. Markarian, too, was skeptical about reports of a large influx of Syrian Armenian immigrants, considering it a temporary move or tourism, not permanent out-migration. He also criticized media reports of Syrian Armenian immigration, and warned against inadvertently encouraging it or creating panic.

“Let’s be fair and recognize that unfortunately our country is not the sort of country that can handle a large number of refugees,” said Markarian, adding that currently Armenia is not able to house or support financially needy refugees, given that the current poorer segments of Armenia are not receiving such treatment.

On the ground

Since the beginning of the current crisis in the spring of 2011, Iran, Russia, and China have consistently maintained their support of the Assad government; the Gulf States, along with Turkey, the U.S., and Western European governments like France and the U.K., have sided with the opposition. Most members of the small Armenian community, including the leadership, seem to be hoping for victory for Assad’s government, weary of the uncertainty the alternative might bring in the future, said Sanjian. He characterized the situation on the ground as “fluid.” “Nobody really knows who has the upper hand,” he said. The government, however, seems to still have control in Damascus, where it squashed an uprising last week after the bombing of security headquarters.

There is a minority within the Armenian community in Syria that is increasingly critical of the government’s handling of the crisis, although these Armenians are still not as vocal in their criticism as are opposition supporters in other communities, Sanjian said. “The current opposition and its various backers are united only because Assad is still in power in Damascus. If he gets out of the picture, the opposition and its backers may fall out amongst themselves for the spoils. However, this is still a hypothetical situation,” he added.

Sanjian believes foreign powers will have a major influence on how the crisis ends, which is now almost at the point of a full-blown civil war. “The stakes are high internationally, and that’s why there is so much foreign involvement. Perhaps, the outcome is no longer in the hands of Syrians… At the moment, Assad has no readiness to go. He probably still believes that he can crush his opponents. I do not think there are serious negotiations on the international level to secure a peaceful solution. Both Assad and his Syrian opponents are still for an ‘either-or’ outcome,” he explained.

Between 60,000-70,000 Armenians call Syria home, constituting less than 0.5 percent of the country’s total population. More than half of them live in Aleppo, with the other half scattered in such cities as Latakia, Homs, Qamishli, Hasakeh, Yaqubiye, Raqqa, Kessab, and the capital Damascus.

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
Nanore Barsoumian

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  1. It’s as if the ARF wants to hold on to its last remaining power base in the Middle East outside of Lebanon. Armenians in Syria will relocate regardless of whatever the ARF or the Armenian government does, and that is precious little. Let’s face it, this is just the next phase of the dismantling of a large Armenian presence in the Near East. Just look at the past 40 years or so. If Armenians do decide to leave Syria, shouldn’t we be facilitating their possible relocation to Armenia rather than to the West where assimilation will eventually gobble them up? Armenian officials have been dragged kicking and screaming into doing the bare bones minimum for Syrian-Armenians and like the article states officials in Yerevan really have no clue about the complexities of the diaspora. You would think that official Yerevan would be falling over themselves to facilitate the relocation of those Armenians from Syria for a number of practical reasons, least of which would be an injection of professionals and tradespeople. On the contrary, it took the Diaspora Ministry many weeks to even come up with the idea of handing about informational brochures with names and contacts to those flying into Yerevan from Aleppo. This is the extent of their engagement. The Ministry line is that they cannot reveal what they are doing behind the scenes due to its “sensitive” nature. What in heaven’s name are they playing act? You’d think they are negotiating with Assad and the opposition they way they bluster. It’s a pathetic joke. This is an issue that demands coordinated action and planning by the RA government and the Diaspora. But I see no such desire or vision on both sides.

  2. My comments would be brief. I personally blame our millionaires and billionaires for not supporting the Armenia’s government to relocate and settle Syrian and Iraqi Armenians in Armenia. If our fatherland (Armenia) disagree to accept us as Armenians so why should we annually support them politically and financially?

  3. The Pan Armenia Fund should help Armenians in Syria to settle in Armenia. Its too bad the economy of Armenia can’t absorb them without financial assistance.

  4. Living in Alep since 4 decades, I find the comments of H. Ekmanian truly reflect the opinions of the majority of Syrian Armenians. However on the ground, the reality is more dangerous than described in this article, a fierce war is going on right now, just a few kilometers away from the main Armenian districts in Alep, we feel abandoned not just from Armenia (that we are used to), but also we don’t see any serious intentions or steps by the Diaspora, it’s traditional parties, organizations…

    Yes many Armenians preferred not to leave their second homeland and escape to Armenia, however this opinion has been violently shaken since the fights in Alep began about a week ago! The Armenian districts are safe until this hour, but they can be attacked by the mercenaries anytime… besides the turkish army is ready on the border, waiting for a green light from Nato to enter! I don’t say this will happen tomorrow, but it is not impossible that we find ourselves face to face again with the killers of our ancestors, again without arms to defend ourselves … I leave the rest to your imagination!

  5. 1.5 years ago I wrote here a comment to Syrian Armenians: “Get out, while you can, as the situation in Syria looks bad”. Today, 1.5 years later, I repeat the same comment.

    Do not you all romanticize your “second homeland” Syria? After all, Syrian Armenians were/are second class citizens in Syria and will always remain so.

    I agree: “Hayastan” All-Armenian fund this year should help Syrian Armenians. What is it then for?

  6. Clearly, there shouldn’t be a dilemma. Both venues must be persued. Help must be provided to those who wish to come to Armenia, and at the same time there must be effort in preservation of Armenian community in Syria. Armenia officials, government and sivil organizations must engage in actively negotiating with all countries involved to secure gurantees for the Armenian community. So far, nothing that I know of has been done on that venue. Playing the issue down and trying to convince each other that everything has been OK so far doesn’t work. How many more lessons do we need? We must be in every media outlet, on every negotiation floor around the world trumpeting yet another danger of annihilation of Armenian community.

  7. We do agree that Armenia is a poor country without any resources but those millionaires and billionaires should come forward and build houses to Syrian and Iraqi Armenians in Armenia. What a millionaire and billionaire will do with his money if he hesitate to help our brothers and sisters in Muslim brotherhood troubled countries and I will dare to say Muslim brotherhoods are against Christians, period.

  8. The Turkish army has bigger fish to fry than 60,000 Armenian shopkeepers and tradespeople in Aleppo – namely the possibility of a breakaway Kurdish enclave.

    • you are correct that Turkish Army’s main target is (or would be) the Kurds.
      However, if the opportunity arises – e.g. uncontrolled chaos – why not also ethnically cleanse Armenians from Syria ?

      Armenians in Syria and Lebanon are a nightmare AG reminder to Turks, and too close to their AG killing fields for comfort.

      With Armenians gone from Syria, and a Turkish-friendly Syrian regime in charge, more of the remaining AG evidence in Syria can be eradicated without anyone stopping it or even complaining.

      Nevertheless, I agree with you that the safety and security of the Armenian community is paramount: not a single Syrian Armenian life is worth all the evidence in the world.

    • Annexing a former Ottoman governed territory such as Aleppo is certainly a nice big fish to fry.

  9. How does the ARF plan to protect those who do stay? Manoyan shouldn’t regard Syrian-Armenians as pawns in some delusional ARF strategy for maintaining an Armenian presence adjacent to Turkey.

  10. As we speak, the Armenian communities on the Middle East are already a shadow of their former self. The Armenian community of Egypt, once thriving and a large cultural center, has now dwindled to irrelevance. Same with Jordan and Iraq. The few Armenians in the gulf countries are there mainly for employment. That pretty much leaves Syria and Lebanon as the last remaining significant presence for Armenians of the Middle East (not counting Iran which shares a border with Armenia).

    I agree with the above sentiment that some Armenians should relocate to Armenia if they plan to leave, and yet the community there must also be preserved.

    In addition to having connections in the Middle East through our community, which may bring unforeseen benefits in the future, there are other reasons that the communities of Lebanon and Syria should be preserved. For one, when it comes down to determining the descendants of genocide victims, these communities offer direct insight as to why they are there, and in fact are the true heirs of Cilicia, if and when that time should arrive. If Turkey one day is forced into reparations, without any Armenians in the region, who will claim the lands they lost? Yes I know all Armenians have been affected throughout the world in one way or another and can trace their roots, but the Armenians of Syria and Lebanon are a hop skip and jump away from landing on their families’ former homes. Turkey would like nothing more than to see the Middle East Armenians disappear, as it will be even closer to completing her genocide of the Armenians.

    Then there are a couple ‘Armenian’ cities in Syria and Lebanon such as Kessab… losing the community here is equivalent to the Turks and Azeris destroying Medieval Armenian monuments… it would be a tragic loss for our community to lose a part of our historic presence, and the last remaining “Cilician Armenian City”.

    And I don’t know if anyone else would share this view, but I believe that Armenians from isolated regions of the world who are interested in preserving their culture and identity should be the first to repatriate to the homeland. In places like Los Angeles, Beirut, Aleppo,etc Armenians have an easier time preserving their cultures, as opposed to little heard of cities throughout the world where Armenians would make little or no impact.

  11. I am amazed at the above comment. When did Los Angeles become a bastion of Armenian culture? Why place the burden of Armenian identity preservation only on Armenians in Lebanon and Syria? Who is stopping the one million Armenians in California from getting on a plane, flying 15 hours, and landing in Mush, Van or Kharpert? Forget, for one minute, the Armenians in Syria. What about the 50,000 or so Armenians still clinging on in Istanbul? They have more direct and immediate connections to the western Armenian homeland some here fantasize about reclaiming. What is the diaspora doing to lend them moral support? NOTHING! It’s easy to tell Armenians living in Aleppo and Beirut to “hang on” when you yourself are comfortably residing in Europe or the States. Furthermore, it smacks of nothing less than hypocrisy and pseudo-patriotic jingoism.

  12. I’m amazed at the above comment too, which shows pseudo-intellectual arrogance at best, not to mention total lack of insight to the realities of life for Armenians outside of Armenia, whether it is in the Middle East, Europe, or the US. Before talking at people instead of with them, I suggest reading comments carefully before making delusional conclusions about contents of the same and showing your inability to comprehend simple ideas.

    Every Armenian in the world, including yourself (if you are one), is “comfortably residing” in the comforts of their home and in their present country, regardless of where they are. Assuming that you are of adult age, it does not take much to realize that people are not sheep that can be herded to your definition of utopia in the blink of an eye as if we are in some kind of video game. How have you arrived at your self-proclaimed brilliant ideas that exiled Armenians who have been living outside their homeland for the past century will leave their homes, businesses, jobs, friends, relatives, and everything else and jump over a cliff without knowing what to expect?

    And if you don’t understand that I made no absolute conclusions in my comment about which communities are better equipped to preserve themselves than others, then I suggest you do some critical thinking. In Los Angeles an Armenian has infinitely more options to explore his/her culture than in Timbuktu, this concept is not difficult to understand at all.

    I’m the first one that will say Armenians everywhere need to repatriate to the homeland. Still, there is a lot of unfinished business to take care of before this takes place on a large scale. Repatriating to the homeland is a process, not a single, one-time event.

    And for your sake, since you are not a “hypocrite” yourself, I hope that when you posted your comment you were on your white horse with a laptop on mount Aragats.

  13. The entire middle east is beeing changed.Moslem brotherhood is taking over and it will be bad for the christians.Turkey is also involved and they will do anything to destroy the armenian community.The diaspora has to help the syrian armenians to get out of there .I think the ARF is very wrong in alowing
    the armenians to stay there .And if they do stay they better carry guns for their protections.If the armenian government isn t doing much then the world wide armenian diaspora must help and the Hell with those Rats in the armenian government , all they want is the money of the diaspora.

  14. Random Armenian: The following are our billionaires who are able to re-locate, settle (build them houses) and support Armenians of Syria and Iraq in their fatherland (Armenia):

    American-Armenian tycoon Kirk Kerkorian remains the world’s richest Armenian. The 93-year old has estimated assets of $3.5 billion.

    Danil Khachaturov (each having $1.5 billion) appear in the 833rd place in the world and the 65th place in Russia. The founder of Tashir Group, Samvel Karapetyan, is the 879th wealthiest man on the global scale.

    Head of Troika Dialog Group Ruben Vardanyan is not included in the 2011 billionaires’ list.

    The names of four other Armenians, all representing Russia. Joint owners of RESO Garantia company, brothers Sergey and Nikolay Sarkisovs, and director and principal shareholder of Rosgosstrakh company.

  15. @Kevork ….”If Turkey one day is forced into reparations, without any Armenians in the region, who will claim the lands they lost?” So this is your convoluted rationale for arguing that the Armenians in Syria should stay put?? Who gave you the right to dictate Armenian national policy on such a grand scale? I’d be interested to know where you reside? You speak in riddles and contradictions. On the one hand you point out all the difficulties that you and others “living comfortably” face in the process of relocating to Armenia, but on the other, you conveniently assign the task of claiming western Armenian lands to “others”, namely the Syrian-Armenians. How noble of you. You write, “But the Armenians of Syria and Lebanon are a hop skip and jump away from landing on their families’ former homes….” What’s your point? If, as you argue, Armenians in Los Angeles can preserve their identity on par with Beirut and Aleppo, the lands of their forefathers in Turkey are only a plane ride or two away. Think before you write such arrogant stuff. I live in Armenia and have been amazed at how the ARF here is also calling for preserving the community in Syria. Fine….But who will ensure their continuing safety and prosperity? The ARF? Will you?

  16. Kesab is in immediate potential danger from Turks threatening to jump the border . Someone with links to world governments needs to help. We are getting calls from this region.

  17. ” Where is our pride Armenias? ”

    Since the start of the Syrian revolution in early 2011 & todate there is no effective & serious efforts carried out by the Armenian government to evacuate, support & help the Armenian Syrian community in Syria. As a government that is supose to care for its population providing security, regardless of citizenship & place, was supose to shed the light on finding a way out to evacuate more than 100 000 Armenian minorities living in Syria, giving them the chance & the opportunity based on free will to re-establish themselves as refugees in their home land Armenia.

    Although most of Armenians in Syria where against the revolution in Syria while Alassad regime has been good towards the christian minorities but the issue to leave Syria has many serious reasons which must have been taken in consideration since long time back by the Armenian government, the humanitarian organizations in Armenia & the foreign ministry of the Republic !

    Syrias violent civil war which causes high death rates provides no security for the Armenians & the overall living conditions are not suited for human needs.

    Where is our pride Armenians? & for what are we proud of?

    Karl Shirvanian

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