Special for the Armenian Weekly
The Syrian crisis began in the spring of 2011, but it wasn’t until violence hit Aleppo in late July 2012 that the first wave of Syrian Armenians began trickling into Armenia. Within just a couple of months, 3,000 refugees were living in the country. While their numbers have continued to increase—just past 11,000, according to a recent report by the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora—a significant portion have left Armenia for Europe, the U.S., or other Western countries.
In 2012, President Serge Sarkisian required that all government efforts to support Syrian Armenians be coordinated by the Diaspora Ministry. That summer, the Ministry created a working group to deal with the ever-increasing problem. The prime minister then formed a coordinating committee comprised of deputy ministers of health, education, and justice, and headed by Minister of Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan.
The Ministry, however, has been broadly criticized for its incompetence and inaction. Lusine Stepanyan, the head of the Department for Armenian Communities of the Near and Middle East at the Diaspora Ministry, disagrees. She recently told me that even before the conflict had started to affect Armenians directly, the Ministry had asked experts at the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia to prepare a report about the history of the region and its Armenian communities. Since the early stages of the Syrian conflict, she added, several meetings have taken place with representatives from the Syrian-Armenian community to discuss what should be done in worst-case scenarios.
It was perhaps Hakobyan’s old-fashioned approach towards the Armenian Diaspora, her Soviet lexicon, or populist public appearances that left many people dissatisfied. In August 2012, she was criticized for acting like a “wanna-be Mother Theresa” during her many orchestrated TV appearances. One such event took Hakobyan to a maternity hospital to congratulate the “first Syrian-Armenian baby born in Armenia!” This, of course, ignored the fact that many Syrian-Armenian repatriates had given birth in Armenia for decades before the Syrian crisis (in fact, perhaps as early as the 1940’s). Similar made-for-TV moments continued that summer, including frequent visits to the airport to welcome Syrian Armenians with flowers. Ignored was the fact that these newcomers had been exploited by Armavia, the Republic of Armenia’s carrier, which had just raised Aleppo-Yerevan ticket prices to record highs.
Despite such blatant missteps, officials at the Diaspora Ministry say that Hakobyan’s personal charisma and character have helped to solve the bureaucratic hurdles and to “get things done” as fast as possible.
In October 2012, the Ministry founded the Center for Coordination of Syrian-Armenians’ Issues NGO. Its Board, fully comprised of Syrian Armenians, is tasked with the issue of humanitarian assistance. In the meantime, the Ministry coordinates assistance with legal, health, and education issues with its respective ministries and governmental bodies.
As part of these efforts, the government began issuing visas for Syrian Armenians on the border, instead of mandating they be obtained in the home country through Armenian embassies and consulates. Refugees were also exempt from visa and residency fees. The government took another step and allowed Armenians from Syria and Lebanon to apply for and be granted citizenship from their embassies, instead of traveling to Armenia for the application process. Here, too, they were exempt from fees, as well as custom taxes on cars, for example.
The government is also offering free medical care to all Syrian Armenians at polyclinics regardless of citizenship, as well as the same support for major medical operations that citizens receive. Young Syrian Armenians have the same rights to education as Armenian citizens. Even university students have had their 2013-14 tuition fees paid for by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Kalouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
The Diaspora Ministry is working with the Armenian Catholic Church and the “Armenian Caritas” to provide accommodations to the many families, especially those from the northeast region of Syria, who are less familiar with the Armenian language and have greater integration issues. It is working with the Armenian Evangelical Church to provide lodging, medications, and dental care, as well as with other organizations, such as the Children of Armenia Fund, Vision Armenia, the Red Cross, and several UN agencies. Most of these activities are being coordinated by the Center for Coordination of Syrian-Armenians’ Issues on behalf of the Ministry.
Stepanyan says it’s been surprising to see the large numbers of business owners and individuals who have offered jobs, assistance, and goodwill since the early days of the conflict. One individual from the impoverished Berd border town donated 5,000 AMD (12 USD), which may not be a lot by U.S. standards, but is almost a week’s worth of meals for a family in Berd. “People are not indifferent to each other,” she says. In another case, a generous donation came from Iran, from a man whose sister had passed away in Syria. He hadn’t been able to help then, but wanted to donate to other Syrian Armenians.
The Diaspora Ministry is also organizing courses that introduce Syrian Armenians to the tax and customs system in Armenia, as well as to Eastern Armenian and Russian.
In recent months, Hakobyan launched her “New Aleppo” initiative, which will house approximately 630 Syrian-Armenian families. The land is being provided by the Ashtarak municipality. According to Ministry representatives, construction will soon begin. For some, the idea of gathering all Syrian Armenians in one place, 20 kilometers from the capital, is reminiscent of Soviet policies to ghettoize repatriates in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Stepanyan, however, stresses the financial difficulty in providing hundreds of families with permanent accommodation in Yerevan, which is already expensive and over-populated. The choice of location and all other steps, she says, were mainly decided through public gatherings with Syrian Armenians. Rather than ghettoizing, this project will help them preserve their Western-Armenian language and traditions, she adds.
Considering the social and economic circumstances that led many to leave Armenia, the government’s efforts to support Syrian-Armenian refugees, albeit late or half-hearted at times, have been better organized than in the past, when refugees arrived from other war-torn communities. It has also eclipsed the relief work being carried out by neighboring countries who have taken in refugees from Syria.