A Syrian-Armenian repatriate determined to help the homeland

September 2022 was a month of deep sorrow for Armenian society as horrific attacks across the border by Azerbaijan left over 200 dead and many more displaced. The situation is all too familiar for thousands of ethnic Armenians who have repatriated in recent years after fleeing the war in Syria. Having experienced similar hardships, they have great empathy for those on the border and have been quick to lend their talents to assist. This is one of those stories.

Sisters Lena and Silvia with the prized view of Ararat from their balcony in Yerevan.

Lena Yacoubian is from Aleppo’s Armenian district of Nor Gyugh, which was subject to constant shelling during the war in Syria, forcing her to flee to a cousin’s house in a safer area. She spent two years there hoping for the opportunity to return home, however the bombings continued unabated. Eventually, she made the difficult choice to go into exile, a decision that’s all too familiar to her family. Her ancestors were originally from the towns of Urfa and Aintab (now in Turkey) and had come to Aleppo as refugees due to the Armenian Genocide. Yacoubian’s family members lost their homes, their businesses and properties, while mercenaries looted all their possessions. “Everything was gone,” recounted Yacoubian, “We would have to start over from zero.”

Arrangements were made to settle in France with her uncle—noted sculptor Toros Rast-Klan; one of her sisters instead decided to repatriate to Armenia. Yacoubian went with her to await a French visa, but upon arrival, she was pleasantly surprised by life there. She found Armenia to have a familiar culture, mindset and warmth, something she knew wouldn’t be the case in France. She joined Syrian-Armenian affinity organizations and helped to create a Lady’s Association Choir, of which she’s the conductor. Plans changed; Yacoubian would be staying. It’s been a decision which, despite some hardships, is one she doesn’t regret. “It’s important to live on your own land. It’s where we belong,” she said.

To make a living in the homeland, Yacoubian drew on her own talents—knitting. She learned the craft from her mother 35 years ago; it’s an art which to her dismay seems to be dying in the young generation. In Aleppo, she had her own business with over 30 employees making children’s clothing, blouses and sweaters until it was lost with the war. Yacoubian decided to restart her label in Yerevan, but it would not be easy. “It was a huge adjustment. We couldn’t even find all the materials we needed for production here,” she explained. “The Syrian market is much larger than the Armenian one, and there we had clients from all around the region.” Through networking, she learned of a competition by the local United Nations office for refugee small business owners. After presenting her business plan and products, she was chosen as one of the winners to receive a grant which gave her the capital to get her business off the ground.

Lena’s sister Silvia assists her in her work, here displaying a few of their children’s clothing designs.

A few years later, she met Timothy Straight, the Honorary Consul of Norway and Finland to Armenia and founder of the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation (HDIF). HDIF is a fair trade organization that works with female entrepreneurs in Armenia to promote their offerings abroad. It contracted Yacoubian to create cushions, Christmas stockings and ornaments. Yacoubian’s work took on a new purpose with the September 2022 invasion, which impacted Armenia’s eastern border regions including the town of Vardenis where HDIF has a producer-partner. When HDIF asked how it could help, it was told preparing for winter was a paramount concern and immediately saw a role for Yacoubian. “HDIF has a ‘react early and produce locally’ philosophy aiming at covering the needs of the men and boys defending the villages, the elderly who can’t leave the villages, the families who’ve lost their breadwinner, and those with lots of kids,” explained Straight. “HDIF had partnered with Lena during the 2020 war to that end and did so again this September.” She enlisted the help of her sister Silvia, and together they knit five sweaters a day. They knit over 120 sweaters and consolidated with a producer in Shirak, who knit 300 hats. In cooperation with the charity Focus on Children Now, their collection was delivered to those border-area civilians holding their ground and defending their homes.

HDIF founder Timothy Straight delivers Lena’s sweaters to residents of one of the border villages which were attacked by Azerbaijan in September.

The recent attacks brought back memories for Syrian-Armenians of what they have similarly endured. The days immediately after the attack were particularly stressful, as it was uncertain what else may follow, a possibility which never goes away. “Despite the problems and fatigue of everyday, it all falls away when I sit at my machine,” says Yacoubian. “It energizes me and transports me to a peaceful place. I sing while I work, usually songs of the badarak such as Der Voghormia, but as I embarked on this new project I started singing songs for our soldiers and always remember them as I work. We sleep peacefully at night because they’re on our borders protecting us.”

Yacoubian has always put her heart into her work, especially knowing it will go to the borders to help people in a situation similar to what she’s endured. “The life of a displaced person is extremely difficult. You have to leave everything behind and start again. The recently displaced people on the border will regain whatever they lost. I feel through God’s help they will be able to return home and the enemy will be pushed out.” She will continue working on the home front and desires to pass on her knitting expertise to as many young people as she can so that, like the homeland, the craft won’t be lost. She is part of a nationwide movement determined to persevere through all difficulties and looking with hope to the future. 

After having to flee her home in Syria for Armenia due to war, Lena Yacoubian is now using her sewing skills to help those in the homeland whose lives have also been affected by conflict.

If you’d like to order handicrafts made in Armenia by artisans like Yacoubian, you can do so in the US through their California-based affiliate HDIF-USA

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has worked in Armenia as the English language editor at CivilNet and as a project associate for USAID programs. More recently he served as one of the organizers of the World Congress on Information Technology 2019 Yerevan. He is also a historian who researches and brings to light the long and rich history of Philadelphia's Armenian community.
Paul Vartan Sookiasian

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1 Comment

  1. All armenians should repatriate back to Armenia from lran to Turkey whole arabs states including former soviet states including georgia for their safety and population,nobody cant grant bright future nor prosperity to our armos in middle east.

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