Since the beginning of the decade, media around the world are following the evolution of the Syrian crisis, and are endeavoring to discover the challenges of their integration mainly through the European or North American lens. However, the 6.7 million displaced have not all chosen this destination. Among them, there is also an Armenian community, mainly settled in Aleppo, directly affected by the conflict from August 2012. Descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide (1915), where force to flee their homes for the second time in a century. This article offers an account of life journeys, their successful integrations or their lingering doubts.
Adapting to your host country: who to ask for help?
Mehrig, a young Syrian Armenian, receives me in a small office housing the activities of Syrian Armenian Union, an organization directly linked to newcomers. Previously a graphic artist, she is now one of the employees who advises refugees on tax regulations. Mehrig was one of the first to reach Armenia. Following the anxiousness of her mother, she explains that in 2012, when she was a student in a high school, a part of the cafeteria where she was sitting with her friends, was destroyed. Unable to go back to school because of fear, she decides to go to Armenia to follow the university courses in Graphic Design. The travel was not, at that time, a definitive installation in her ancestors country. The idea was to be peaceful for several months, and discover Yerevan, a city that she had never visited. As the crisis increases in Syria, and especially in Aleppo which gathers a huge community of Armenians people (almost 60 000), she convinces her family to join her in Armenia.
When she explains that 8 years after, the Syrian Armenian community in Armenia is composed of 14 000 people, she also remembered how it was to find a place to live or to be integrated in the faculty. The phenomenon of Syrian Refugees crisis is quite known nowadays by the inhabitants of Armenia. However, at that time, Mehrig was one of the first to repeat, tirelessly, “I am Armenian, I can speak your language, or “I go to the same church”. She is not the only Syrian Armenian who explains that there is still some difference in terms of mentality – jokes, habits or education. The unease is sometimes deep, when she realizes for example, what are the requirement in university about the diligence, times of work or the relationships with the teacher. She is judging the education system as “less strict and demanding in Armenia, in comparison to the high level of education in Syria”. She nevertheless feels surrounded today, as much by Syrians as by locals, and sees herself continuing to live here. Young age, open-mindedness to the world, ability to speak several languages are perhaps elements that explain Mehrig’s well-being in her host country. But this is not the case for the majority of Syrians. One of the organizations responsible for answering questions regarding refugees intergration into Armenian society is Aleppo Compatric Charitable Organization. The premises of this NGO
is a few steps from Northern Avenue, the symbol of modern Armenia. The NGO’s mission is to provide legal, financial and psychological support to new arrivals. Public awareness (conferences, meetings), assertion of fundamental rights with public authorities, creation of quantified reports detailing the living conditions of the displaced… This is not the exhaustive list of activities they implement. Established in 2013, Aleppo Compatric Charitable Organization.
is positioned as one of the key players in integration of Syrians in Armenia.
Sarkis Balkhian, executive director o the NGO, says employment and housing are tarnishing the image of a fully achieved integration for the 22 000 Syrians having passed through or having stayed in Armenia since 2012.
This is where the investment of the Armenian State Migration Service comes into play. The State Migration Service (SMS) under the Ministry of Territorial Administration is the leading agency in migration management in Armenia. It coordinates migration issues and develops policies. As an example, in 2016-2017, 70% of tuition fees of 436 Syrian-Armenian students studying at Armenian universities and colleges were reimbursed due to the co-financing of AGBU, “Galust Gulbenkyan” Foundation and the Government of the Republic of Armenia. To help refugees from Syria as well as possible, the State Migration Service offers an integration program (at a cost of $ 32,000 per year, including all the actions) consisting of Armenian courses, workshops on civic education and allocation of a pension. To date, this amount is 60,000 Armenian drams per month for people with refugee status (the equivalent of 125.6 dollars).
Indeed, the status determines the aids put in place by the State. Only 800 out of 14,700 Syrians currently living in Armenia have chosen this path of being a refugee. All the others preferred to acquire Armenian nationality, issuing them a passport and being well integrated from the legal point of view, meaning that they have the same rights as the local population. However, sometimes the acquisition of citizenship is confused with integration, but it represents a long and complex process which requires implementation of various social and economic development programmes. Choosing the Armenian nationality rather the refugee status implies that it is not possible to benefit, for example, from the return policy implemented by the Government in 2015, which chartering free planes directly from Syria to Yerevan, or even to occupy the one of the temporary accommodation provided for refugees who have just arrived. The accomodation is not very comfortable. It is provided in a building that is able to receive 45 persons and is located in Massiv, on the east of Yerevan.
“The refugees came from everywhere, I’ve met some Sudanese or Iranian”, said Arpine Basmajian, a refugge from Aleppo, when she remembered her arrival in this called “Reception Center. “The living conditions were hard: a unique room with no window. We only stayed one month, for the survival of my mother particularly, who was always sick, especially because of her inability to reach the bathroom, or the toilets which were broken down”. They are considered as the lucky ones to find a flat in a short period: the specific disease of two members of Basmajian family gave them the opportunity to be helped fast. It is in her small apartment that Arpine receives me to tell me her story.
Money issues and shelter: how to get through ?
Arpine Basmajian is waiting for me in her pink dressing gown. It’s hot in her apartment when I arrived in the living room which also serves as a bedroom, dining room and clothing workshop. Entering this bright little apartment means discovering on her armchair, Arpine’s sister, barely older, paralyzed in her legs since childhood. Next to her, wrapped in a blanket, their mother Sirazin. With her dazzling white hair and her little voice that stammers out a few notions of French, this 91-year-old woman, unable to move, is entirely dependent on Arpine, who alone provides maintenance, shopping and return of money necessary for this small family.
Arpine’s sister Zepyur had problems with legs since her birth. This disability does not prevent the two sisters to form a little business: they were dressmakers working at home. The request for their handcrafts (tablecloths, doilies, set of lingerie and clothes) was high in Syria, they regularly had to refuse some clients. Their skills were recognized in Aleppo. But, according to Arpine, the Armenian society is not interested in manual work and artcraft. They prefer something that they can find at the cheapest price in a shop rather than a better quality handmade. The financial reward and merit are not following yet. Via a Facebook page, they advertise their works hoping that people can reach their flat if they are interested.
Arpine’s mother is unable to leave the flat because of her illness, and her sister can’t move either. She needs to be at home to meet their needs. To this day, no better solution was found, even if they had talk with some NGOs, as Syrian-Armenian Union, which can only book a table in Vernissage for example, an unadapted solution for Arpine and her family’s issues.
The family did not want to leave Syria at the beginning of the war : it was their city, their memorizes, their lives. When all of Aleppo was emptying from 2011 to 2013, they never imagine that they will follow others a few years later. In 2016, the next door building was bombed more than 20 times in one night. A few seconds later, one of Arpine’s brothers resigned. Arpine sums it up as follows: “He said, ‘I am leaving with or without you, Tomorrow, if I don’t do anything, I will be under the destroyed building”. The decision is made, the suitcases filled up in one night. They manage to join one of the planes chartered directly by the Armenian Government, which will take them to Yerevan, alongside seven other families. Faces were not familiar, neither are the streets in Yerevan. The storefronts with panels written in Russian, the words of locals whose dialect, that of Eastern Armenia, bears little resemblance to that of the West spoken in Iraq, Lebanon or Syria in the Armenian communities.
The rent of the flat, which is modestly furnished, is partly payed due to the pension provided by the State, 60 000 drams per month, while their flat costs 140 000 drams. The 25,000 drams per person obtained for their retirement are completing their income (135 000 drams; which equals to 282 dollars; in total for three persons, in a country which the average salary for one person is 216 dollars a month), but it is clearly insufficient for their monthly expenditure: it even does not even cover the entire accommodation cost. A few sales of handcrafts, financial assistance from her brother or the temporary cash inflows from NGOs (during celebrations, back to school, during a big fundraiser …) close famliy’s tight budget. “I pay, with difficulty the rent fee, do shopping, and buy medicine., with great control over spending, we spend only on what we need to survive. But we live in this room, in an apartment from which I am the only one who can leave. There is no fun, no entertainment. “
Arpine is therefore one of the 90% of Syrians who does not own apartment in Armenia. On the contrary, 90% of the locals do, according to Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization. As less than 1000 peoples, Arpine and her family had chosen to get a residency permit, accorded by the Government for 10 years. Armenian Government is more generous toward holders of this status in terms of state support for medical expenditures, or cheaper rents. Many other Syrian Armenians had chosen the citizenship of the Republic of Armenia, which is easy to get with a birth certificate or an apostolic baptism proof. But the Armenian passport won’t get their life any easier. Encouraging the return of descendants of genocide survivors is one of the tactics of the Government. This could be an answer to the serious demographic problem facing the country. For more than 20 years, the number of people leaving the country to settle elsewhere has been greater than the number of arrivals. However, for the first time in 2018, the curve is reversed. According to the Migration Service, 3757 persons have moved to Armenia, compared to 3741 departure. A derisory difference of 15 people, however, means a lot for this country accustomed to the massive departure of its nationals. Nevertheless, a saturated job market explains why nearly 8,000 Syrians, out of the 22,000 welcomed since 2012, did not stay in Armenia. The high rates of outflow are mainly due to attempts to find better living conditions than Armenian Government can offer to refugees.
This topic is an issue for every citizens in the country, from young adults who are leaving universities to refugees who need to settle their activity there. With the rate of 18.8% of unemployed people, the government, in cooperation with specific NGO’s (Syrian Armenian Union for example), is trying to guarantee an equal access to work. But problems are harder for Syrian Armenians: first of all, they have to improve their skills in eastern Armenian, the dialect spoken in Yerevan, different from their western one, they must also find sources of income as soon as they arrive to meet their daily needs. They should also be familiar with the tax and business field legistaltion. An administrative hodgepodge slowing down access to a lucrative activity. Absence of coherent information about service providers, imported products, raw material supply as well as local producers and their products is one of the serious obstacles for doing business in Armenia as explained the Center for Coordination of Syrian Armenian For local citizens the absence of information is compensated by established relationships with each other, whilst Syrian Armenians entrepreneurs in most cases spend plenty of time on information search.
Whose responsibility is it to assert the right of the Syrian Armenians?
One of the latest awareness raising campaigns by Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization is to report on the labor market difficulties for Syrians in Armenia. Activists filmed in front of various governmental buildings in Yerevan are revealing figures from a joint investigation by the organization within the framework of “Labor Rights are Human Rights”, a project funded by the US Department of State’s Democracy Commission Small Grants Program. Among the figures released, we learn that 46% of Syrians are unemployed (77% of them are women) and 87% of Syrian employees in Armenia are victims of Labor Rights Violations. The reactions on the social network are immediate, and reflect this misunderstanding toward the Syrian community living in Armenia: the most popular comment is “How do you expect Syrian-Armenian’s rights to be respected when the local’s rights are not really being respected either?”. If Labour Rights violation happens for local Armenians, the consequences will not be the same for the Syrian Armenians: 20% of them, by the way, does not have any legal contract, which means that there is no protection in case of violation. Sarkis Balkhian, NGO’s executive director, is arguing as well. “The Government has to enforce the law and protect labour rights. Armenia had signed more than 100 conventions and protocols, they have to take the responsibility. All we are asking is that the State has to transpose what is written to action”.
Some authorities nevertheless understand the issues and are getting organized: although 92% of Syrians are in Yerevan, some reside in other cities as Echmiadzin, Abovyan, Charentsavan, Dilijan or in Artsakh. Spitak, a northern city is proposing lands to cultivate in exchange of free houses, hoping to encourage sustainable self-sufficiency in the future, with the help of the Global Pope Organization.
Other initiatives includes the failure of the program of building “New Aleppo” district in Ashtarak, an idea to provide to Syrian-Armenians some flats in the same area. 6 years ago, a territory was given by the city authorities: certain design and other works were done. Though, the program was suspended because of lack of funding.
The office of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is one of the main actors in supporting refugees in Armenia. UNHCR implements various projects to help refugees integrate in the country: all this is done in coordination with the NGOs which collect the UNHCR funds and redistribute them in permanent housing, allocations and micro-credits or basic medical assistance. UNHCR is the main donor for Mission Armenia, the Center for Coordination of Syrian Armenian Issues, KASA Foundation or the Red Cross in Armenia. UNHCR understands that the perpetual assistance hardly moves the lines. In cooperation with Mission Armenia, they had registering 7000 Syrians Armenians who had been assisted in all manners with shelters, food or clothes.
Anahit Hayrapetyan, UNHCR External Relations Associate asks: “If one day we cannot pay, what will be the quality of life? People are depending on our cash assistance. And the Government does not find any solution. The law does not work. The Government does not have a comprehensive strategy to integrate these people. The number of displaced is considered as small, and they think that the others can manage. If the number is small and manageable, so why don’t they do that ?”
Anahit sums up her country’s policy towards refugees in this way: “UNHCR is paying, NGO is doing, the government is waiting”.
Armenia is a small and largely homogenous country of just three million people, so when thousands of refugees fleeing Syria’s conflict began arriving a few years ago, their presence was impossible to ignore. The United Nations refugee agency said Syrian refugees accounted for six of every 1,000 people in Armenia. This small Caucasian country therefore represents the third host country for Syrians. It is also important to consider that Armenia’s GDP is estimated at 12.4 billion USD in 2018 clearly lower than the European Union’s average GDP (18.7 billion USD in 2018). Armenia had ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the 1967 Protocol. But the country has been also characterized by having a moral and historic duty to offer Syrian-Armenian refugees with sanctuary from the Syrian War. In fact, the chief of staff of the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora (the ministry was eliminated in 2019) insists in 2016 that “we don’t treat them as refugees. They are our compatriots. They are the descendants of those who suffered in the Armenian genocide and found shelter in Syria”. Although the Armenian government appears obligated to accept every Syrian-Armenian refugee, the question remains: Can the Armenian state continue to support the increasing number of refugees resettling in Armenia ?
The issue is growing and growing.
Syrian now, Iranian, Iraqi, even Cubanese tomorrow are trying to reach Armenia.
But above all, the Lebanese of Armenian origin, who might also join Yerevan, as
the political situation is tense nowadays. Perhaps this first attempt to
integrate the Syrians, with its successes and failures, will allow the Armenian
Government, civil society and humanitarian actors to better cooperate and learn
from their experiences.
TO GO FURTHER
Not everyone looking for asylum is a refugee. The expression is however used for all cases of people fleeing a conflict. Here are the main names , according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, written in Genova.
Refugees is a denomination applies to any person fearing with good reason to be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a certain social group or political opinions, is outside the country of which they have the nationality and who cannot or because of this fear does not want to claim the protection of this country.
Asylum-seekers are individuals who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined, irrespective of when they may have been lodged.
Internally displaced persons are people or groups of individuals who have been forced to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of, or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights, or natural or man-made disasters, and who have not crossed an international border.Stateless persons are defined under international law as persons who are not considered as nationals by any State under the operation of its law. In other words, they do not possess the nationality of any State.