Armenians Flee War In Syria For Homeland, One Century After They Left Mass Killings In Turkey

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Syrian Armenians attend the Christmas Day Mass at Airmen Orthodox church in Damascus,
Syrian Armenians attend the Christmas Day Mass at Airmen Orthodox church in Damascus,

Thousands of Armenians have fled the violent crisis in Syria for their ancestral homeland after almost a century in the country.

ArmeniaNow, which is published by a nongovernmental organization, has reported that at least 6,000 Armenian families have departed or were forced out of Syria since the civil war erupted two years ago.

BBC reports the number is closer to 10,000.

Vardan Poghosyan said he moved his family from the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, to the Kashatagh region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is officially in Azerbaijan but has been occupied by Armenians for 25 years.

“It was my decision to come directly to Karabakh,” he told ArmeniaNow. “Rather than going to Europe or America, why not come and live in our homeland?”

Gayane Soghomonyan, head of the General Education Department of the City Hall in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, told reporters the Syrian arrivals face unique problems aside from jobs and housing.

For one thing, there's a language issue -- Syrian-Armenians speak either Arabic, or "western Armenian," while most Armenians speak "eastern Armenian," a somewhat different dialect mixed with Russian.

Of Syria’s more than 120,000 Armenians prior to the civil war, the majority were clustered in the northern city of Aleppo, near the Turkish border, which has seen heavy fighting and bombings since the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The departure of Armenians from Syria reverses a century-old mass migration, in which a program of state-sponsored genocide by the Ottoman Empire of Turkey triggered a huge exodus of Armenians (those who survived, that is) to Syria and beyond.

In both cases, Armenians fled war and mass killings.

Sarkis Atamian is a Syrian-Armenian musician and a native of Aleppo. He has moved to Yerevan, which now has a cluster of restaurants and businesses catering to the new arrivals.

Atamian noted that while Assad's regime was generally tolerant toward non-Muslim minorities, as Christians many Armenians are fearful of what may happen if Islamic fundamentalists seize power in Syria.

"The good thing here in Armenia is that you know the language, the alphabet, the religion," Atamian told BBC.

"When I came here, I thought: 'The people look like [me]. The faces, physically, they're like [me]!'”

The Armenian government has taken an official stance of neutrality regarding Syria, fearing an expression of support for either Assad or the rebels could endanger the lives of Armenians still trapped in Syria.

Nora Pilibbossian, an ethnic Armenian who fled Syria and has set up a school in Yerevan, worries about the future.

"I get so upset when I see what's going on in Syria right now,” she told BBC.

“God know what's going to happen. That's where we were born, grew up and went to school. We had our homes there, and our friendships with Syrian Arabs, who we lived and worked with. Now we've left everything behind."

Armenia is a relatively poor, isolated country, with a 20 percent unemployment rate. Yet, its people have been welcoming of the diaspora.

"Everyone understands that they are the descendants of those Armenians who died in the [1915 Turkish] genocide," Firdus Zakarian, an official with Armenia's Ministry of Diaspora, said. "We all want to do something to help."

Zakarian said “Syrian-Armenians are arriving every week. It is hard for Armenia. We do not have the strongest economy, but we are trying to do everything we can so they don’t feel more pain.”

Sarkis Assadourian, a former member of Parliament in Canada who is Armenian, grew up in Aleppo.

He said in the Median district, where he lived during the 1960s, about “90 percent of the people were Armenian."

"Nobody bothered us," Assadourian said in the Toronto Star. "The Muslims called us ‘our Armenian brothers.' Our teacher was a Sunni Muslim, and she adopted an Armenian orphan. There was no hatred toward our community.”

Now, he fears the Islamic rebels in Syria, as much as Assad.

“Assad was wrong,” he said. “He used cannon to kill a fly. But what will happen if fundamentalists take over? Christians are losing ground throughout the Middle East. In Syria, there will be very few left.”

Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think-tank based in Yerevan, said in an interview with Voice of America that Armenians have always been a people "on the go" -- never quite comfortable anywhere they have lived.

Indeed, Armenians left Egypt in 1952, after Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed power.

"Then it was Beirut, then the [Lebanese] civil war,” Giragosian said. “Then it was Tehran [Iran]. They left in 1979 in large numbers. So there is a natural dynamic trend for change in what is called the Armenian Diaspora. So the Armenian position in the Middle East has never been static or stable."

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