Ethnic Armenians keen to flee escalating violence in Syria have limited options of taking refuge in Armenia as all the tickets for a single flight service currently existing between the two countries have been booked until September.
Some of them have had to take a risky journey by bus, crossing three borders before reaching a safer country.
Svetlana Hovannisian, who manages the Yerevan office of Syrian Airlines carrying out Aleppo-Yerevan flights, said a rise in passenger traffic is not unusual for summer months. “Now the number of passengers has also increased in connection with the events in Syria. Many ethnic Armenians are coming from there to Armenia,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Armenia’s national air carrier, Armavia, stopped flying to Aleppo at the end of March, citing the escalating situation in conflict-torn Syria. It has decided to resume the service on July 9 following a reported personal request from Catholicos Garegin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The Armavia spokeswoman, Nana Avetisova, explained that the company also took into account numerous requests from members of Syria’s 80,000-strong Armenian community.
Meanwhile, ethnic Armenians from Syria have tried to find other ways of returning to their ancestral homeland. An airline manager said many of them cannot afford the more expensive flights to Armenia via third countries, while traveling by land is seen as potentially dangerous.
Ani Melkonian and her husband Mikael Garabed took that risk when they left Aleppo for Yerevan by bus a few months ago. The couple and their three children -- the 13-year-old Levon, 11-year-old Alice and 18-month-old Gevorg -- crossed two borders, with Turkey and Georgia, before arriving safely in Armenia.
“The war in Syria intensified, religious problems emerged. Everyone there started fearing for their lives. People in Syria don’t know what will happen next,” Melkonian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We came from Aleppo by bus, it took us 36 hours to make the journey. We couldn’t afford to buy air tickets… We just wanted to get to a safe place so that our kids could live in a secure environment. We also wanted them to come to their homeland and grow up here.”
Melkonian said their friends and relatives in Aleppo, with whom they remain in touch, continue to live in “a very dangerous situation” amid daily sounds of gunfire and explosions and news of people being kidnapped and held to ransom. She said some of them too want to come to Armenia but are afraid to travel there by bus while affordable air flights are no longer available.
“Those who have money can afford to go abroad, but those who don’t have to stay there. Our journey was a safe one. We managed to escape,” explained the 38-year-old woman.
When Melkonian and her family came to Armenia they were first provided with temporary housing with the help of the Red Cross. They then moved to a hostel located in a northeastern Yerevan suburb where they currently reside.
Life in Armenia is clearly hard for the family. Melkonian’s 41-year-old husband is a professional jeweler but he is now getting retrained to be able to find a job in Yerevan. In the meantime, Melkonian said, the family has to live off money borrowed from relatives and friends and rely on humanitarian aid from charities.
“We have lots of needs – we need food, money, furniture for this place… It is good that we are all in our homeland. If we have proper conditions… it is a good city, a beautiful city. If we can earn a living, it’ll be alright,” said Ani Melkonian.
Ani’s children are also trying to get a new start in Armenia. Levon, the elder son, said he has no trouble overcoming the difference between the Western and Eastern dialects of the Armenian language and is, in fact, doing well at school in Armenia. He said he likes Yerevan more than Aleppo because “all here are fellow Armenians”.
His sister Alice, however, still misses her Aleppo friends and relatives. “It was better there. We had more relatives, more friends there. Here we are all alone,” said the girl, adding that she would like to go back to her native city one day.
Ani, Mikael and their children are just one of many Syrian Armenian families who have come to Armenia in recent months. While it is still unclear what steps the Armenian government is taking to help many Syrian-Armenians caught in the conflict, a senior government official assured RFE/RL that “all options are being considered.”
“The authorities of Armenia are ready to do everything within their power to be maximally helpful to our compatriots,” said deputy parliament speaker Eduard Sharmazanov. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government in general are not talking publicly about their efforts all the time. But it is important that this matter is at the center of our attention, that the state considers using its resources in order to be as helpful as possible to our fellow Armenians from Syria.”