First members of Syria’s sizable ethnic Armenian community have taken refuge in Armenia and many others are said to be considering joining them to flee the worsening crisis in the Middle Eastern country.
The affluent community numbering between 40,000 and 80,000 people was until recently largely unaffected by the bloody unrest because of being concentrated in the relatively safe cities of Aleppo and Damascus. But with no end to the bloodshed in sight, a growing number of Syrian Armenians seem to be contemplating a move abroad and Armenia in particular.
Among those thinking about selling their homes and other properties are relatives of Vazken Mesropian, an Aleppo-born man who has lived in Armenia for almost a decade. “They want to move here, they really do,” Mesropian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We don’t know how long this will continue … The situation there is just terrible.”
George, another Syrian Armenian who fled the country last week, confirmed this. “The problem is that nobody would buy their properties in this situation,” he said, adding that this is a key factor preventing a mass out-migration of Armenians at the moment.
George arrived in Yerevan last week together with two Syrian Armenian friends. “A week ago, when I was about to come here, two big explosions happened in Aleppo. Unfortunately, there is no security there anymore. That is why we have come here,” he explained.
The young man also acknowledged another reason for their decision to repatriate to Armenia: their unwillingness to be drafted to the Syrian army engaged in a harsh crackdown on a popular uprising that thrust the country into turmoil a year ago.
Syrian nationals in Yerevan confirmed a widely held belief that the Syrian-Armenian community remains overwhelmingly loyal to the ruling Al Assad family and apprehensive about the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting the regime in Damascus.
“Syrian Armenians have done really well [under the Assad regime,]” said Sako Basmadjian, another Aleppo repatriate. “We have our clubs and schools. Life has been very good for us. That is why people feel scared and want the same regime to stay on so they can carry on with their business.”
Mesropian called Bashar Al Assad a “good president.” “He is not a dictator,” he said. “Aren’t there dictatorships in other Arab countries?”
The main challenge facing repatriates in Armenia is to find jobs in a country that has been beset by high levels of unemployment ever since the Soviet collapse. Repatriates complained that their cultural and linguistic differences with Armenia’s population only complicate the search for work.
They said they are most likely to be hired by fellow Syrian Armenians who moved to Yerevan years ago and own businesses there. George said he and his friends will have to migrate to Lebanon if they fail to find jobs.
Hranush Hakobian, Armenia’s minister of Diaspora affairs, revealed that several Syrian Armenians have already asked her ministry for employment assistance. “I have appealed to our Labor Ministry, the Employment Service and other colleagues because the Ministry of Diaspora is not supposed to provide them with jobs,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
According to Hakobian, the Armenian government is ready to facilitate immigration from Syria but has so far devised no specific program to that effect because “the number of Syrian Armenian repatriates is not yet large.” If that number grows, she said, the government will draw on its experience of accommodating hundreds and possibly thousands of ethnic Armenians from Iraq who relocated to Armenia after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Many Armenians of Syria are entrepreneurs and could themselves create jobs in Armenia. But as Mesropian pointed out, they are reluctant to set up shop in their historical homeland because of a highly negative perception of its business environment.
“Unfortunately, Armenia has gotten very bad publicity there,” he said. “People think that there is a mafia here, that you can’t do business here and that they would get cheated. We have to get rid of this bad image, and this is something that the Armenian state should deal with.”