The first group of more than 100 ethnic Armenian children from crisis-hit Syria were flown to Armenia on Thursday for summer holidays organized by the Armenian government.
The 119 schoolchildren from Damascus were greeted with applause by government officials and local teenagers at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport where they arrived on a special flight sponsored by an Armenian commercial bank. They will spend the next two weeks at a children’s summer camp in the central Armenian resort of Hankavan.
For Gegham Suvalian, a 12-year-old boy, it was the first-ever trip to Armenia. “The situation [in Damascus] is not good,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Bad people have ruined much of Damascus.”
Another Syrian Armenian teenager, the 16-year-old Anush Melkikian, said Damascus streets remain dangerous even after Syrian government troops have largely driven rebels out of the capital. “And many roads are blocked,” she said.
The Armenian government initiative is meant to give some 400 young Syrian Armenians respite from deadly violence and turmoil that engulfed their country more than a year ago.
Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and members of his cabinet discussed the program at a weekly meeting held earlier in the day. “We plan to send two more planes to Syria in order to bring about 300 other children to Armenia and organize their leisure here,” said Sarkisian.
Those children are due to be flown out of Aleppo, the economic and cultural center of Syria’s Armenian community and the main scene of continuing fighting in the country.
“The [Hankavan] camp is ready to accept the children,” Vache Terterian, a deputy minister for local government coordinating the program’s implementation, told cabinet members. “Relevant ministries, notably the ministers of health, diaspora and foreign affairs, and the police have done their share of work.”
Government officials in Yerevan again emphasized that the children’s arrival in Armenia must not be portrayed as an evacuation. “Let’s put it this way: we just thought that we can organize a two-week summer holiday for Syrian Armenian children at our picturesque Hankavan,” Terterian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) at Zvartnots.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Manasarian, who was also at the airport, likewise insisted that there is still no need for a mass exodus of Syrian Armenians because the situation in Syria is “not catastrophic.”
It is not clear, however, whether the children will be sent back home if the security situation there does not improve in the next two weeks.
Mamun Hariri, the Syrian charge d’affaires in Yerevan who also greeted the newly arrived children at Zvartnots, claimed that the situation is already improving and that Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad will prevail in the civil war.
Hariri also said that the Syrian Embassy is ready to try to help hundreds of Syrian Armenians that have fled to Armenia in recent months and weeks. “Nobody has appealed to us so far,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Mohammed Hosam, the number two figure at the embassy, defected to the Syrian opposition late last month. “He had no reason to take such a step,” Hariri said, downplaying the defection.