Dozens of firms set up by ethnic Armenian refugees from Syria demonstrated on Friday their products and services at a German-sponsored fair in Yerevan aimed at facilitating their economic integration in Armenia.
The four-day exhibition is part of a business forum on Syrian Armenians financed by Germany’s state-run development agency GIZ and co-organized by the Armenian authorities.
“The exhibition will help to promote products and services of existing businesses of Syrian Armenians and of other companies in Armenia relevant for Syrian Armenian businesses,” the organizers said in a statement.
President Serzh Sarkisian attended its opening ceremony on Thursday. Sarkisian familiarized himself with products showcased by around 60 mostly small firms belonging to Syrian Armenians. According to the presidential press service, he was “buoyed” by what he saw.
Syria was home to an estimated 80,000 ethnic Armenians, many of them entrepreneurs and craftsmen, before the outbreak of the devastating civil war there five years ago. Only up to 10,000 of them reportedly remain in the war-ravaged country now.
More than 16,000 Syrian Armenians have taken refuge in Armenia. Many of them have been struggling to make ends meet in the unemployment-stricken country. Some have opened small businesses such as restaurants and manufacturing firms, drawing on their business experience in Syria.
The Armenian government has encouraged that entrepreneurship by subsidizing business loans extended by local commercial banks to Syrian Armenians. The latter are charged a concessional interest rate of 4 percent and, unlike the vast majority of other bank clients, do not have to provide collaterals.
According to Armenia’s Deputy Economy Minister Hovannes Hovannisian, around 90 Syrian Armenians have made use of such cheap credit to date. “We are providing assistance in various directions and will step up these efforts soon,” Hovannisian said at the business forum.
However, with Armenia’s economy still reeling from a deep recession suffered in 2009, many Syrian Armenian businesses are struggling to remain afloat. One such entrepreneur, Shant Khayalian, borrowed 5 million drams ($10,500) to start manufacturing organic soap.
“I’ve already repaid more than half of the loan, but that has come at a cost,” Khayalian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “I’ve lost many other things t: many friends, relatives, connections. I’ve incurred losses and had to find cheaper and less convenient premises.”
Hrach Yapujian opened a small firm repairing and selling old car parts seven months ago and is still not sure that he will manage to remain in the business. He complained of the small size of the Armenian market and high rents.
“In Syria we owned everything, we didn’t have to pay rent,” Yapujian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Here we have to rent space, pay a lot more for utilities … That is why things are harder here.”
George Hayat, another Syrian Armenian businessman, began importing engineering equipment after relocating to Armenia with his family more than three years ago. He said he has no outstanding debts and is generally satisfied with his business activities.
“In Syria, we had to instantly abandon businesses created by our fathers 30-40 years ago,” said Hayat. “Who can guarantee that the same won’t happen one day if we go to Germany or some other European country? This is our land and we are going to stay here.”