Syrian and Armenian; Preserving Community in Two Homelands

The stunning Mt. Ararat – located just across a closed border in Turkey – is ever-present, dominating the skyline in Yerevan and beyond. It is what separates “Eastern Armenia” (modern day Armenia) from what Armenians consider “Western Armenia” – modern day Turkey and from where most Syrian Armenians originally came before fleeing genocide nearly a century ago. It is a constant reminder of the longing for Western Armenia and of what has been lost in genocide. No longer a part of any Armenia, it is an open wound and at the same time, the symbol of being Armenian. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Most Armenians who survived the genocide fled initially to Syria. Those that chose to stay became Syrian citizens, joining a small community of Arabicized Armenians who had been living in Syria for centuries. In 2005, Armenia amended its law, making it easier for ethnic Armenians in the diaspora to claim citizenship. While some Syrian Armenians did, few relocated their lives to Armenia. Since the civil war in Syria, the applications have increased, and Armenia has facilitated visas and citizenship for Syrians. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Armenia has waived taxes and fees that are usually levied on cars to ease the costs to Syrians of either taking temporary refuge in or permanently moving to Armenia. With the road to the airport in Aleppo perilous, many have instead driven from Syria to Turkey to Georgia to arrive in Armenia. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

At the time, Syrian Air was operating a flight between Aleppo and Yerevan once a week. Those coming to Yerevan outnumbered those returning to Aleppo. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Recognizing that many Armenians and others in Aleppo were in need, Armenians began collecting necessities to send as humanitarian aid to Syria. It required tense negotiations with Turkey and Syria. Here, young people from the Dashnak party take a break from packing boxes. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Goods arrived from the faraway and contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. During the war with Azerbaijan, the diaspora channeled aid of all sorts to the Armenians fighting for the territory. According to the prime minister of the region, now it’s their turn to help their people in Syria. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Rice and flour and other grains are sorted into rations. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

A member of parliament tasked with overseeing the aid effort dictates a note to be attached to each box of aid. It reads: “From the people or Armenia and Artsakh [Karabakh] to the brothers in Syria via the Armenian Church.” Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Armenians raised the money to charter a cargo flight on Air Armenia. After several delays and false starts, the first flight of aid is being loaded. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Each box will go to one family in Aleppo. While the supplies will be unloaded in predominantly Armenian neighborhoods, they will be distributed without regard to ethnicity or religion. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

The crew intends to use every available inch of space. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

The boxes with the dictated note – amended to now include “sisters” after a discussion with this reporter. The plane was able to carry out its mission and returned later that night. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Syrian Armenian teachers approached the Armenian Ministry of Education and requested permission to open a school in Yerevan that would teach the curriculum of Syrian schools. Several thousand Syrian Armenians arrived in the summer of 2012 hoping to wait out any “troubles.” But as the school year’s start approached with violence only escalating in their native Aleppo, many parents feared that their children would fall behind in their school studies. Desiring to ultimately return to Syria, they hoped they could recreate a Syrian school in Yerevan. Here, copies of Syrian workbooks Xeroxed from a single set. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

At the Cilician School, like in the Armenian schools in Aleppo, signage and instruction are in Armenian and Arabic. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

The folded up Syrian flag on the principal’s desk. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Students at attention on the second day of class. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

A poster from a newly opened restaurant/lounge for Syrian Armenians, recalling the name of their club in Syria. At SBIDAG, patrons can smoke an arghileh, enjoy the cuisine of Aleppo, and meet up with other members of their community who are dispersed throughout the city of Yerevan. Image by Alia Malek. Armenia, 2012.

Many of the ethnically Armenian Syrians who fled to Armenia to “wait out the violence” in Aleppo, where many Syrian Armenians live, ended up in Yerevan, the capital and largest city. Although most say they plan to go back to Syria as soon as possible, the government of country of Armenia has received them and sought to help them as they have requested. This includes sending aid back to Armenians who did not have the means or desire to leave. It also includes allowing Syrian Armenians to open their own school that follows not the Armenian curriculum but rather that of Syria. As a community Syrian Armenians have tried to maintain neutrality in the spiraling conflict, afraid of retaliation from either the Assad regime or whoever replaces it.