Thousands of refugees with Armenian roots are returning, hoping to
start a new life in the shadow of Mount Ararat. 100 years after the
Armenian ‘genocide’, Andrew Connelly, in Yerevan, speaks to some of the
diaspora who have come home.
of refugees with Armenian roots are returning, hoping to start a new
life in the shadow of Mount Ararat. Photo / Thinkstock
In his flat on the outskirts of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, Hovig
Ashjian squints through a microscope as he plucks a minuscule shard of
diamond and gently sets it into a silver ring. Originally from Aleppo,
the jeweller moved to Armenia when fighting between militants and
government forces intensified.
“I came here with nothing,” he
recalled. “One day I saw the tanks outside my home and people shouting
so I said to my wife: ‘Come on, better run’.”
They raced to the
airport in a drive that was normally 25 minutes but took three hours as
they navigated the myriad roadblocks. They were just in time to catch
what proved to be the last direct plane from Aleppo to Yerevan.
Ashjian is one of around 15,000 Syrians of Armenian descent the United
Nations estimates have sought refuge in the country since the Syrian
conflict erupted in 2011.
At the end of next week, on 24 April, Armenia – a landlocked
former Soviet nation of three million in the South Caucasus region
bordering Iran and Turkey – will commemorate the 100th anniversary of
the 1915 massacres by the Ottoman Empire of Armenians living in what is
now eastern Turkey.
Armenia and some other countries consider
those events, during the First World War, a genocide that led to the
deaths of 1.5 million of their people, although Turkey denies this and
disputes the numbers killed.
Those not slaughtered escaped, or
were marched into the deserts and beyond, and survivors built sizeable
communities in Syria, Lebanon and across the Middle East.
with a population of one million, is often called “the Pink city” due
to the abundance of rose-coloured volcanic rock used in many of its
buildings, adding a flash of colour to the sea of ramshackle Soviet-era
The crowning glory of the city’s skyline is the
snowy peaks of Mount Ararat, believed by Christians to be the final
resting place of Noah’s Ark. Its name is omnipresent in Armenia, from
football teams to cigarette brands and brandy companies, and is a
rallying cry to the global diaspora – made all the more potent by the
fact that it is located just inside Turkey, whose border with Armenia
has been closed for three decades.
As Mr Ashjian speaks, jets can
be heard sporadically whooshing overhead. Russia maintains 3,000 troops
at a base in Armenia’s second city, Gyumri, and also provides Armenia’s
air defences. “It’s like being back in Syria. Sometimes we wonder if
they are coming for us!” says Mr Ashjian with a wry smile. The planes
used by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, sometimes to bomb its
people, are mostly Russian built.
Not that everything in Armenia
is happy for the refugees from Syria who have arrived. Finding work is
difficult in a country with unemployment at 21 per cent; the average
wage is just ?200 a month.
Even aside from the cultural
contrasts, there are language problems for the new arrivals: many
diaspora communities speak Western Armenian, a dialect spoken by their
ancestors in the Ottoman Empire. Although it is fundamentally the same
language deep down, it is as if Britons were welcoming visitors from
For Mr Ashjian, however, it is a cautious
but hopeful beginning of a new chapter in his family’s life. “It’s very
different because we are in our land, the land of our ancestors,” he
said. “We drew pictures of Mount Ararat in school but now we can see it
with our eyes. Yes, now it is in Turkey, but it’s a more beautiful view
from our side.”
Beneath Yerevan’s stylish Northern Avenue, in a
chilly converted garage of block of flats mainly populated by
Syrian-Armenians, Ani Balkhian runs the Aleppo NGO. Founded by women
from the city, it assists refugees with housing, employment, children’s
education and language classes. They keep regular contact with Armenians
still living precariously in Syria.
Ms Balkhian and her
colleagues recently raised funds for families in Kessab, an ethnic
Armenian town in north-western Syria that was attacked by
al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in March last year. Villagers were
kidnapped, churches set alight and cemeteries desecrated. Kessab was
previously the scene of a massacre by Ottoman forces in 1915 and there
is a widespread view amongst Armenians that last year’s incursion had
the assistance, if not direct involvement, of Turkish authorities –
claims vigorously denied by Turkey.
“Armenians were happy in
Syria,” she said. “Now everything has changed. The culture of killing is
inside the people now, so how can you go back, how can you send your
children there? We used to dream that someday we would go to our
homeland of Armenia, but then we were forced to come here. It’s like a
second genocide for us.”
Like all those who fled, Ms Balkhian had
to leave most possessions behind. Her home and her family’s textile
factories in rebel-controlled areas were looted, she said, and
belongings she tried to ship out have been stuck at the Syrian port of
Tartus for six months. One item she managed to rescue and transport, a
bookcase of carved walnut wood, dominates her office yet stands bereft
of books – emblematic of her vanished life back in Syria.
so, refugees have begun to transform Yerevan’s cultural life. Its
cuisine has been infused with lamajoun (Arabic-style flatbread pizza),
and sweet-smelling smoke clouds around pavement caf?s as Yerevanites
have taken to smoking nargile water pipes. On a Saturday night in an
underground cocktail bar, Aleppo-born singer Rena Derkhorenian and her
all-Syrian band Shiver blast out jazz and soul rhythms to a writhing
Ms Derkhorenian thinks the displacement is a chance to
build something new. “Syrian-Armenians and the locals still need to
integrate more but this was our chance to come here and make something
of this land called Armenia,” she said. “A hundred years have passed and
now we need to think differently. This is the time to start something,
especially when we have all the diaspora coming. We need to make room
for each other… and we need to stay.”