By Gabriella Gage
BOSTON — The ongoing conflict in Syria has resulted in the displacement of thousands of Syrian Armenians, the majority of whom have fled to Armenia and Lebanon, but also to Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere. The impact of fighting in Syria has unsurprisingly been felt throughout the diaspora.
Prior to the conflict, more than 90,000 Armenians called Syria their home, predominately in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Kamishli and Latakia.
Despite the political, regional and religious divisions that sometimes hinder large-scale cooperative efforts in the global Armenian community, many organization throughout the diaspora have united in their efforts to address the needs of Syrians.
According to Professor Ara Sanjian of the University of Michigan, Dearborn, there are two dimensions to the Syrian conflict. The first is the internal conflict that was sparked after years of the centralized authoritarian government failing to meet the needs of the general population, especially in rural areas. From the initial upheaval in rural regions, the uprisings eventually moved toward a demand for democratizing within the country by various segments of the population.
“The second dimension of the conflict — and possibly the more important one — is the international implications of the revolts. Because Syria has been a staunch ally of Iran, several Western countries such as the US would likely prefer to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while others such as Iran, Russia and China support his regime. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made no attempts to hide their intentions to unseat Bashar al-Assad, as evidenced by their financial and military support of oppositional forces,” said Sanjian. In the midst of this complicated web of international tension, the Syrian Armenians wait with the hope of returning to their homes and daily activities.
Thousands of Syrians have fled the region, mostly those who have managed to acquire the resources to migrate. Many still remain in Syria, hoping for a quick end to the fighting and a return to normalcy that may never come. For those Syrian-Armenians who have fled to Armenia or Lebanon, Sanjian said, the future is unclear. The desire to eventually return home still remains, but many are confronting the possibility of permanent emigration. Armenia, he noted, is not in a position to accept and absorb unlimited amounts of refugees.
“It is difficult to dismantle what you have assembled over many generations and just leave your home,” Sanjian said.
In response to the dire circumstances, efforts to aid Syrian Armenians have come from communities across the globe, from large scale to individual efforts. The Armenian National Committee of Australia (ANC Australia) recently partnered with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) in securing $24.5 million aid package for Syrian-Armenians who have fled to Armenia. On November 22, the ANC-Australia website posted a press release from Walt Secord, a member of the Australian Legislative Council, stating, “I will note my concerns regarding the plight of Armenians in Syria as events continue to unfold. Just last month an important Armenian church in Aleppo was set ablaze and Armenians were kidnapped. I know that members of the local Armenian community are worried about their loved ones in Syria. My thoughts are with them at this time.”
One of the largest coordinated efforts has come through the formation of the Syrian Armenian Relief Fund (SARF), which includes the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, Armenian Catholic Eparchy in North America, Armenian Democratic Liberal Party, Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Western U.S.A. (ARFD), Social Democrat Hunchakian Party-Western USA, Armenian Evangelical Union of North America, Armenian General Benevolent Union, Armenian Missionary Association of America and Armenian Relief Society of Western USA.
Fundraising efforts by SARF have also included two Hye AID concerts in Pasadena and San Francisco aimed at “educating and mobilizing the public and publicizing the calamity that has stricken the Syrian Armenian community,” says Executive Committee Chairperson Zaven Khanjian. “There is the natural-human, national-Armenian and Christian-ethical/moral obligations. All three. We would have done it to any and all communities in peril. It must be said though that the Syrian-Armenian community has a special place in the Armenian Diaspora. It is the mother of all Armenian Diaspora communities. The closest to historical Armenia where the memories and monuments to the Genocide are living cries in the face of humanity,” added Khanjian.
SARF partnered with the Suryahayutyan Shdab Oknutyan Ojantag Marmin (the Syrian-Armenian Emergency Relief Organization) a pan-Armenian coalition, which also facilitates the transfer of aid and funds through the Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia. According to Khanjian, they have already transferred $100,000 of the funds raised overseas and are preparing for the transfer of another $250,000 to take place imminently. Overall, about $500,000 in contributions and pledges have been raised by this body in the last three months alone.
Prior to coordination with SARF, the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) efforts had primarily focused on aiding Armenian schools in Syria with financial assistance to needy students to relieve financial burdens placed on schools. Through these efforts, they have raised more than $100,000 globally to aid Syrian-Armenian schools and students, and the funds were transferred through religious headquarters in Lebanon. “In the global diaspora, whenever one of the communities is in distress, the other communities have an obligation to lend a supporting hand,” said Vice Chair of ARS Central Executive Board Nairy Shahinian on the importance of aiding Syrian communities.
Currently, the ARS is also acting as part of a pan-Armenian effort “made up of the global communities coming together to create a vivid awareness amongst all the Armenian communities,” said Shahinian. The ARS provides weekly hot meal plans to the needy, as well as medications, in addition to raising funds. From large-scale efforts to weekly church collections for Syria in local communities, the ARS hopes to continue its aid efforts and encourages readers to contact their local ARS chapters for more ways to help.
Another sponsoring organization of SARF, is ARFD’s “Help Your Brother” initiative, which has transported nearly two tons of plane cargo carrying medicine, food and goods.
“Help Your Brother” also oversaw donations to the “Kashatagh Fund” for the housing of 20 Syrian-Armenian families settling in Kashatagh in Artsakh (Karabagh).
Elsewhere, Hayastan All-Armenian Fund has publicly committed to donating at least 10 percent of the funds raised at its annual Thanksgiving Day telethon this year, to aid Syria. The organization raised $21 million in pledges, which will primarily benefit construction projects in Armenia and Artsakh.
At the local level, members of the Boston chapter of the AGBU Young Professionals recently hosted a fundraising dinner at the Armenian American Social Club (Agoump) in Watertown. According to Laura Michael, YP Boston chairperson, more than 50 people attended the event and/or donated, with further donations still being accepted at http://agbuypboston.webs.com.
YP member and attendee Nicole Meregian said, “The AGBU YP fundraiser was a huge success[…] both Armenians and non-Armenians attended, and raised over $1,000. I think it’s important to help Armenians, not just locally, but also globally and especially in times of need such as now in Syria. The Armenian community in Syria is relying on local efforts to address their basic needs. The local community in Boston needs to be aware of the magnitude of devastation to the Syrian Armenians.”
Meanwhile in Aleppo, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has started distributing the aid presented by the Armenian people to the Syrians in order to help them cope with damages, losses and economic sanctions, after a third aid plane arrived at Aleppo International airport on November 9. Director of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Aleppo, Hael Assi, has coordinated with the Armenian Embassy and the Armenian Orthodox Archdiocese in Aleppo to facilitate the distribution of supplies and aid. Secretary of the Baath Party branch in Aleppo, Hilal Hilal, said that the Syrian people “highly appreciate this humanitarian stance of the Armenian people and government, underling the strong Syrian-Armenian cooperation.
Religious sects across the Armenian Diaspora have also united in relief efforts.
The Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, the Armenian Prelacy and the Armenian Catholic Church have all coordinated efforts. The Prelacy and members of local Catholic and Protestant churches have participated in fundraisers in Boston, Detroit, New York and Chicago, respectively.
According to the Eastern Diocese Communications Director Christopher H. Zakian, “At the directive of Archbishop [Khajag] Barsamian, the Diocese instituted a fundraising drive last August, which has included plate collections at the parish level, periodic promotion in our weekly e-newsletter and on social media platforms, as well as an ongoing donor opportunity on our website. All the proceeds will go to the relief effort, to be distributed through the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, which is working with and through the Armenian Church Diocese of Syria.”
The Diocese has been working with the Primate of Syria, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, to keep the public informed of the situation and promote communication in order to coordinate humanitarian efforts. “The Primate has urged all our people to keep our countrymen in Syria in their prayers and to pray that the historic and long-lived Armenian community there, once a place of refuge for so many of our ancestors, will endure through this period and eventually enter a new period of wellbeing and peace,” added Zakian.
Members of Congress React
The US political community has also drawn attention to the crisis, with Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) who serves as co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Congressional Human Rights Caucus, voicing his strong support for US humanitarian efforts to Syria, including an ANCA-backed provision in the House Appropriations Committee’s version of the FY13 State-Foreign Operations Bill calling on the State Department to prioritize humanitarian and resettlement assistance for minority communities, including Armenians and other populations in Syria.
Linking the crisis in Syria to the American-Armenian community, McGovern wrote, “As you are very much aware, the Armenian community of Syria, particularly those in and around the Aleppo region, includes a great many descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and the forced death marches through the Syrian desert. These Armenians, along with other Christian and minority populations, are, today, increasingly the victims of violence — in the form of bombings, sniper attacks, murders, kidnapping, and acts of destruction and desecration of holy sites.”
These are only a few of the organizations working internationally to aid Syrian communities.
Further global communication and cooperation will be necessary as the conflict continues. Government agencies and larger organizations “must coordinate on the ground and abroad in order to ensure the even, efficient distribution of resources, so that no one gets left behind,” explained Sanjian.