By Raffi Elliott
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
Recent media attention over a new wave of Syrian-Armenians leaving Armenia in for new beginnings in Canada has sparked renewed concern about the state’s ability to integrate its refugees from the war-torn Middle East. Questions about the country’s prospects for tackling its corruption problem were also highlighted in a recent Radio Free Europe report where one Canada-bound emigrant at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport cited notorious government-connected oligarchs Ruben Hayrapetyan and Samvel Alexanyan by name as having made it impossible for him to run his small business in Armenia.
Similarly sensationalized reports of Syrian-Armenians taking part in a second exodus, this time from their ancestral land, marks a stark contrast with initial expectations of the impact that droves of Syrian repatriates would have on Armenia; bringing up dark memories of previous waves of unsuccessful repatriation efforts of Iraqi and Azerbaijani-Armenians in prior decades.
As civil unrest in Syria morphed into full-blown civil war, the country’s ancient Armenian community was devastated. The Armenian authorities, however, were quick to respond, offering automatic citizenship to ethnic Armenians living in the Middle East, and even setting up passport offices in the Armenian embassy in Damascus. Flights from Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo continued to bring waves of refugees (which Armenia branded as “Repatriates”) to Yerevan. When it became impossible to fly, many took to the roads; driving through Turkey and Georgia to make it to safety in Armenia. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 17,000 Syrian-Armenian repatriates came this way.
Throughout the war, ethnic Armenians were largely spared the fate of many of their Syrian compatriots, with as many of 5 million of them being squeezed into refugee camps spread throughout Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, or forced to illegally cross the Aegean to Europe, while others remained in the devastated wasteland their country had become.
Armenia’s relatively low living standards and struggling economy, notwithstanding, the country garnered international praise in its efforts to assist the refugees. Syrian-Armenians were offered certain benefits, including housing, assistance with basic needs, Eastern-Armenian, and Russian classes, community centres, favorable small business loans, and so on. Repatriates, particularly from Qamishli, willing to relocate to Artsakh were offered free land and special tax rates.
Many in Armenia welcomed this influx from Syria because it was expected that their reputation as entrepreneurs, and high skillsets would invigorate a sluggish economy, while their social skills would shake up the service sector. The result was that within a year, 40 new Levantine restaurants and eateries opened their doors in Yerevan, while countless other small businesses began operating across the country.
The plight of the Syrian-Armenians made daily headlines in Armenia for years as the war raged on, with thousands donating belongings, or food, while others offered employment. Despite this, a lack of familiarity with the region, linguistic misunderstandings, and general issues expected from refugee status contributed to a sense of alienation.
Stories of government failures in accommodating these new arrivals have dominated the Diasporan press. Many Syrian-Armenians have indeed met with frustration when faced with the country’s small market size, large amount of administrative red tape, and bureaucratic corruption, opting instead to move on to greener pastures. One lady was quoted in saying that she had spent two years looking for work in Armenia, but was ready to move to Canada if she was still unsuccessful. However, when offered to apply for a job placement program for Syrian-Armenians, she replied that her CV was still in Arabic.
Many new arrivals never intended to stay in Armenia permanently. Most saw Armenia as a springboard to eventually rejoin relatives in Western Europe and Canada, which hosts a big Syrian-Armenian community. Organizations such as Hay Doun in Montreal, and the Armenian Relief Society in Toronto, facilitated the outflow of Syrian-Armenians from Armenia.
The situation changed dramatically as Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, announced that the country would accept upwards of 60,000 Syrian refugees. Syrians in Armenia watched closely as the Prime Minister personally welcomed the Jamkossian family in Toronto, leading to a flood of new sponsorship applications at Hay Doun.
Tamar, an Aleppo-born Armenian living in Yerevan displays all the signs of a successful integration in Armenia: She works in one of the country’s largest tech firms, has a very active social life, and is heavily involved in a number of local associations. Despite this, she continually uses the conditional “if I remain here” when discussing her life in Armenia. The appeal of a potential life in Canada which is now offered to Syrian-Refugees is not lost on her. “I love my life in Armenia,” she says “but, what can I do with an Armenian passport? With a Canadian passport, on the other hand…”
This sentiment is echoed by the fact that Syrian-Armenians who had resettled in Armenia before the war have also tried to take advantage of Canadian refugee services, and alarming reports that the Syrian Embassy in Yerevan has taken advantage of the situation by selling fake Syrian passports to local Armenians.
Many other Syrian-Armenian, however, have found their homeland to truly be a land of opportunity. Gaidzak Jabakhtchurian, 28, his family, operated a small chain of lahmadjoun restaurants in Aleppo. During the war, they decided to move to Armenia, and opened another shop. They managed to beat the odds, quickly building a reputation as one of the best Lahmajoun spots in town. They have since moved to a larger and more central location, and have a loyal clientele.
Derian Kebab, a small eatery opened a little over a year ago just next to a car mechanic shop by a Syrian-Armenian family has also become synonymous with the new food scene that Yerevan is currently enjoying. They are now opening a second location.
Syrian repatriates have made their mark in other sectors of the economy as well. Car mufflers, manufactured by a Qamishli-born entrepreneur now completely dominate the muffler market once competed over by Turkish and Iranian imports.
Armenia has proven to be a land of broken dreams for some, and a land of opportunity for others. In the face of acute government failings, economic woes, endemic corruption and other obstacles to economic development, the country remains, at the very least, a safe haven for desperate people escaping a life of constant bombings, kidnappings, and existential threats, and the only pace on the planet that Armenians can truly claim.
Regardless, the thought of a life in Canada being as far away as a few clicks on the Hay Doun website proved to be too strong for many Syrians in Armenia. In a sadly ironic way, the Armenian Diaspora has once more indirectly contributed to the depopulation of Armenia.
Shant, a computer programmer from Aleppo just arrived in Montréal. At the start of hostilities, he escaped the draft by fleeing to Armenia, where he found employment in an American tech company. When he heard of the possibility of applying for a Canadian refugee visa through Hay Doun, he did his research, and weighed his options. “I determined that Canada would be the best place to continue my career, that’s all.”
Despite this, he remembers his time in Yerevan fondly, saying “Armenia is my homeland, I will try my best to end up back there.”
(Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian entrepreneur and founder of gettreated.co. He is currently based in Yerevan and often comments on socio-political, economic and tech related issues in Armenia, the Caucasus, and beyond.)