About 100 years ago, thousands of Armenians left their homeland to escape the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks. Many fled to Syria and settled there. A hundred years later, some of their descendants are returning to Armenia to escape another war. Armen is one of them.
I met Armen at a restaurant in Yerevan called Anteb. Armen works at Anteb as a waiter. I told Armen I wanted to write about Syrian Armenians who had recently moved to Yerevan and he offered to talk with me on his day off.
Armen and I agreed to meet in front of the Armenian History Museum and from there we moved to an outdoor cafe and ordered coffee.
Armen is in his 20s, slightly built, with the dark pronounced features of many Armenians. He was eager to tell his story, almost as if he had never told it before. He spoke for more than two hours and didn’t seem ready to leave when we parted.
Armen explained that his grandparents fled the Armenian genocide in 1915 by walking to Syria. They lost each other in the desert near the border and found each other in the Syrian city of Aleppo six years later.
Armen grew up in an Armenian neighborhood of Aleppo and describes his life there as happy before the war began in 2011. Armen describes Syria as a special place, with people of many backgrounds who work hard and value strong community.
In Aleppo, Armen had a job that provided him with a commission every week. He was teaching himself Korean so that he could get a job in South Korea. He says he loves the Korean language. As the war continued, his commissions fell so much he could not support himself. And he could not go to South Korea because, after the war started, it stopped issuing visas to Syrians.
Armen came to Armenia with his sister 9 months ago. He left Syria because he “did not want to die.” Armen would be a refugee according to international law but he did not have to seek status as a refugee in order to move to Armenia. Some members of the diaspora can move to Armenia by providing little more than proof of their Armenian heritage. Armen only needed to provide a certificate of his baptism in the Armenian Catholic Church in Syria. More than 15,000 Syrian Armenians have already moved to Armenia since the beginning of the war. Armen’s parents are still in Aleppo because his father has a job there and believes he would not be able to get work in Armenia, which has an unemployment rate of 25%.
Armen says Aleppo is now “completely destroyed.” He says “you can’t imagine” to preface what he experienced during the war — how psychologically difficult it is to anticipate mortar fire or missiles all day, to wonder whether you will live through the day, or to realize that neighborhoods you have always known have disappeared. Armenians have mostly supported the Assad regime so their neighborhoods are controlled by the government and targets for ISIS.
Armen has lost many friends. One died when his apartment was hit by mortar fire while he was sleeping. Others have died serving in the military. Armen doesn’t expect to ever see many of his other friends again because they have been granted refugee status in countries that, like South Korea, no longer issue visas to Syrians. He mentioned Argentina.
In a way, Armen is lucky. He escaped the war and his adopted country welcomes him. He lives in an apartment rather than a camp. He has a job and his sister is with him. But the war is not behind him.
As Armen tells me his story, he does not often make eye contact. He covers his face with his hands. His eyes dart in different directions. He gulps air and holds his breath. Armen asked me not to post a picture of him because he is “so terribly sad.”
When I asked Armen whether he thought he could make a good life for himself in Yerevan, he said “I do not think about my future any more.”
garod: tongue of a snake,
meaning exile, longing for home….
Or is desire what garod means?
Longing for a native place….
garod: the grain chute that spills
into a dark barn which is endless…
From “August Diary,” by Pulitzer Prize winning Armenian poet, Peter Balakian, and apologies for copying only fragments of his beautiful poem