By Jordan G Teicher
Armenia is a small and largely homogenous country of just three million people, so when thousands of refugees fleeing Syria’s conflict began arriving a few years ago, their presence was impossible to ignore. According to Armenian officials, more than 22,000 Syrians have come to the former Soviet republic since the start of the conflict in 2011. By 2015, the United Nations refugee agency said Syrian refugees accounted for six of every 1,000 people in Armenia.
“You’d see new eateries opening up, new services in town, people dressing in a different way,” said an Armenian art curator, Anna Kamay. “The change was obvious.”
While many of these refugees had never set foot in Armenia before, the country is not entirely alien to them. A century ago their ancestors sought shelter in Syria after escaping the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks.
Ms Kamay had been living in Morocco when she returned to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, in 2015 and was quickly captivated by the stories of Syrian Armenians she met in her neighborhood and through volunteer work with the nonprofit Armenian Redwood Project. Last year, she teamed up with an Armenian freelance photographer, Anush Babajanyan, to share those narratives with the world.
“We’ve made an effort to document all kinds of stories, to show all the different faces of this community,” Ms Kamay said.
Like their new neighbors, Syria’s Armenian refugees are Christians and speak Armenian, albeit a dialect particular to the diaspora. While cultural integration has had its bumps, Ms Kamay said, they have been made to feel “more or less welcome here” by the public. The government, meanwhile, has helped by offering refugees a fast track to citizenship and providing health care, while the UN and other aid organizations provide housing subsidies. Still, Ms Babajanyan said, good jobs and affordable housing are hard to come by even for those who’ve lived there far longer, and outside assistance can do only so much to help the refugees overcome the odds.
“They truly are a powerful group of people, having to face so much in Syria and now being in a country where they still have to struggle,” Ms Babajanyan said. “This is something that you have to be strong for.”
While there are success stories among the newcomers, resettlement has been difficult for many of the Syrian Armenians Ms. Babajanyan met over the past year. One man, Soghomon Amseian, told her he owned a photo studio in Deir Ezzor, Syria, but since moving to Armenia had not been able to find a full-time job. Mari Kilejian, a woman from Kobani, Syria, described the bureaucratic hurdles she had to leap through in Armenia to try to get medical care for her husband, who suffers from heart problems.
“She had to go from one office to another to try to arrange this free surgery that he was entitled to by the government,” Ms Babajanyan said. “It took so much time in the end they had to pay for it themselves. They were still waiting for the reimbursement.”
Some of the refugees in Ms. Babajanyan’s photos face challenges specific to life in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory the U.N. considers part of Azerbaijan, but which is controlled by ethnic Armenians. While the local government has provided free housing for incoming residents of Armenian origin, employment opportunities are slim and the possibility of violence is ever-present.
“They moved from one conflict zone to another,” Ms. Kamay said. “In Nagorno-Karabakh, anything might happen at any time between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis.”
For the most part, Ms. Babajanyan’s photos depict the Syrian Armenians she met in their new homes. When possible, she also documented some of the belongings they brought with them from Syria. While some managed to bring religious items or small decorations of special significance, others had only Syrian pounds, their country’s currency, to remind them of home. One young man’s sole memento was a tattoo.
Armenia, Ms. Kamay said, can only benefit from the presence of a new, culturally-diverse population. But the promise of finding financial security elsewhere, she said, and the more distant hope of one day returning to Syria, makes the future Syrian Armenians uncertain.
“Only time will tell if Armenia is a safe transit zone for these people or a newfound home for them,” Ms Kamay said.