Thousands of Armenians have fled the violent crisis in Syria for their ancestral homeland after almost a century in the country.
According to a report in ArmeniaNow, at least 6,000 Armenian families have departed (or were forced out of) Syria since the civil war erupted two years ago.
BBC puts the number closer to 10,000.
Vardan Poghosyan took his family from the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli to the Kashatagh region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
“It was my decision to come directly to Karabakh,” he told ArmeniaNow. “Rather than going to Europe or America, why not come and live in our homeland?” Gayane Soghomonyan, the head of the General Education Department of the City Hall at Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, told reporters the Syrian arrivals face unique problems aside from jobs and housing. For one thing, there is a language issue – Syrian-Armenians speak either Arabic or ‘western Armenian,’ while most Armenians speak ‘eastern Armenian,’ a somewhat different dialect with Russian mixed in.
Of Syria’s estimated 120,000-strong Armenian population prior to the civil war, the majority were clustered in the northeastern city of Aleppo near the Turkish border, which has witnessed heavy fighting and bombings since the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime broke out.
The departure of Armenians from Syria reverses a mass migration from a century ago in which a program of state-sponsored genocide by the Ottoman Empire of Turkey triggered a huge exodus of Armenians – to Syria and other parts of the world.
In both cases, Armenians fled war and mass killings.
A Syrian-Armenian named Sarkis Atamian, a native of Aleppo and a musician, moved to Yerevan, which now has a cluster of restaurants and other businesses catering to arrivals from Syria.
Atamian noted that while the Assad regime was generally tolerant towards non-Muslim minorities, as Christian , many Armenians are fearful of what may happen in the future if Islamic fundamentalists seize power in Syria.
"The good thing here in Armenia is that you know the language, the alphabet, the religion," Atamian told BBC.
"When I came here, I thought: 'the people look like [me]. The faces, physically, they're like [me]!'”
The Armenian government has taken an official stance of neutrality with respect to Syria, fearing that expressing support for either Assad or the rebels might endanger the lives of Armenians still trapped in Syria.
Nora Pilibbossian, an ethnic Armenian who fled Syria and set up a school in Yerevan for Armenian, children gravely worries about the future.
"I get so upset when I see what's going on in Syria right now,” she told BBC.
“God know what's going to happen. That's where we were born, grew up and went to school. We had our homes there, and our friendships with Syrian-Arabs, who we lived and worked with. Now we've left everything behind."
In addition, despite the fact that Armenia is a relatively poor, isolated country with a 20 percent unemployment rate, Armenians are welcoming their blood brothers and sisters, given the tragic history of the Armenian Diaspora.
"Everyone understands that they are the descendants of those Armenians who died in the [1915 Turkish] genocide. We all want to do something to help," said Firdus Zakarian, an official with Armenia's Ministry of Diaspora.
But Zakarian also added: “Syrian-Armenians are arriving every week. It is hard for Armenia. We do not have the strongest economy, but we are trying to do everything we can so they don’t feel more pain.”
Sarkis Assadourian, a former MP in Canada, is an Armenian who grew up in Aleppo, Syria.
In the Median district where he lived in during the 1960s, “ 90 percent of the people were Armenian. Nobody bothered us. The Muslims called us ‘our Armenian brothers,’” he told the Toronto Star newspaper.
“ Our teacher was a Sunni Muslim, and she adopted an Armenian orphan. There was no hatred toward our community.”
But now Assadourian also fears the Islamic rebels in Syria as much as Assad.
“Assad was wrong,” he said. “He used cannon to kill a fly. But what will happen if fundamentalists take over? Christians are losing ground throughout the Middle East. In Syria, there will be very few left.”
Richard Giragosian, director of Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think-tank located in Yerevan, explained to Voice of America that Armenians have always been a people ‘on the go’ – never quite comfortable anywhere they have lived in.
Indeed, Armenians left Egypt in 1952 after Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed power.
"Then it was Beirut, then the [Lebanese] civil war,” he said. “Then it was Tehran [Iran]. They left in 1979 in large numbers. So there is a natural dynamic trend for change in what is called the Armenian Diaspora. So the Armenian position in the Middle East has never been static or stable."
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