By Willy Lowry

The Daily Star on_id=1&categ_id=1&article_id=94885
Aug 8 2008

BURJ HAMMOUD: Sanjak camp is disappearing. The expanding Beirut
suburb of Burj Hammoud will consume the 20,000-square-meter area
within the next few years, and in the process eliminate one of the
last remaining Armenian refugee camps in Lebanon. Sanjak is being
demolished to accommodate the growing population of Burj Hammoud and
its busy shopping district.

The Burj Hammoud municipality plans to replace Sanjak with St. Jacques
Plaza, a commercial and residential center.

Vasken K. Chekijian of VKC Design and Planning is the architect in
charge of the project. He said that the plaza, which is the first
project of its kind supported by a municipality in Lebanon, will
consist of two eight-floor apartment buildings and one 10-floor
apartment building. The plaza will also have a landscaped area, he
added. It will also contain the first multi-storey parking garage in
Lebanon, he said.

Today, a large field of rubble and a few rows of dilapidated buildings
are all that is left of Sanjak camp. Streams of running water flow
through narrow walkways that are cluttered with debris. Personal
belongings such as sneakers and clothes lie abandoned in empty homes.

The camp was established in 1939, in response to Turkey's annexation
of Alexandretta, an autonomous territory, within French mandated
Syria. Historian Vahe Tachjian wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Star
that approximately 15,000 Armenians lived in Alexandretta, which was
located at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, an area
that is now the Turkish province of Hatay.

According to information provided by Tachjian, the majority of the
Armenian population of Alexandretta fled the province in July of 1939,
just prior to its inclusion into Turkey. They migrated south to French
Mandate Lebanon. They settled in various refugee camps throughout the
country, which had been set up by the French High Commission. In the
fall of 1939 a small number of the fleeing Armenians settled inland of
an already established "quarantine" area - the present day Karantina -
along Beirut's northern coast and next to Burj Hammoud, which at the
time was farmland.

The name "Sanjak" is Turkish for "district" or "province." It alludes
to the lost Armenian "Sanjak of Alexandretta," from which the camp's
settlers originated.

Throughout the last half of the 20th century the camp gradually
expanded and its population diversified. The camp grew to include
several other ethnic groups, primarily immigrants from Syria,
Southeast Asia and Armenia, said Elyse Semerdjian, a professor of
Middle East History at Whitman College in the United States who took
up the history of Sanjak in a recent issue of the American publication
Armenian Weekly.

While immigrants from various parts of the region moved into the camp,
many of the original Armenians who could afford to move relocated to
Burj Hammoud. Raffi Kokoghlanian, the deputy mayor of Burj Hammoud,
said that just prior to the first phase of demolition, only 30 percent
of the people living in the camp were descendants of the original
Armenian inhabitants.

In recent years, as Burj Hammoud has expanded and prospered, the camp
has remained impoverished.

Kokoghlanian says that for the past several years the Municipal Council
debated what should become of Sanjak camp, which he said had become
"a slum and problematic."

The council, he added, decided to build "something that would improve
and increase the accessibility of Burj Hammoud's shopping district
and create more middle-class living space."

According to Chekijian, the plaza will create 184 new apartments,
which will be affordable to the lower-middle class, and the parking
complex will add 950 parking spaces to the cramped suburb. St. Jacques
will also have 70 commercial shops.

Today, half the camp has been leveled. Semerdjian estimated that the
camp originally contained about 300 shops and homes that housed around
160 families, while fewer than 45 homes remain.

Semerdjian believes "Sanjak Camp lies at a crucial intersection,"
she wrote, "not only for the commercial vitality of Burj Hammoud, but
also for the moral consciousness of the greater Armenian community."

The Armenian diaspora has created a large and relatively affluent
community in Lebanon. They number roughly 150,000 and represent
approximately 4 percent of the country's population. Many are
descendants of people who escaped the Armenian genocide, however;
some, like those who live in Sanjak, are the progeny of the roughly
15,000 Armenians who fled Alexandretta in 1939.

Today, the majority of Lebanese Armenians reside in either Burj
Hammoud or Anjar, a town in the Beqaa.

Although no census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932, it
is believed that 150,000 people reside in Burj Hammoud, of whom 80
percent are Armenian.

According to information provided by Semerdjian, many of the original
Armenian refugee camps were still standing 20 years ago.

The increasing urbanization of cities and the need for more space,
which is something not unique to Lebanon, has led to the eradication
of important historic and cultural sites in countries throughout the
world, and this may become the fate of the Armenian refugee camps
in Lebanon.

Semerdjian used Tyro camp as an example. The camp, which was located
a few blocks away from Sanjak in Burj Hammoud, was recently leveled
and replaced by the Harboyan buildings, said Semerdjian.

For the moment, progress on the St. Jacques project has come to a
halt. The remaining residents are refusing to let the municipality
buy them out, saying that they are not being offered enough money.

Semerdjian wrote in her Armenian Weekly article that "most families
in the camp reported that they were receiving about $3,000-$5,000
compensation from the municipality."

"The municipality was paying more than the value of the current homes,"
Kokoghlanian said.

He added that he believes it is only a matter of time until the
municipality and the enduring residents reach an agreement.

Kokoghlanian said the construction of St. Jacques Plaza is an
"improvement that will help Burj Hammoud evolve and continue to

The suburb, which is two square kilometers in size, is one of the most
densely populated areas in the Middle East, say several Web sites;
and the city block that Sanjak occupies is precious space.

The Armenian diaspora in Lebanon has made no significant attempt
to prevent the camp's destruction. In reaction to their posture,
Semerdjian asked if the community "will continue to ignore the social
and economic factors that have contributed to the persistence of this
Armenian refugee camp for over 60 years?"