ARMENIA: AN UNCERTAIN "HOMECOMING" FOR SYRIA'S DIASPORA
Marianna Grigoryan

EurasiaNet.org
http://www.eurasianet.org/node/65728
July 31 2012
NY

Many ethnic Armenians are disgruntled after fleeing the embattled
Syrian city of Aleppo for the safety of Armenia. They say they have
been left to fend for themselves in the country they view as their
ethnic homeland. Armenian government officials, meanwhile, insist
they are doing what they can to accommodate diaspora members.

Roughly 100,000 ethnic Armenians, descendants of the survivors of
Ottoman Turkey's World-War-I-era massacre of ethnic Armenians, are
estimated to live in Syria, most of them in Aleppo. A tiny sliver of
that number - 6,248 individuals, based on Armenian visa and passport
applications from Syrian citizens - appear to have left for Armenia
since January 2012, according to Armenian government data.

As one of the first Diaspora groups to form after the massacre,
the Aleppo community is among the strongest of Armenia's far-flung
Diaspora networks.

Nonetheless, members of the Aleppo community face numerous obstacles
as they try to adjust to life in Armenia proper. The problems start
with the price of plane tickets to Yerevan from Aleppo on the Monday
flights offered by Armenia's state-run Armavia Airlines. It's the
only regional airline, as of July 30, reportedly still flying into
the city. Since early July, ticket prices on Armavia - only round-trip
tickets are sold -- have increased by 58 to 63 percent to 180,000 to
190,000 drams ($442 to $466.50).

The prices and lack of one-way tickets have fueled accusations that
Armavia is engaging in price gouging, taking advantage of the violence
that has cut off other exit routes from Aleppo. Flights on Syrian
Air to Yerevan have been sold out for months; on Armavia, they are
sold out until September, Yerevan travel agencies said.

In comments to EurasiaNet.org, senior Armavia executive Isabella
Muradyan conceded that the fighting in Aleppo is "a very important
circumstance," but attributed the "fluctuations" in ticket prices
to Yerevan to "the euro rate and fuel prices." [International
airline fares are calculated based on an International Air Transport
Association currency pegged to the US dollar, and then converted into
the local currency - ed].

As criticism of Armavia's prices started to gain traction, the airline
and the Armenian government announced on July 26 that flights from
Aleppo would increase "soon" to twice per week and would be "almost
free of charge." The government indicated that it might subsidize
ticket prices by 100,000 drams ($245.52) per ticket.

Syrian citizens are now allowed to obtain Armenian visas at the border,
and Armenian passports within Syria, rather than in Yerevan alone.

Upon arrival, though, they still face an uphill struggle to reestablish
a normal routine, refugees from Aleppo told EurasiaNet.org. "We got
no assistance at all from the Diaspora Ministry or the government,"
commented 23-year-old Mkrtich Nersesian, an economist now working in
Yerevan as a snack-bar cashier.

With unemployment one of Armenia's thorniest problems (unofficial
jobless rates soar into the double digits), employment options are
slim, and depend on locals' assistance. Many Syrian-Armenians work
in catering or retail stores, where job vacancies are more frequent.

Networking is also the key to finding an affordable apartment to rent
or place to stay. The Diaspora Ministry says it only organizes and
forwards assistance requests to the relevant ministry. "Everybody now
is relying on their own resources," said 21-year-old Karo Kzirian,
a recent arrival from Aleppo.

Language can be another obstacle; particularly when schools reopen
in September. Syrian-Armenians use the Western Armenian dialect of
Armenian, distinct from the Eastern Armenian dialect spoken locally.

There are also challenges connected with cultural assimilation. Like
Iranian-Armenians, often referred to as "Persians," Syrian-Armenians
can face discrimination.

Representatives of the Diaspora Ministry could not be reached for
comment about its work with Syrian-Armenians. Earlier in July,
however, Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian sharply responded to
the criticism. "Why do you think all of you are concerned about the
Syrian-Armenians and the Diaspora Ministry is not?" Hakobian was quoted
as saying by the Tert.am. news website. "Who says the ministry should
publicize all its activities?"

Ministry representatives have not visited Syria since 2010, according
to the ministry's website, which names "collective power" as the
"salvation" of ethnic Armenians.

The criticism of the government is gaining a political dimension.

Vartan Oskanian, an MP for the semi-oppositional Prosperous Armenia
Party and a native of Aleppo, charged in early July that the Aleppo
Armenians "do not feel the support of their homeland at all."

On his Facebook page, Oskanian, a former foreign minister, claimed
that no Armenian government official has visited Syria since February
to evaluate the situation. "The Armenian state has no right to delay."

The Armenian government in Yerevan is approaching the strife in Syria
with caution in part because officials may be concerned about who
could replace Assad, in the event his regime falls. Relations between
Yerevan and Damascus have generally been warm; in 2009, President
Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, paid an official visit to Yerevan.

Many Syrian-Armenians respect Assad, saying that his family has
supported ethnic Armenians' interests as a Christian minority group
in a predominantly Muslim country. When it comes to the treatment
of the Armenian community in Syria, life under Assad might be more
tolerable than what might follow him.

One senior MP from the governing Republican Party of Armenia emphasized
the need for caution in tackling the question of Aleppo's ethnic
Armenians. "We cannot interfere and evacuate Syrian-Armenians ...

this can further increase the tension; the terrorist attacks may
target our compatriots' neighborhoods next," said Hovhannes Sahakian
in an apparent reference to Syrian rebel fighters. "The situation is
very delicate, and we must be on the alert."

"The government is taking steps and is going to boost the measures"
to help Syrian-Armenians, Sahakian added, without elaborating. Not all
"measures require public announcements," he added.

Whether public or private, the measures can come none too soon for
many of Aleppo's ethnic Armenians. "We helped Armenia when it needed
[us]," commented refugee Shaghik Rastkelenean. "Now it's time Armenia
supports us."

Editor's note: Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan
and the editor of MediaLab.am.