Between Anticipation and Misery: The Syrian-Armenian Refugees of Lebanon

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The Armenian Church celebrates the day of St. Gregory the Illuminator on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. On this day, the courtyard of the Holy See of Cilicia in Lebanon is filled with believers. This year, the occasion was twofold for the thousands of Aleppo-Armenian refugees in the country; Archbishop Shahan Sarkisian, the prelate of Aleppo, was to give the sermon that day. The crowd — filled with men and women, children and elderly — was eager to snap photographs with the Archbishop. They were creating souvenirs of a past that does not exist anymore. They knew they were not going to hear, at least not anytime soon, the Archbishop give a sermon in the Forty Martyrs Cathedral in Aleppo. The church, built by the Armenian community of Aleppo in the 15th century, was essentially abandoned.

The vast presence of Armenians in Aleppo began during the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, spanning from the 11th to the 14th century, when Armenian refugees fled the Seljuk Turkish invasion of Armenia. Yet the Armenian presence in this city turned indelible during the 17th century, when Armenians became silk traders between the Persian and Ottoman empires. As the trade routes passed through Aleppo, the community grew and became more complex. Along with it, the Forty Martyrs Cathedral transformed from a small chapel to a fully developed and ordained church.

It’s a misconception that Armenian communities of the Middle East were formed by the refugees of 1915. Although the Genocide shifted the epicenter of the nation from the Armenian Highlands toward the south, cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Cairo, and even Beirut, are by no means new to Armenians. Books like Vardi Keshishian’s archive the many organizations and activities of Armenians in Aleppo long before 1915. The famous Hotel Baron, which is the oldest hotel in the region and opened in 1909, was built by two Armenian brothers, the Mazloumians, who also operated an underground network of rescuing refugees, orphans and even intellectuals and politicians.

A similar process also took place in Beirut, where local Armenians formed a committee of relief that eventually crystallized in the form of interconnected orphanages, giving birth to the modern Armenian community of Lebanon. Upon arrival, refugees were hosted by the respective local Armenian communities; But not all of Lebanon’s residents were welcoming. Newspapers were filled with pages of complaints by local Armenians about the newcomers in their neighborhoods. Yet, one way or another, with a bit of resistance and a bit of welcoming, with a bit of competition over limited resources and a bit of brotherly sharing, the old and new eventually merged.

The comparison of the refugee crisis in 1915 and the Syrian crisis of late might be lessening the former’s scope, but the experiences of Syrian-Armenian refugees today may give us some insight on what happened nearly 100 years ago during the Genocide. It also hits close to home in comparison to other occurrences of civil unrest in the Middle East.

Alber Kuyumjian, 26, is one of the estimated 10,000 Aleppo Armenians in Lebanon. He doesn’t hesitate to mention that his father hosted their Lebanese Armenian relatives for four years during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. “We accepted the Lebanese [Armenians] because they were in hard conditions. We did not complain. Thank God we had money and we could afford accepting them,” Alber remembers. “Maybe they don’t have money now, but we are not asking much. We are being treated as foreigners,” he says, alluding to the difficulty Syrian-Armenians are having of being accepted by their Lebanese-Armenian brethren. Alber is currently living with his relatives in an apartment that resembles a refugee center more than a home.

Nerses Kuyumjian, 63, is Alber’s uncle and he’s the owner of the apartment-turned-refugee-camp. Nerses works as a taxi driver who commutes between Aleppo and Beirut, but he doesn’t yet know if he’ll be departing the following morning. He explains that everything depends on the news that comes from the borders, whether it be about road safety or the number of passengers who need a ride back to Beirut. Many refugees even come to his apartment to bring goods to be taken to Aleppo; others come to pick up things that were sent to them from their family still in the region. With all these ins and outs, it’s impossible to know who actually lives in the apartment, who’s a refugee staying for a short while, and who’s just visiting. Regardless, they all gather around the dining table together to eat, though some remain standing because there aren’t enough chairs for everyone.

But standing up while eating doesn’t seem to be the refugees’ biggest worry. One of the big issues of the Aleppo-Armenian refugees, both in Lebanon and Armenia, is education. After the influx to Armenia, Aleppo-Armenians established a daily school that was soon shut down due to lack of funding. In Beirut, there’s no need to establish a new school because the Syrian and Lebanese curriculums are more or less compatible, making it much easier to assimilate to the country’s education system.

Zarug Janian, 44, moved from Aleppo to Beirut in April 2013 so that her two children could still attend school in a safe environment. Her husband, however, still lives and works in Aleppo, a condition shared by many refugee families. Zarug pays the special discounted fee for Syrian refugees at the local Bourj Hammoud Armenian school but she says that “even the reduced fee is too much,” mentioning that she still has to pay for books, which, if converted to Syrian pounds, amounts to the entire salary of a full-time worker back in Aleppo.

It’s nearly impossible for a father to work in Aleppo and provide for his family in Beirut, so Zarug works too, with a salary that’s much less than a Lebanese national would work for. Lebanese employers aren’t against employing Syrians illegally, in many cases by even replacing their Lebanese employees with the less-demanding refugees. The result is a feeling of deep resentment toward Syrian refugees in Lebanon, both by Armenians and non-Armenians alike. In fact, the deepening economic crisis in the country is often blamed on the increasing number of refugees flooding in, with some estimates putting the refugee population in Lebanon at two million, which is roughly half of the population in the country.

Still, diaspora communities are liquid entities everywhere and the new eventually melts into the old, as it repeatedly has happened in these very same cities before. The refugees who find their way out of Lebanon go and “look for their luck on other shores,” as Ruben Hakhverdyan sings. Those who stay continue their life one way or another.

Back in Beirut, on St. Gregory the Illuminator’s day, loudspeakers broadcast Archbishop Sarkisian’s sermon to the masses in the courtyard: “We are out of hope, how can I give you hope? Yet we are in hope because we are here together, we are assembled here because we have hope, we are under this ceiling together, because we want to be together.” Amen.

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4 Comments

  1. This article has a lot of truth in it, but it is one-sided
    and there are a lot that have not been said. Before I continue, I would like to
    say that I’m not taking sides, I just want to objectively present what is going
    on in the Lebanese-Armenian community.
    The fact that Syrian-Armenians greeted Lebanese-Armenians during
    the Civil War years is 100% true. That, however, does not translate into that
    Lebanese-Armenians are not treating Syrian-Armenians well, or well enough

    1) The Syrian-Armenian
    community has always been richer than the Lebanese one, as you can read in the
    article’s first paragraph, while the Lebanese-Armenian community was mainly
    formed after the Genocide. Before that, only a handful of rich Armenians
    families lived there who were businessmen in various fields. The
    Syrian-Armenians had better capabilities and conditions than the Lebanese
    Armenians in prior to the Syria Crisis. By 2010, Syria was blossoming, Lebanon
    was in an economic crisis (still is). Everything is expensive, there’s no 24h
    electricity, no water, low income, high taxes. When Syria’s community accepted
    the Armenians from 1975 to 1990, their country was stable and with good
    economy. When Syrian-Armenians came to Lebanon, they came to an already
    war-torn country with corrupt politicians who haven’t done anything to bring
    the country to its feet. Therefore, in general, Lebanon and the Armenian
    community is not in better shape than Syria was before the recent crisis.

    2) “Upon arrival, refugees were hosted by the respective local
    Armenian communities; But not all of Lebanon’s residents were welcoming.
    Newspapers were filled with pages of complaints by local Armenians about the
    newcomers in their neighborhoods.” Please let us
    see the links to these newspapers. It is impossible that they were written in
    Armenian newspapers in Lebanon. If such articles were written, they were done
    so by Lebanese journalists who have anti-Armenian feelings and would like to
    show a negative side of the story.

    3) Lebanese-Armenians
    complain about Syrian-Armenian refugees. Yes, that is true. Partly. There is
    the other side of the story that it is not being told. Like I said above,
    Syrian-Armenians had better conditions in Syria prior the war. When they came
    to Lebanon, a lot of them did not like the conditions they got in. Many
    Syrian-Armenians complained (and continue to complain) about why they are
    living in smaller houses, poorer conditions etc. Many Syrian-Armenians did the
    same thing when they came to Armenia. Many wanted to live in downtown Yerevan
    (Kentron), but complained why prices were expensive there. Many wanted to
    continue what they did in Aleppo/Damascus, but got forced to do other jobs,
    with lower income. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is in every country you move
    in. The funny thing is, Syrian-Armenians (and all Armenians in general, from
    Armenia, Lebanon and other places) who migrate to Sweden, USA, Canada and other
    “first-world countries” are not in conditions as good as they were before the
    war, yet you do not hear any complaints from those Armenians. You would only
    hear complaints when a Diasporan Armenian starts living in the Homeland and all
    of his expectations are not met. But if his expectations are not met in Western
    countries, that Armenian wouldn’t complain, even if before he was a salesman in
    Aleppo/Yerevan/Beirut and now a taxi driver in LA.

    Let the reader not think that I am taking sides with the
    Lebanese-Armenian community or bashing Syrian-Armenians. I am trying to show
    all of the flaws that exist in our people. If we fixed all our flaws and started being Armenia-centric, not only
    would have we prospered our Armenia by now, but we would not have such problems and be
    dispersed in foreign lands.

    • I completely agree with comments #2 and @3.

      “If we fixed all our flaws and started being Armenia-centric, not only
      would have we prospered our Armenia by now, but we would not have such problems and be
      dispersed in foreign lands.” Bravo! That’s what we should ALL do – be Armenia-centric.

  2. “big issues of the Aleppo-Armenian refugees, both in Lebanon and Armenia, is education.”

    > I couldn’t agree more. This is an issue that plagues all Diaspora communities, especially in the states. In Los Angeles, The Diaspora can’t even get their act together to build SOLID schools with a clear goal on education. Where are the University connections, where are the vast and growing schools where Armenian-American youths and graduates would vie and be PROUD to teach. They just drag the bottom of the barrel because no one cares and that there is no funding.

  3. Pingback: Diaspora Blues | Andrew J Siebert

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