The women documenting the Syrian-Armenian experience in Armenia

Since the civil war started in Syria in 2011, approximately 20,000 Syrian Armenians decided to seek refuge in Armenia, bringing with them their intellectual, handcrafting and entrepreneurial skills as well as their specific culture and food, thus modifying the characteristics of Armenia for the best. This was the observation of Anna Kamay, an art curator from Yerevan, who after returning home from Morocco was pleasantly surprised to see how Syrian Armenians were contributing to improving their original homeland. And in order to honor these newcomers and highlight their impact but also the challenges they face, Anna Kamay curated two photo exhibitions in Yerevan in February and December 2017 featuring the work of three Armenian female photographers – Anush Babajanyan, Nazik Armenakyan and Piruza Khalapyan.

Piruza Khalapyan, Anush Babajanyan, Nazik Armenakyan, and curator Anna Kamay (Photo: Sofia Manukyan/Source: The Armenian Weekly)

The first exhibition was titled The Newcomers: Syrians in Armenia and featured the work of Anush Babajanyan, a member of the VII Photo Agency which focuses her work on issues related to women, minorities, as well as peace and conflict, in particular in Nagorno-Karabakh and between Turkey and Armenia. In 2016 in particular, Anush co-founded a peacebuilding project entitled #BridgingStories for which Turkish and Armenian photographers collaborated in order to improve relations between the two nations. Anush also co-founded 4Plus, a non-for-profit cooperative aiming at empowering women through photography. The second exhibition, titled Home to Home, also featured the work of Nazik Armenakyan and Piruza Khalapyan, who are both members of 4Plus. Together, these women have conducted the important work of documenting the experiences of Syrian Armenians in Armenia, in all their diversity, from the wealthiest who arrived right after the beginning of the civil war, to those who tried to remain in Syria as long as possible, and from those who resettled in Yerevan to those who were offered a home in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Maral Tomassian, 11, fled the Syrian town of Kobani with her father and three brothers in 2014. Maral has been going to school and has learned the local dialect, integrating herself to life in Armenia. (Caption and photo by Anush Babajanyan).

Most of the Syrian-Armenian newcomers who arrived in Armenia had settled in Syria because of the genocide more than 100 years ago and formed a community of around 90,000 people, of which no more than one third remains in Syria today. It is estimated that of those who left Syria, approximately half emigrated to Lebanon, Canada, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf while the other half relocated to Armenia where they were met with enthusiasm and assistance from the Armenian government, more used to experiencing outflows of population rather than inflows, because of the number of people fleeing the difficult economic conditions of the country each year. But though a lot of Syrian Armenians have been able to integrate and adapt to Armenian society, opening their businesses and restaurants, a lot of them also suffer from Armenia’s lack of economic opportunities, thus making their future in the country uncertain.

Syrian Armenians in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh
Aline Kassabji and her husband Vahram Der Ohanian, along with their son, arrived in Yerevan from Aleppo in September 2014. They opened a sandwich shop in the Armenian capital, continuing a business that Vahram had worked in since his teenage years. (Caption and photo by Anush Babajanyan).

In any case, whether Syrian Armenians decide to definitely stay in Armenia, look for better opportunities in other countries or rebuild their lives in Syria as some have already started doing, the memory of their legacy and incredible resilience and strength will remain in Armenia, notably thanks to the women who documented it.

Sources and further reading:

Al Jazeera, ‘Syrian refugees improve Armenia’s social fabric’, by Tamila Varshalomidze, 17 December 2017.

Devex, Lessons learned as Syrian-Armenian refugees return to Armenia, by Amy Lieberman, 25 July 2017.

Forbes, 100 Years Ago, Syrians Took In Armenians. Now, Armenia Is A Refuge For This Family To Rebuild, by Elizabeth MacBride, 31 May 2016.

Foreign Policy, The Syrian Refugees Coming Home to Armenia, by Anush Babajanyan.

Marisa Della Gatta, A ‘nation in exile’: the renewed diaspora of Syrian Armenian repatriates, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 29 November 2017.

The Armenian Weekly, “Syrian-Armenians: Between Two Homes”, by Sophia Manukyan, 26 December 2017

The Economist, Syria’s Armenians are fleeing to their ancestral homeland, 26 June 2017.

The New York Times, “After a Century, Syrian Refugees Return to Armenia”, by Jordan G. Teicher, 27 June 2017.




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