Sbidag: A small island of Syria in Yerevan

Sbidag restaurant is getting prepared for the New Year banquet. The modestly furnished hall is decorated with fir branches and garlands; menus are on the tables, telling the current visitors of the holiday dinner, which consists of traditional Arabic dishes. It also says: “Join the party and enjoy the Syrian atmosphere.”

Sbidag is a small island of Aleppo in Yerevan, opened by Syrian Armenians. It is a club, where the Armenians from Syria come to have traditional dishes of Arabic cuisine, smoke hookah, play backgammon and feel “at home” in a Syrian atmosphere. Only talks on military action in Syria and their nostalgia for their homeland keeps reminding them of their uncertain status and future.

The restaurant was opened two months ago in the lounge belonging to the Aram Manukian Cultural Youth Center of ARF Dashnaktsutyun, which provided it free of charge. Besides the restaurant, there is an internet club, children's room and a small souvenir shop. In December, the first wedding was celebrated in Sbidag (which means “white”).

Harout Kzirian, manager of the restaurant, is one of thousands of Syrian Armenians, who were forced to leave their home in Syria and seek shelter in Armenia.

"Armenia has always been in our dreams. My family and I have been visiting Armenia every year and enjoyed our vacation here. But now we, the Armenians of Syria are in an unenviable position, although we found ourselves in our historical homeland, which has welcomed us. But we all are dreaming to be back to our homeland in Syria, be back to our homes, schools, universities, relatives and families. Every day we follow the news but so far no good prediction of the conflict. We live in hope, "says Kzirian, 30.

Until recently the community in Syria was considered to be one of the most powerful Diaspora structures, which was home for over 80,000 Armenians, who played a significant role in the social, political and cultural life of Syria.

Today, the once rich community of Syria is in a desperate situation. Since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011 more than thirty Armenians have been killed in the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 30,000.

Kzirian came to Armenia with his family in May, but many of his relatives and friends are still in Syria. He says they do not want to leave, despite the problems they face every day, including snipers on the roofs of the buildings and shortages of food and basic goods.

"I remember when rebels just started the attacks. Every time I was hearing shots, I ran up to my small boy, took him in my arms, trying to protect him. Then, some time later, it became almost a routine. One just got used to it – at first you got scared, did not leave home, then you learn to shift through the streets, hiding behind buildings. You got used to the war," he says bitterly.

According to the data from the Armenian Diaspora Ministry from the beginning of the year around 10,000 people arrived from Syria to Armenia. Presently there are about 6,000 remaining. About 800 are students. Children have free access to the schools and kindergartens, and for the university students the government has allocated 40 million drams ($100,000) to cover study costs.

Earlier this month, a group of Syrian Armenians met the Minister of Agriculture Sergo Karapetyan, who told them if they want to farm, the Armenian authorities will support them in company registration, finding land, providing counseling and other opportunities such as low loans. A labor fair will be held this weekend in Yerevan by the initiative of the State Employment Service of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, where about 50 employers from Yerevan and the provinces will meet Syrian Armenians.

Despite the efforts by the Ministry of Diaspora and the Armenian authorities there are still some objective problems Syrian Armenians face, such as unemployment, low salaries, and differences in the social and cultural environment. In addition, many of the Syrian Armenians living in Yerevan complain that they are not included in any of the lists of beneficiaries who receive assistance from various organizations.

But the main problem they face are housing and unemployment Only 150 have found jobs through assistance of the Ministry of Diaspora in Armenia, where unemployment is a big problem also for natives.

Kzirian says many of his friends found occasional jobs and work outside their professional specialties. One of his friends, a successful jeweler from Aleppo, currently works in the food sector, which according to Kzirian is the most accessible business sphere in Armenia.

In Aleppo Kzirian had a graphics and design studio and a shop for spare car parts. But after spending half a year in Armenia, and investigating the market, he realized that none of his business will be successful here, and years would be spent to succeed even in a small business.

"When living in Syria, where sometimes we also had some financial difficulties we used to say "Syria is difficult for business”. But we were saying that before coming to Armenia,” he says with a smile. “Now we know Armenia is very difficult for business. There are several reasons for that, but the primary reason is the absence of the relevant market, high cost of the goods, which reach Armenia through Georgian ports or via air. Recently I wanted to buy a small table made of plastic, and all I found after a long search was a table for 45,000 drams ($110) of Turkish production. I think if Armenia will succeed in having enterprises, for example, such as producing plastic chairs and tables, then the economic picture would be different."

Another employee of Sbidag is Kladis Aghbabian, an accountant from Aleppo and a business management student at the Latakia University, which she has not managed to finished because of the war.

In Sbidaq she worked in a small gift shop; some part of the profit from sales goes for charitable purposes for her compatriots.

She says she did not want to leave Aleppo, but her parents persuaded her and her sister to leave, after two of their relatives who arrived from Yerevan died on the way from the airport to Aleppo being caught in the rebels’ crossfire. Four Armenians were killed and 11 were wounded that day.

"All my thoughts are on Syria. All Armenians lived well there, the government's attitude to us never differs from that of the Arabs, and we enjoyed privileges. For example, the Armenian Easter was not included in the official list of holidays, but students and schoolchildren were given five days off during that Christian holiday. We lived very freely, we celebrated all Armenian holidays, observed all the traditions and learned the Armenian language at schools," says Aghbabian, 28, who now lives with her sister at their relative’s home.

Aghbabian’s family had a grocery shop in Aleppo, which has been closed for four months.

"The food situation is getting worse every day. Now the city is literally without bread. All goods are in high deficit. It hurts to think how people live there.”

The Aghbabian sisters looking forward for the next week; at last their parents and a brother decided to join them in Yerevan.

"My brother is an actor in the Armenian theater. I met some people from the theatre community here and made some appointments for him. I hope he's lucky and he will found a job in his field.”