Waiting ... : The “motherland” experience turns sour for some Syrian refugees

Waiting ... : The “motherland” experience turns sour for some Syrian refugees


Mari (Madlen) Karayan and Anzhel Tatoyan (right)

A middle-aged woman opening the door to apartment N19 invites guests to come in and sit on the only chair, or the bed. A young man sitting in front of a computer doesn’t seem to notice the visitors, and keeps his gaze glued to the screen.

“I am sorry I can’t offer a different place for you to sit, this is all we have…” says 65-year-old Anzhel Tatoyan, who has fled from Syria to Armenia with her son. “It’s been seven days since we moved to this place, before we had been renting an apartment. The beds lack mattresses; even the warm blankets and pillows are gifts from our neighbors. We were sleeping on bare iron wires.”

After renting an overpriced apartment for two months the mother and son moved to one of the social houses in Darbnik village, Ararat province (the building used to be an agricultural college renovated by the United Nations Armenian office to accommodate Syrian refugees).

At first her son, 27-year-old Raffi Sayegh, came to Armenia, and a month later returned to bring her from Aleppo.

“Part of my house collapsed, we had no electricity. We carried on by candlelight. What could we do, in the daytime we could somehow live with the danger, but at night we couldn’t sleep because we never knew from which side danger might come. For two years we had been living with scarce means, everything was so expensive, no job. My son worked and earned our living. We had some savings but came here, spent it on the rent and now are empty-handed with no job,” says Anzhel.

Tears run from behind her eyeglasses. A family that has lived a prosperous life, went through the trials of war, and in life-threatening conditions made a difficult decision to leave everything behind and move to the motherland.

During the first two months Raffi rented an apartment paying $700 per month. Before, someone who had introduced himself as a real estate agent took a $100 deposit and fled, Raffi never saw him again. $250 disappeared from the apartment they were renting.

“Our coming back to Armenia was probably a mistake. He thought he’d find a job, but ended up paying rent unable to find employment, hence he is penniless now. I did not want to come, I’d say if I have to die, let me die in my home. I’d tell him: go, flee from here, I’ll stay,” she says.

A gas stove stands in one corner, it’d take 12,000 ($30), which they don’t have, to connect it to the general gas pipeline. The only source of heat is a little low-capacity electric stove.
Raffi, unable to fake indifference any longer, interrupts the conversation with an angry request not to rub salt in the wound if “you are not going to cure it”.

“Every Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. go to the airport and see how many [Syrian Armenians] are going back. My friends all have left, they said they’d rather go die there than live like this here. There is no employment, should they stay to starve?” says Raffi. “We know that Armenia is not a wealthy country and it is not gold that we want from it, but why cheat, rob, deceive… so many people have tricked me out of $100 and never showed up again. I believed and trusted whom? An Armenian. We had no such thing [in Syria], when an Armenian would cheat an Armenian. We worked hard and had a good name of an Armenian. Where is that name here? You don’t know what name [respect] an Armenian has abroad, an Armenian’s name there has might.”

The Diaspora ministry handed Raffi a list of employment agencies, organizations and individual’s willing to help Syrian Armenians to find jobs. Raffi, a goldsmith, went to all of them one by one, with not much luck – he was told to go back home and wait, they’d call.

“The notion of our fatherland has died in us. My hand is in fire, yours in water, how do you feel? I am so disappointed that I don’t want to leave these walls or communicate with anyone. Explain to me one thing: why does a kilo of the same produce in the market cost 600 drams ($1.50) for others, but as soon as they see that I am not local they sell it for 1,000 drams ($2,50). Why? I don’t get it?” says Raffi, turning his face back to the screen and pulls down his cap to hide the tears of frustration.

Anzhel offers coffee, says she still has some brought from Aleppo. She mixes coffee, sugar and water in a copper jazzve (traditional eastern coffee maker) and puts it on the electric stove to cook.

Anzhel says her parents had migrated to Syria from Urfa (modern day Turkey). She lost her husband early and brought up her son and daughter alone. Her daughter is married and is now in Syria with her husband’s family. They were living at one of Aleppo’s Armenian districts. She says Nahatakats (Martyrs’) church was right next to her house.

“It’s been six months since they started striking at our side. Now they (Syrian rebels) have taken our houses and it is impossible to drive them away. My first visit to Armenia was in 1981 during the Soviet times. Back then they’d say the nation was starving, no employment, but I came and saw wonderful hotels and abundant tables laid before guests,” recalls Anzhel.

A knock at the door brings in Marie, whom Anzhel calls Madlen. The coffee starts boiling in the jazzve, she pours it into little cups and serves, adding: “I’ll read your coffee cups.” [fortune telling on coffee grounds is quite common among Armenians]. She says fate doesn’t separate her and Madlen, who was Anzhel’s neighbor in Aleppo.

Marie Karamian, 60, lives in Darbnik with her husband. They left their daughter in Aleppo, who had passport issues and could not leave the country; their son had moved to Armenia a decade before.

“When I saw Anzhel here, oh dear, I was so happy! We can at least share our troubles, talk them over,” says Marie.

Another knock on the door, this time it is Anzhel’s Iraqi-Armenian neighbor Seda, who has been in here for a long time now. Anzhel invites her to join and have some coffee.

The conversation around a cup of coffee expands from Iraq, Aleppo and Darbnik to Europe and America. Even Raffi starts smiling. People sharing the same predicament support each other, encourage to hold on and wait for a change.

“We’ll wait for God to open a door… if things get better [in Syria] we will return, our home is there…” says Anzhel.

(This year around 6,000 Syrian Armenians have left their homes and come to Armenia forced by the active hostilities in Syria; 1,000 among them have moved on from Armenia to find refuge in other countries.)