Armenian Sisters Welcome Refugees

The Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception offer compassionate care to refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh in Gyumri and Tashir, Armenia, by providing housing, meals, child care and company.

Sister Serpouhi Boghosyan tries to comfort Leonoura Mnastsakanyan in her small, but sufficient apartment. The 76-year-old found refuge with the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception last autumn, when she fled her home in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mrs. Mnastsakanyan is one of about 100,000 ethnic Armenians who fled their homeland to the neighboring Republic of Armenia after Azerbaijan’s military offensive on 19-20 September 2023 culminated in their capture of the ethnic Armenian stronghold.

Ethnic Armenians had lived in this long-disputed region for millennia and had declared independence as the Republic of Artsakh in 1991, as war raged between the emerging Armenian and Azerbaijani republics, then parts of the dissolving Soviet Union. As part of the cease-fire agreement brokered by the Russian Federation last year, the Republic of Artsakh disbanded its government. It ceased to exist on 1 January.

Last autumn, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception began to receive families from Nagorno-Karabakh, providing them with housing, food and consolation, as they had done during the 44-Day War, which had erupted between the Azerbaijan military and the ethnic Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020.

The sisters in Gyumri, Armenia, welcomed four families to a set of small apartments they own, overlooking their after-school educational center, long-supported by CNEWA. Sister Serpouhi was assigned to care for these families, visit them often and tend to their needs.

Mrs. Mnastsakanyan had sought refuge with the sisters during the 44-Day War as well. A retiree of the police department in Nagorno-Karabakh after 17 years of service, she will continue to receive her pension in Armenia. She will also benefit from 100,000 drams ($250) from the Armenian government, slated for each displaced person from Nagorno-Karabakh.

As with Mrs. Mnastsakanyan, the Petrossyans had also fled the 44-Day War and had found refuge with the sisters. Rousanne and Arthur Petrossyan now live in an apartment on the upper floor of the building, with their three children and Rousanne’s mother, Alina.

The family left their home and belongings in Stepanakert when the offensive began on 19 September. A week later, they joined the tens of thousands fleeing for Armenia. Even once she was safe in Gyumri, Alina’s response to the trauma of the war was almost debilitating.

“I didn’t change my clothes for an entire week, thinking I had to be ready to leave any minute if another war broke out. I couldn’t believe I was in safety in Armenia,” says Alina, who worked as a librarian in Stepanakert.

The children go to the sisters’ educational center during the week, where they will eat breakfast before going to school. They return to the center to eat lunch and do their homework, before returning home.

Marat, 6, complains the children at school do not understand his Artsakh dialect. Mane, 12, is sure she will return to her cozy room in Stepanakert.

“Every morning she asks me, ‘When do you think we will go back to Stepanakert’,” says Rousanne.

Rousanne asks Mane to recite the poem she wrote after her cousin died in the war and everyone weeps. Somehow, the family is adjusting to their new life, slowly. Arthur joined the Armenian army, while Rousanne and her mother take care of the house and the children.

Sister Serpouhi Boghosyan visits with the Balassanyan family, who fled Nagorno-Karabakh last September and has been living in an apartment owned by the Armenian sisters in Gyumri, Armenia. (photo: Armineh Johannes)

The Balassanyan family lives in the four-room apartment next door.

“We get homesick and often watch documentaries about Hadrut on YouTube, and sometimes see our house in the documentary,” says Marina Balassanyan, with a trembling voice.

The family lost their home in Hadrut when the Azerbaijan military captured the town in the 44-Day War. Azerbaijan’s takeover of Hadrut, along with Shusha about 40 miles away, displaced 13,500 people, and the Balassanyans retreated to Stepanakert. With the Azerbaijan offensive last year, they lost their home in Stepanakert and fled to Armenia.

“Our children are still traumatized by loud sounds and do not like to stay alone in a room,” says the mother of three.

The sisters had welcomed a fourth family in the days that followed the great exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh, but they have since moved to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where they thought jobs would be easier to find.

Sister Narine Simonyan, who directs the educational center, says her community could accommodate more families in the dormitory at the center, but most families prefer to have an apartment, where they can live independently, cook for themselves and have a private bath.

Further north, in the village of Tashir, the sisters also welcomed families to one of their former dormitories. About 3,100 people from Nagorno-Karabakh have sought refuge in Tashir and surrounding villages since the stronghold’s collapse.

Rosa Tatevosova, who has been bedridden for the past seven years, lives in a single room in the dormitory with her daughter, Tamara, and two grandchildren. She brightens up when she sees Sister Arousiag Sajonian, the religious community’s superior general, walking into her room, with Sister Pauline Kastan.

“May God bless you all,” says Mrs. Tatevosova, who speaks to the sisters about her son who died 30 years ago in an electrical accident. Sister Arousiag leans over and tries to comfort her.

Sister Arousiag Sajonian comforts Rosa Tatevosova, a refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh, who is sheltering in a former dormitory of the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Tashir, Armenia. (photo: Armineh Johannes)

Sister Pauline tells Tamara to bring the older child to the sisters’ educational center in Tashir, so he can have his meals there and get help with his homework. The Tashir center tends to 46 children on daily basis. Of these, six are from Nagorno-Karabakh.

The families are welcome to stay for as long as they like, the sisters say.

The Armenian Catholic Sisters of the Immaculate Conception are known throughout Armenia for their mission to help those in need — beginning with their assistance to the survivors of the devastating December 1988 earthquake in Soviet Armenia’s northern regions.

The displaced families of Nagorno-Karabakh lost everything — their ancestral lands, homes, cars, businesses and farm animals — but not their memories, even as they piece together again their lives.

Armineh Johannes is a freelance journalist and photojournalist. A veteran contributor to ONE magazine, her work has been published in Newsweek, Le Monde and The Washington Post.

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