CNEWA Canada

Armenian Refugees Find Safety at Ordinariate Camp

“Three houses, two cars, and a barn full of animals,” said Elmira Grigoryan, as she struggled to recount what she had left behind in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Elmira, 60, and her husband were enjoying a quiet meal at their home in the village of Gandzasar on 19 September, when Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military offensive on the historically Armenian region. They abandoned their meal and fled to their neighbor’s basement.

“In the initial hours, our village suffered severe damage, with casualties and wounded,” she recalled. “It was a terrible situation, forcing us to bury our fallen neighbors in their yards because there was no way to transport them to the cemetery.”

Survivors were forced to evacuate the village in a neighbor’s truck, eventually making their way to the region’s capital, Stepanakert. There, Elmira and her husband spent two days at their son’s house “clinging to hope.”

“I never lost hope, believing that diplomacy would prevail, and we would return to our homes. But then, my son delivered the heartbreaking news that we had to leave,” she said.

Too difficult to procure fuel, they abandoned their car in Stepanakert and packed into another one with other families. Elmira recalled the hardships they faced, exacerbated by the more than nine-month blockade preceding the attack.

“My husband’s leg was amputated because of injuries sustained during the 1990s war. I couldn’t even bring his proper medication,” she said. “They starved us for over nine months, only to bombard us when we finally left.”

The drive from Nagorno-Karabakh to the checkpoint at Kornidzor at the Armenian border would usually take two hours. But this trip lasted more than two days due to the heavy traffic of tens of thousands of people fleeing at once. At the checkpoint, the couple said they would seek refuge at a camp of the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate in Torosgyugh in the Shirak region. The Ordinariate works closely with Caritas to support refugees at the camp and receives funding from CNEWA.

Families staying at a camp of the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate in Armenia hang clothes to dry between the shelters in the camp. (photo: Gohar Abrahamyan)

“Everything is provided for free here,” she said at the camp. “I shudder to think what we would have done without this support.”

Just two days after arriving at the camp, a blood clot in Elmira’s leg became critical. Father Grigor Mkrtchyan, the camp’s director, arranged a car late at night to transport her to a hospital in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. She believes she would not have survived without the priest’s timely intervention. She was also baptized in the camp chapel with another 30 or so refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh.

“In just a matter of days, I experienced displacement, surgery and a sacred baptism,” she said, pointing to the cross around her neck.

She holds onto the hope that her leg will improve, enabling her to return to work. In Nagorno-Karabakh, she was renowned for baking a favorite local delicacy: a donut made with about 25 herbs, paired with fragrant bread. One of the few things she took from her home before leaving was her rolling pin. She is grateful her three children and eight grandchildren survived the ordeal.

Elmira’s daughter, Armine Grigoryan, also sought refuge in the camp with her husband and three children. They had resided in Kolatak in Nagorno-Karabakh. Two years ago, the state had provided her military husband family housing there.

“We had waited 15 long years for that home, we had furnished it elegantly,” said Armine. “I was a hairdresser with a thriving business, a dedicated client base, and we had everything we needed. But everything changed in a matter of hours.”

Armine Grigoryan is staying at a camp of the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate in Armenia for refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh after fleeing the region with her parents, husband and children. (photo: Gohar Abrahamyan)

She was dyeing a client’s hair, waiting for the color to set, when the war erupted. Residents of the military settlement were ordered to evacuate.

“My husband was stationed at the border, and there were no means of communication,” she said. Without news from him, Armine and her children sought refuge in the woods. All the while, her six-year-old son “clung to an icon, praying fervently for his father’s safe return.”

Four days later, Armine and her children reunited with her husband in Stepanakert and they fled to the camp together.

“I had hoped that my children would be spared from witnessing the harsh realities of war, but they witnessed more than I ever wanted them to — hunger, shelling, displacement. They are deeply traumatized and scared,” she said.

At the end of October, Armine and her family continued to deal with the lingering trauma and anxiety caused by the conflict in their homeland within the safety of the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate camp in Armenia, grateful for the compassionate support of the staff to regain their footing.

Support CNEWA’s emergency efforts in Armenia.

A communications specialist, Gohar Abrahamyan covers issues of justice and peace in the Caucasus for local and international media.

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