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A Refuge in Lebanon

Syrian Armenians seek a new life

After only a few months in the village of Anjar, 73-year-old Antranig Chakerian decided the blank exterior walls of his new home should be his canvas. He began to draw.

The pictures, however, do not depict scenes of Aleppo, the northern Syrian city where he was born and from where he recently fled with his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law and his grandson. Instead, the walls sport icons, images and poems dedicated to his ancestral homeland, historic Armenia, parts of which now lie in eastern Turkey.

There are drawings of Armenian churches with five paths leading to them, symbolizing Armenian exile. There is also a sketch of Mount Ararat, highly symbolic to Armenians, which looms above Armenia behind its western border with Turkey. And Mr. Chakerian has drawn an image of an
obelisk-style monument that commemorates what many refer to as the Armenian Genocide: the death of more than 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey between 1915 and 1918.

Between the various drawings are blocks of handwritten text. “These are nationalistic poems — patriotic poems,” explains Mr. Chakerian, who arrived in Anjar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in September 2012. “These are poems about the great martyrs.”

For all Armenians, the period between 1915 and 1918 constitutes the ultimate exile. It was a catastrophic uprooting that defines and binds them together tightly, even as they remain scattered across the globe. For Syrian Armenians, their flight from their Syrian refuge for neighboring Lebanon is a sad reverberation of their original catastrophe.

“We were confronted with bombs and rockets day and night for a long time,” says Mr. Chakerian of life in Aleppo since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in March 2011. “We wanted to save our souls.”

And so, he and his family fled to Damascus and then took a public taxi across the border to Anjar.

A peaceful, pretty town, Anjar is itself a product of Armenian displacement. It was founded to house Armenians who left the Syrian region of Hatay when Turkey annexed it in 1939. The town’s population is normally around 2,500, but the recent influx of refugees from the war in Syria has doubled that number.

“That puts big pressure on the municipality,” says Nazareth Andakian, a municipal lawyer in Anjar. “We don’t have any more empty houses; all are full. On top of that, because there is currently no government in Lebanon, public funds are not being released to us from Beirut, so the village is going into debt to manage the situation.”

This dilemma is playing out all across Lebanon, in both Armenian and non-Armenian domains. This small country of just four million people has had to bear the brunt of the Syrian displacement crisis; to date more than a million Syrian refugees have fled to the country, according to the United Nations. And the flow shows no signs of stopping.

Before the war, there were between 100,000 and 150,000 Armenians in Syria. Of this population, some 20,000 have already fled to Lebanon, while others have fled north, to Armenia, or to Jordan in the south.

“We have been helping them by providing shelter, places in our private schools, food and in some cases jobs,” says Catholicos Aram I, who leads the Armenian Apostolic Catholicosate of Cilicia from the Beirut suburb of Antelias. “But it is our expectation that Armenian families will go back to Syria, because we are against the migration of Christians from the region.”

A chain of conflicts in recent history — the invasion of Iraq, the Egyptian revolution and now civil war in Syria — has put the standing of Christians, a minority in the Middle East, on unsteady ground. Absent any security, some Christian communities have been targeted by extremists and criminal groups, forcing many to flee. Lebanon, the state with the largest proportion of Christians in the Middle East, is often the first stop for these Christian refugees before they seek a permanent refuge, usually in Europe, North America or Oceania.

“We have to stay where we are,” says the catholicos, who is responsible for Armenian Apostolic communities throughout the Middle East, Greece and North America. “We belong to this region. We’re not newcomers. Our history, our presence is deeply rooted in this region.”

However, this position is most likely not a priority for many of the Syrian Armenians having to make do in the resource-stretched and often cramped urban environments in Lebanon — most Armenians in Lebanon live in Anjar and in the eastern Beirut suburbs of Bourj Hammoud and Antelias. Similar to other ethnic and religious communities fleeing Syria, Syrian Armenians tend to flee to areas where their ethnic brethren, Lebanese Armenians, are concentrated. But unlike other groups, Lebanese Armenians are tightly knit due to their prior status as exiles.

Bourj Hammoud, a densely populated Armenian enclave, has seen its capacity stretched to bursting since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011.

“There have been many problems, but we manage,” says
Sarkis Joukhjoukhian, a Lebanese Armenian who sells thyme-covered bread snacks called manoushe from his small store in the heart of Bourj Hammoud.

“We help them whether they are family or not, because when we had war here in Lebanon we often left to Syria, and they helped us then.”

Plagued as they are by exile and upheaval, the Armenians’ shared experience of violence and displacement makes for a less precarious displacement today.

“There is a very strong relationship between the Syrian Armenians and the Lebanese Armenians,” says Serop Ohanian, Lebanon field director at the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Cooperation, an Armenian organization for child welfare.

“It’s normal for us in a crisis to say: ‘Let’s go live with our relatives in Beirut and if they don’t have an apartment, they will know someone through the church who will. We will manage somehow.’ ”

Helping them manage is a host of organizations, including CNEWA, church aid groups such as Caritas as well as international agencies and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Karagheusian Center has had to extend its operating hours by four hours per day, take on four new staffers and reduce the summer holiday from one month to two weeks to meet the demand for its services.

“In February, we were catering to 400 Syrian families,” says Mr. Ohanian, adding that the center offers its services to all the needy, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or creed. “By July, that number had grown to 1,000, about 500 of which are Syrian Armenian.”

With funding from CNEWA, the Karagheusian Center started a project that helps 400 Syrian Armenian families through a specially created team of four social workers — two Syrians and two Lebanese Armenians. They conduct home visits to assess the needs of each family, offer remedial tutorial classes to Syrians struggling with a Lebanese educational system that is quite different from that of Syria, run a summer school during July and August to enable students to catch up on work and run health education classes for Syrian Armenian mothers.

Tamar Yeranossian, 26, a native of Aleppo who fled to Lebanon last year, is one of the four members of this team dedicated to the Syrian Armenian refugees.

“I feel their feelings,” she says of the refugees she regularly counsels. “When someone is crying in front of me, I feel I am crying.”

Ms. Yeranossian lives in a two-room apartment in Bourj Hammoud with eight members of her extended family, including her brother, Hagop, 14. Her older sister, Zvart, 28, lives a few streets away with her husband. Their parents remain in besieged Aleppo, minding the house and unable to leave. For now, all they can do is make regular phone calls to their three children in Beirut.

“When I am talking to her, she doesn’t tell me what is happening because we would be worried for them or sad, so she only tells me: ‘Ok, we are fine; what about you? What are you doing?’” says Ms. Yeranossian of her mother’s phone calls. “She doesn’t tell me that she is in danger or struggling to find food … she knows we are also facing difficulty here.

“We are not what we used to be.”

Again and again, as with those interviewed for “Crossing
the Border,” a story that ran in the spring 2013 edition of ONE, Syrian refugees describe the change they have gone through as irrevocable and profound. Tamar Yeranossian says she hears the same from the people she counsels and that, as time goes on, she feels the same herself.

“I have lost my feelings. I have lost my happiness, my joy, my life. Even when I talk to my mother, sometimes I do not know what I am feeling about her anymore,” she says. “Everything has changed. I will never forget this street I now live on, these chairs in this room we all sleep in, this washing machine that is not working anymore. One day, when I am again in a good situation, I will be more aware of what I have because, once, I lost it all.”

In contrast to her life in Aleppo, home is no longer a place Ms. Yeranossian can go to unwind. In Bourj Hammoud, she hears the same problems she does at work. Walking around the streets of the neighborhood, sipping a coffee, window shopping and visiting her sister at her house have become her only outlets. Weaving through the teeming streets of the neighborhood sorting through the sale rack at her favorite clothes store, she seems like any other young Lebanese woman. She, too, likes to banter and joke with friends, and wear fun, trendy clothes. But, she says, such simple pleasures are no longer so simple.

“I have begun to look at things in a different way,” she says. “When I am buying clothes and food, I think: ‘What if there are people who can’t do this? Should I do this? Should I eat this? Should I have fun?’ ”

Indeed, there are many who are worse off. Syrian Armenians, generally speaking, are middle class and tend to work in trade and precious metals. When they fled Syria, they did so with enough capital to avoid the refugee camps or homeless existence of many of their non-Armenian compatriots.

But regardless of their background, the sheer scale of burden the Syrian refugee crisis has placed on Lebanon is creating tension. Cheaper Syrian labor is undercutting Lebanese laborers, who are finding themselves out of work; crime and homelessness is on the rise; and rents are inflating from the increasing demand for housing.

“Every day we face problems because of Syrians,” says Lebanese Armenian barber Sarkis Boyodjian, 24, who runs a salon in Bourj Hammoud. “Electricity is stretched thin, and then they steal the electricity from other families.” He turns to a client sitting in the barber chair, putting a finishing touch to the man’s cut.

The client, a non-Armenian Lebanese man who refuses to be named, chimes in. “They ruled over us for 30 years,” he says, referring to the Syrian presence in Lebanon that began during the 1975-1990 civil war and continued until 2005, an occupation that is still a bitter recent memory for many Lebanese people. “Now they are back, taking our jobs and taking our lives for the second time.”

While this is by no means the prevailing opinion in Lebanon, it is one that is emerging and gaining ground as the conflict wears on and as space, resources and patience grow scarcer.

“Hospitality is not a mere word, it is integral to our Christian faith and vocation,” says Catholicos Aram I.

“But hospitality should have limits. If this situation becomes a permanent reality, then we have a problem. Lebanon is a small country with very limited resources. I don’t think that Lebanon will be able to cope with the situation. It cannot.”

As time passes, many of the Syrian refugees are beginning to let go of their dream to return home. Some are considering resettlement to a new, third country.

“We will be divided one day,
I am sure of it,” says Tamar Yeranossian, looking around at her exiled family, gathered in their sitting room in Bourj Hammoud.

“We are used to living together as one family, but things will not continue as they are now.”

Back in Anjar, Antranig Chakerian cannot bring himself to think of yet another displacement, even if it is to a more secure country. He speaks fondly of his former home in Aleppo and he gazes at the hieroglyphs of his imagined historical Armenia, etched on the wall of his Lebanese refuge. Sitting next to his wife in plastic chairs in the yard, he reads one of his poems off the wall. It is a poem he has written to Mount Ararat, but one that seems to reflect his home in Syria.

In front of my eyes, you are
standing sad,
You are a big pang in my heart,
Why did the human savage take

you from us?
They stole you from us, Ararat.

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