Editors’ note: In the June 2017 edition of ONE, Gayane Abrahamyan profiles the exceptional work of Caritas Armenia in caring for the poor, especially the young and the elderly. Another group in need includes refugees who have fled the war in Syria. In this web exclusive, we get a glimpse at the world they left behind, and the struggles they face in Armenia. We agreed not to photograph the families, to protect their privacy.
Overcome with emotion, Angela chokes on her words, the young mother’s sadness and loss plainly visible in her eyes. Amid the war in Syria, Islamic extremists took the lives of her husband, her father and her father-in-law. She also lost her home and her job. With three children in her care, the 35-year-old had to start a new life, alone, in Armenia.
“I thought we would not survive, either,” she says. “We also received threats by telephone.”
With care, she recounts the terrible days of 2013, when ISIS militants kidnapped her husband and father-in-law from the small factory where they worked.
“I was waiting for some news for four months. I was waiting for a call all the time, keeping a Bible next to my phone. I was waiting for any news. I couldn’t drink, I couldn’t eat — it was an unbearable wait,” she explains.
“We tried to find a way to offer money, to give ransom, but there was no response; they said that they had to receive their punishment,” she says.
“What was the fault of my husband and his father? It was only being Christian Armenians.”
Four months after the kidnapping, Angela was told that her husband and his father had been killed. Despite all the efforts of the mediators, it was impossible even to recover their bodies.
“We were told from different places that they did not give the bodies, because they did not want them to be buried as Christians,” she says.
“A Muslim who was imprisoned together with them told me that they refused to renounce Christianity and, therefore, they were condemned to death and were not even buried.”
Angela caresses a picture of her husband and children. Lost in her tears, she looks up as one of her three children, 11-year-old Meghedi, enters the home, breaking the atmosphere to ask, “Where is my ball?” The mother quickly wipes her tears so that her child does not notice them, and starts searching for the toy.
“I try not to cry in front of my children anymore,” she says later. “It was, of course, very difficult to overcome. I’m a believer, but after what happened to my husband I have some anger inside me. I thought it was unfair and God must have saved him. They were killed remaining faithful to Christ until the end; they did not convert, did not become Muslims in order to live.
“But then I realized that I have to overcome my anger and infinite sadness for the sake of my children.”
Angela’s journey to Armenia was arduous. After ISIS killed her husband, members of the group began phoning her home with threats. They told her they knew where she lived and which schools her children attended, and urged her to convert to Islam. Only conversion, they said, would assure her safety. Angela was desperate to escape, but leaving the country took years. The children were not allowed to leave without a document signed by their father; but Angela could not prove he had been killed without a death certificate, which she could not obtain without a body.
“I was desperate,” she explains. “I had to lie, saying that my husband worked in Lebanon and that I had to go there to see him very urgently. I did not know what I would do if I was caught. It was incredibly difficult even to go to Beirut, but once there, 15 days later we left for Armenia.”
Angela arrived with her three children — 11-year-old Meghedi, 13-year-old Hovhannes and 8-year-old Movses — without a single relative or friend in Armenia.
“I did not think that I could start a new life, but my children gave me strength,” she says.
“The Muslim man who had been imprisoned with my husband survived. During our first phone conversation he conveyed my husband’s words to me: ‘I leave only you in charge of our children. Let their future be outside this country. Raise them the way we would together.’ It was his will, and I will do so — and, thank God, we receive help.”
That help, she explains, has come primarily from the Armenian Catholic Church and its charitable arm in Armenia, Caritas Armenia.
Caritas Armenia has been involved in projects supporting Syrian Armenian refugees since 2012. Under Archbishop Raphael François Minassian — who guides Armenian Catholics scattered in a wide swath of territory, spanning Armenia, Russia, Georgia and Eastern Europe — projects have been carried out and refugees have been given shelter at the church’s guesthouse in Yerevan. Over the last five years, this house has become home to more than 300 families.
According to Armenia’s Diaspora Ministry, before the start of the war in Syria, 100,000 Armenians lived in the country, including 60,000 in Aleppo. Other cities and towns with a large Armenian presence included Kessab, Damascus and Qamishli. According to some estimates, about 130 Syrian Armenians have been killed and 379 wounded thus far in the protracted conflict.
Today fewer than 15,000 Armenians remain in Aleppo. The United Nations estimates some 22,000 Syrian citizens, most of them of Armenian origin, found shelter in Armenia, where the government granted them a simplified procedure to acquire citizenship.
The Catholic Church, though itself a small community of fewer than 200,000 in Armenia, acts as a support to all in need, regardless of their religious affiliation; as Archbishop Raphael often emphasizes: “In humanitarian assistance born out of love, there can be no discrimination. Love should be shared equally for everyone.”
In Armenia, the need is great. Roughly a third of the country’s three million people live in poverty. In rural areas, that number climbs to nearly half the population, with every fifth child suffering from malnutrition. In different regions, Caritas Armenia is often the only lifeline.
Caritas Armenia helps express the social mission of the Catholic Church. It coordinates and carries out the Armenian Catholic Church’s witness to the Gospel through financial aid, social work, psychological and legal consulting, along with education, health care and various community development projects.
“Difficulties are always present, but they are never an impediment for doing something,” Archbishop Raphael explains.
“When we encounter difficulties, we remember the happy faces of all the people who succeeded thanks to our programs, the joy we see in the eyes of our children — when they learn something, when they are able to succeed, when they get rid of the claws of poverty through education.
“Seeing all this, you completely forget all the difficulties and overcome them for the sake of that love and smiles.”
The crisis brought on by the Syrian war took Caritas Armenia in a new direction, helping to assist and integrate refugees. Until recently, Caritas Armenia mainly carried out projects for humanitarian aid to Syrian Armenians, providing coupons for them to purchase food and clothing or helping them pay for rent and utilities. However, a new program to be implemented in the coming months will be focused on promoting development — helping Syrian Armenians to integrate with the community, to found and run their own businesses and solve their social problems themselves.
The new program — “Recognize, Protect, Realize” — is funded by the European Union and implemented through the partnership of Caritas Austria, Caritas Lebanon and Caritas Armenia. This project, focusing on refugees and other migrants, will assist 500 Syrian Armenian families displaced to Lebanon, plus another 600 families taking shelter in Armenia.
“One of the main goals of our project is to promote the sustainable integration of Syrian Armenians, which will be implemented through assistance to their business plans,” says Lusine Stepanyan, the head of Caritas Armenia’s Syrian Armenian Support Program. “Through specialized business courses, individual counseling, guidance, interest-free loans,” she says, “we are going to contribute to the establishment and development of enterprises run by Syrian Armenians. In other words, instead of giving them fish, we teach them how to fish.”
Such programs are a source of support and hope for many families who escaped death in the hell of war — including single mothers such as Angela.
While she has received assistance and support from various programs that have been set up to help refugees from Syria, she stresses that the Caritas programs provide something more.
“At Caritas you get the human warmth and attention,” Angela says. “If it weren’t for these programs, I don’t know what I’d be doing.” Holding her daughter tightly, she turns away to wipe her tears.
“We have no way back,” she says. “Our home and factory in Aleppo probably aren’t there anymore.”
But in the midst of so much loss, she sees rays of hope.
“Our new home is here,” she declares. “We integrate into this new life with the Lord’s grace and support.”