Syrian Armenians celebrate the Divine Liturgy at St. Grigor Narekatsi Armenian Catholic Parish in Yerevan, Armenia. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Houry Kulkutchyan stirs the soap mixture while carefully monitoring its temperature. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Houry Kulkutchyan makes soap from scratch. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Salbi Brutian makes kufta with bulgur, a variant of the dish brought to Armenia by Syrian-Armenians. (photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
The horror of the Syrian war is still visible in the eyes of Salbi Brutyan and her son. When speaking of those months of violence, they tremble from anxiety. It is a nightmare both want to forget.
“When the shootings broke out in Aleppo,” Ms. Brutyan recalls, “my 7-year-old son was at school, located in what became the most dangerous part of the city. They called and told me to fetch him. I was shivering at the shots, calling my relatives and asking them for help. Even his father refused, telling me he was scared.
“Panic-stricken, I ran out, found a taxi, somehow reached my child, and bolted home.” The normally congested streets were void of life.
The horrors of war are fixed on the face of the 57-year-old woman. For eight consecutive months, with her 7-year-old son, Ms. Brutyan rarely left her apartment. Neighbors supplied food and water. But when the fighting moved to the neighborhood, and the street was almost destroyed, she packed her suitcase and moved to Armenia for three weeks to stay with her brother. She hoped the war would go away. It did not, however; nor did the effects of war leave her or her son.
The tall, dark-haired 14-year-old with penetrating eyes has mental health issues, and his physical health has deteriorated, too. Named for the sainted slayer of dragons, St. George, young George has some very real and personal monsters to slay. He is emotional and runs to hug his mother whenever she gets excited. He wipes away her tears and calms her.
And yet, he is still very much a growing boy. He enjoys playing soccer and looks forward to the weekends. He has made friends, who have included him in their matches. He does not remember much from Syria, and he does not want to hear about going back.
“I used to have a computer there,” he says. “I would love to have one here as well. I used to play there, but now everything is destroyed, the city is destroyed.” He speaks quickly, taking deep breaths once in a while. He seems sure that one day he will have a computer, as well as a Lamborghini — his favorite car.
He is young enough to still dream of what will be. But the seemingly endless list of challenges and difficulties has, at times, reduced his mother to despair. Recalling these hardships, she quickly composes herself, saying, “Salbi, leave the fear aside; pull yourself together!”
Friends told her that in Kanaker, a suburb of the sprawling Armenian capital city of Yerevan, dormitories for Syrian Armenian refugees were being renovated on the grounds of the Armenian Catholic Church. Although the Catholic community in Armenia is small, its outreach to the Armenian nation — the first nation to adopt Christianity — is considerable, ranging from care for refugees, the elderly, those with special needs and the poor in isolated villages to the education and faith formation of children and young adults.
“I had no idea who they were,” Ms. Brutyan recalls of the concern offered by the charity of the Armenian Catholic Church, Caritas Armenia. “I didn’t trust them, and decided to stay in a hostel with my friends. But we didn’t manage to endure.
“We went back to the Catholic Church. All the rooms had been occupied within a few days, and only one room was available. We were lucky and stayed there for a year and a half. It was calm, clean, we were given three meals a day, and in the morning I would go to work, returning in the evening. Once I managed to stand on my own feet, I rented an apartment.”
While Salbi and George are now on their own, Caritas has not forgotten them.
“They know I am in need and always try to help,” she says. “They invite me to training courses. Most importantly, they donated household appliances — refrigerator, oven, meat grinder, blender — and now I am able to cook tasty Syrian dishes and sell them.” The budding entrepreneur is excited about the expositions organized by Caritas, “which are usually very successful,” she says. “They’re a good platform to find new customers.”
There are many difficulties and challenges. But Ms. Brutyan is confident. She believes the worst is behind her and asserts that if some Syrian Armenians consider returning to Syria, she will not be one of them. Armenia is now her home.
Salbi’s journey — and the struggles she has faced — are familiar to most of those who have fled the turmoil of Syria for the relative calm of Armenia. They have all followed a similar path.
And it has not been easy for any of them.
Syria’s once-strong community of around 150,000 Armenians was largely formed in the aftermath of the genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian communities, especially its Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Greek minorities. About a million Armenians, driven from their homes throughout Asia Minor in 1915, managed to survive the harsh climate of the desert and found refuge in the multicultural cities of Aleppo, Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus as well as smaller towns, such as Kessab, Qamishli and Latakia. According to various estimations, some 90,000 Armenians eventually left Syria for the West after the initial crisis subsided and Syria achieved some measure of independence in 1920.
Prior to the war that, since it began in 2011, has destroyed much of Syria, Armenians played a substantial role in the cultural, economic and social life of Syria — especially Aleppo, where they dominated the arts and trade professions. According to the statistics of the former Ministry of Diaspora of Armenia, up to 24,000 Syrian Armenians have moved to Armenia during the war years; a few thousand have either returned to Syria or moved to another country. It is thought that around 17,000 Syrian Armenians remain in Armenia.
The influx of Syrian Armenians from 2012 has impressed new challenges upon a nation already struggling with economic and political instability. The government has managed to come up with relevant regulations that have helped integrate Syrian Armenians, most of whom arrive with education and skills. To encourage the refugees to settle, the government has eased the burdens of acquiring driving licenses and property. Projects to address health care issues and education for children are also in progress.
A number of national and international organizations are bringing these projects to life, led by the charitable arm of the Armenian Catholic Church, Caritas Armenia. The guiding force behind this has been Archbishop Rafael François Minassian.
“Only God knows,” he says when asked how this initiative began. “If one believes in God, trusts the will of God, then he will never be afraid of any undertaking,” he says. “God has blessed the activities of Caritas. Caritas aims to help all those who need it and to develop communities in need — and the larger society.
“Difficulties are temporary,” he adds.
The archbishop travels from place to place every day and learns about all the different initiatives and projects; he talks to people in need and tries to understand and address their seemingly unsolvable problems.
For all he has helped to achieve, he is reluctant to speak of his own role, saying, “The one who should know, knows.”
What should be known are the collaborative efforts of the global Catholic Church to improve the lives of Syrian Armenian refugees in Armenia.
“There is a strong collaboration among various Caritas national offices,” explains Lusine Stepanyan, manager of the migration and integration projects for Caritas Armenia, adding that “it is not a coincidence that Caritas Armenia gave a helping hand to Syrian Armenians with assistance from its Czech, German and Austrian peers.”
Caritas Armenia’s collaborative efforts are not limited to other national Caritas organizations, but include close ties to the Armenian Catholic Church, especially in the person of Archbishop Rafael, who serves also as president of Caritas Armenia, and to CNEWA, whose largely North American donors have supported hundreds of initiatives to help Syrian refugee and displaced families now living in Armenia, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Even as they first found refuge in Armenia, plans were being developed to assist the displaced — expedited by governmental policies that offer automatic citizenship to ethnic Armenians. The archbishop transformed the curial headquarters of the Armenian Catholic Church in Eastern Europe, offering temporary shelter to some of the most vulnerable persons seeking refuge in Yerevan: refugees who did not speak Armenian; the elderly; and those with special needs, such as Salbi Burtyan and her son George.
Caritas Armenia’s German and Czech Caritas partners offered their support, providing funding to support rents and utility bills. The Austrian Development Agency transferred some $330,000 to both the Red Cross and Caritas Armenia, enabling the charitable arm of the church to provide a full package of support, including coupons for winter clothes and supplies from the biggest supermarkets in Yerevan.
This initial project was completed in July 2015. By that time, more than 3,000 beneficiaries were given food, shelter and support during the most difficult period of their lives. When western European countries began to open their doors to Syrian refugees, however, the number of Syrian Armenians taking shelter in Armenia gradually decreased, enabling Caritas Armenia to offer more than just emergency relief.
“We are now implementing a second phase [that, until] the end of 2019, will support 600 vulnerable refugee families in Armenia and Lebanon,” explains Ms. Stepanyan. This provides free legal advice, language training, plus vocational and business courses, and counseling. The primary goal, she adds, is to help Syrian Armenians integrate and enter the labor market. To that end, Caritas Armenia collaborates with the state employment agency.
“On the one hand, we lobby in order to improve government policy,” Ms. Stepanyan notes. “On the other, we try to empower Syrian Armenians to be able to protect their interests.”
For many Syrian Armenians in Armenia, the future is now brighter.
Houry Kulkutchyan is a 34-year-old chemist who left Aleppo with her husband and 2-year-old daughter during the most intense fighting. At first, she worked as an accountant. After giving birth to their second child, she decided to start her own business and learn how to produce soap from organic raw material.
But she did not have to go it alone.
“People from Caritas told me that they would be able to help,” Mrs. Kulkutchyan explains. “Thanks to that help, I have had this job for three years now, which also helps provide a living for my family.”
What started with soap has expanded to balsams — and she has found a creative way to bring her Armenian and Syrian homelands together.
“Beeswax is commonly used in Armenian culture, while in Syria it is olive oil,” she says. “So, I decided to make a fusion of these two cultures and created an interesting cream. It is complex work,” adds the chemist-cum-artisan. I come up with the recipe, try it out in small quantities. Then when I like it, I increase the volume I produce. But I attach more importance to the quality, rather than quantity.”
Ms. Kulkutchyan has her permanent, regular customers and manages to make an important contribution to the family budget. She also hopes to participate in an ambitious initiative of Caritas Armenia for the refugees launched last summer.
“In Armenia we will set up a kind of incubator of business,” explains Lusine Stepanyan. “People will bring in their ideas, we will develop them together, translate the business model into a business plan, and finance it. We will include experts in finance, law and marketing to assist them, and we will share a common workspace,” she says.
“Three categories will be eligible to participate: the self-employed, start-ups — up to three-year-old businesses — and small and medium enterprises. We want to bring change, we want the business incubator to continue its operation and to create gains for all of us,” she says.
The ultimate goal is to transform refugees into entrepreneurs, and bring about in Armenia the creativity, energy and vitality that once defined the Armenian community in Syria.
For his part, the spiritual leader behind all of this, Archbishop Rafael Minassian, remains a humble source of optimism, and inspiration.
“My calling is to help unselfishly my compatriots and our humanity,” he says. “God is endowing us. We have to give it back.”
A communications specialist, Gohar Abrahamyan manages issues of justice and peace in the Caucasus for local and international media.