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Syrian-Armenian refugees face prospect of not returning home

Syria has one of the biggest Armenian Christian diaspora communities in the Middle East. More and more of them are having to leave their homeland on account of the civil war, and it's possible they will not return.

29-year-old Ani Shamamian (not her real name) holds her 18-month-old son on her lap. He is watching an Armenian children's TV program. Shamamian was born and grew up in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, but one year ago the war forced her, her husband and their two children to abandon their home.

They now live in Bourj Hammoud, a district in the north of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. The one-room apartment is much too small for Shamamian and her family, but they can't afford anything else. Life here is very difficult, she says. Everything is very expensive: "We can barely make ends meet."

Ani Shamamian gets some support from the Howard Karagheusian Association, a social and medical center in the suburb of Bourj Hammoud. The center works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and it's an important point of contact, especially for Armenian refugees. Here they can get advice, medical treatment for their children and donated clothing.

Serop Ohanian, director of the Karagheusian Association in Beirut (c) Mona Naggar

Serop Ohanian of the Karagheusian Association in Beirut is helping Armenian refugees

It's not known how many Armenians have left Syria in recent months. Only those who need help register at the center. 1,300 Armenian families from Syria have registered with the Karagheusian Association, according to the institution's director, Serop Ohanian.

He explains that most of these refugees initially came to stay with relatives in Bourj Hammoud, thinking that they would be able to go home after a few days, so they arrived with few clothes and only a small amount of money. "But the situation has gotten worse and worse," Ohanian says. "Returning isn't an option any more. They have to find an apartment and a job."

Little Armenia

In Bourj Hammoud, where Ani lives, the streets have names like Armenia or Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Others are named after Christian saints. Lebanese and Armenian flags hang side-by-side on the balconies, and some shops also write their names in Armenian script. The district is a modest one: simple two- and three-story houses with workshops on the ground floor for sewing, car repairs, or trade in leather goods. Most of the people living here are Armenian. As in Syria, they are the descendants of the Armenian minority who were killed or driven out of the Ottoman Empire by Turkish nationalists in 1915.

In Syria and Lebanon, Armenian Christians are an established part of society. In Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut, they have their own schools, cultural associations and churches. The Armenian population in Syria has been estimated at around 100,000 - almost half of them in Aleppo - while in Lebanon they number around 24,000.

A crowd of people looks at heavily damaged buildings in Aleppo after an air attack by government forces (c) Reuters

Aleppo, home to some 45,000 Armenian Christians, is the scene of fierce fighting

The longer the conflict in Syria goes on, the more worried Armenians are becoming that their community there may be seriously under threat - in Aleppo especially. Maral Kesheshian Shohmelian, an Armenian woman who left Aleppo more than a year ago, says that most are still holding out in the city's Armenian districts, which are controlled by the Syrian army. She is in regular contact with relatives there. Maral, a 36-year-old doctor, works for the Karagheusian Association and for the Catholic relief charity Caritas. She is torn between her desire to return home, and the drive to establish herself abroad in the West and complete her professional training.

An open-minded young woman, Maral says most young people have the same ideas as her: "Get a visa, go abroad and work." Her goal is to finish her training, start a family, work, and perhaps go back to Aleppo one day. She and her husband are already preparing the necessary papers to apply to emigrate to America or Canada.

Uncertain future

Maral Kesheshian Shohmelian, a Syrian Armenian doctor in Beirut (c) Mona Naggar

The Syrian Armenian doctor Maral Kesheshian Shohmelian wants to emigrate to North America

Maral has no intention of emigrating to Armenia. She studied there, and she knows how hard life is in the former Soviet republic. Salaries there are very low, she says - hardly enough to live on. It's a difficult decision that many people like Maral are currently facing.

Avedis Guidanian, the director of the local radio station "Voice of Van" in Bourj Hammoud, is worried that emigration to the West could compromise the continued existence of the Armenian communities in the Middle East. "When we were driven out of Turkey all those years ago, we came to Syria and Lebanon," says Guidanian. "Our presence in these countries is very important to us: close to Turkey, and close to our Armenian homeland."

This is why he is not in favor of Armenians leaving the region: He believes that if the Armenian refugees emigrate to Europe, they'll never return to Syria. Guidanian is doing all he can to ensure that those who have come to Lebanon remain there. "We are trying to offer them as much help as we can," he says. "They're more likely to return to Syria from Lebanon."

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