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Armenia

Aleppo No Longer A Safe Haven For Syrian-Born Armenians

Syrian Armenians Struggle To Get By In Ancestral Homelandi
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August 24, 2012
Amid the escalating violence in Syria, Gevorg Payasian and his family left their homes in Aleppo and sought refuge in Armenia. Yerevan has tried to smooth the transition for ethnic Armenians by streamlining the citizenship application process. But the Payasians are struggling to adapt and build a new life in a new country. Produced by Naira Bulghadaryan and Gevorg Levonyan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service
WATCH: Syrian Armenians struggle to get by in their ancestral homeland
By Naira Bulghadaryan and Daisy Sindelar
Gevorg Payasian's father, Asatur, was just 15 years old when he was forced to flee his home in the ancient city of Ayntap in what is now southeastern Turkey.

His entire family had been killed by Ottoman troops in what many historians now term the Armenian genocide, the mass slaughter and deportation of Anatolia's ethnic Armenians between 1915 and 1922.

Alone, he set out on foot, walking about 130 kilometers before reaching a haven in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Unbeknownst to him, his 9-year-old sister, Nektar, had somehow survived the massacre and was making the same journey.

Asatur went on to reunite with his sister in Aleppo. He went to school, started a family, and built a successful horse-breeding business from scratch.

But his son Gevorg, now a 69-year-old businessman specializing in radio equipment, believes even as he praised Syria's "merciful embrace" of his people, his father never recovered from the trauma of seeing his home and family destroyed:

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"My father always remembered his ancestral home in Ayntap," he says. "He would tell me about how he fled from the Turks and reached Syria. The Turks had killed his parents and relatives. My father and his sister were the only survivors in their family."

Nearly a century later, it is the son who is fleeing -- leaving the city that offered his father safe harbor as the bloody 17-month battle between government loyalists and opposition rebels settles over Aleppo.

Rich History, Uncertain Future

Hundreds of Aleppans have been injured and dozens killed in the recent weeks of fighting in Syria's largest city, with government jets bombarding residential buildings and rebels waging a street-level war for control.

Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated the city in a desperate bid to escape the violence, including up to 3,000 Armenians, who have decamped for Lebanon and Armenia, leaving behind a rich history and a highly uncertain future.

Even before the World War One-era massacres, Armenians had made a home in Aleppo for centuries. The Forty Martyrs Cathedral, a 15th-century Apostolic church, is one of the oldest functioning churches in the Armenian diaspora, and the Armenian presence in the city is believed to reach back as far as the 1st century B.C.

But it was the Turkish slaughter and deportation of Armenians in the early 20th century that laid the foundation for the city's contemporary Armenian community.

PHOTO GALLERY: Aleppo's Armenian Community
  • An Armenian camp in Aleppo in the 1920s
  • The courtyard of Aleppo's Ottoman barracks, converted into a reception center for Armenians fleeing the mass killings that took place in Armenia during WWI (probably late 1918)
  • Armenian deportees in the barracks' refugee camp (undated)
  • The Armenian hospital in Aleppo in 1920
  • The northern districts of Aleppo in 1936. Refugees’ shacks appear in the foreground with newly built urban housing in the background.
  • The courtyard of Aleppo's Armenian orphanage (undated)
  • Apprentice Armenian shoemakers in Aleppo's Giligian orphanage and vocational school in 1923
  • Apprentice embroiderers at Aleppo's Armenian orphanage in 1923
  • Armenian neighborhoods in Aleppo in the 1930s
  • Pupils from the Armenian school in Aleppo's Nor Klugh neighborhood (1937-38)
  • An Armenian church and school in Aleppo in 1936
  • The soccer team of the Armenian General Benevolent Union in Aleppo (1929-30)

Thousands of Armenians poured into Aleppo, desperate to escape the wrath of the Ottoman troops.

Settling in orphanages or large refugee camps on the outskirts of the city, the Armenians battled starvation and disease early on.

But according to Keith David Watenpaugh, a Middle East historian at the University of California at Davis, the population steadily rallied. Within the course of a generation, it had launched businesses and opened hospitals, libraries, and cultural centers,

"Over that period of time, the Armenians went from being penniless refugees, a population made up mostly of women and children survivors, to very much a middle class," he says. "[They were] involved in all sorts of forms of trade, education, medicine, dentistry, and also more traditional Armenian professions like carpets and jewelry making and so on. So they've transformed Aleppo, and they've been transformed by Aleppo."

Integrated And Prosperous

At its peak, Aleppo's Armenian population was believed to comprise as many as 220,000 people.

The community enjoyed broad cultural autonomy, with organizations like the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation supporting Armenian-language schools, theaters, and sports clubs.

Even as a Christian minority in a Muslim-dominated city, Armenians have become an essential part of Aleppo's multicultural and commercially minded population, which includes Kurds, Circassians, and Arab Christians, as well as the country's majority Sunni Muslims.

"Part of what has made Aleppo prosperous is the diversity of its communities," Watenpaugh says. "Aleppans have an incredible sense of openness to the rest of the world."

And although Syrian Armenians have been forbidden from forming political parties or reaching the upper echelons of government, they are far from a ghetto community -- not assimilated, perhaps, but definitely integrated. Nearly all young Armenians speak fluent Arabic; many study in Arabic-language universities or serve in the Syrian military.

Since the 1970s, Aleppo Armenians have also enjoyed benevolent ties with the ruling regime. As members of the minority Alawite sect, both Hafez al-Assad and his son, current President Bashar al-Assad, actively courted the country's ethnic minorities to shore up their support base in the face of Sunni opposition.

That partnership resulted in years of relative security for Syrian Armenians. But Simon Payaslian, an Aleppo-born professor of Armenian history and literature at Boston University, suggests the association may prove toxic if and when the Assad regime falls.

"The Armenian community became very closely identified with the Assad government, just like a number of other minority groups [who] were cooperating with Assad's regime," he says. "Now the problem is once the Assad regime falls apart, and the opposition begins to consolidate power, they may begin to physically attack the Armenian community, just as a revenge factor."

Intensifying Violence

Aleppo's Armenian districts remain, for now, largely unaffected by the fighting in the city. Armenia's diaspora minister, Hranush Hakobian this week said neighborhoods such as Azize and Suleimanyeh remained under government control after briefly being seized by Syrian rebels on August 20.

But the intensifying violence has alarmed many Armenians, many of whom had already begun to feel unnerved by the slow drain of Egyptian Copts and other fellow Christian minorities away from the Middle East as the region comes under a growing Islamist influence.

A lot of Aleppan Armenians still remember the fallout of the 1982 Hama massacre, when members of the Muslim Brotherhood, incensed by the mass slaughter of Sunni Muslims at the order of Hafez al-Assad, randomly attacked Armenian schoolchildren on the street.

Watching the steady advance of the current conflict, Payasian was fearful that Armenians would once again be the target of a Sunni backlash.

"Bashar al-Assad is friendly," he says. "It was thanks to him that we were free and had a good life among various ethnic and religious groups. If it weren't for Assad, the Muslim [Islamists] would have treated Armenians badly. That's why many Armenians have left Aleppo."

In April, Payasian and his wife, Helen, locked the door to their comfortable, two-room apartment in the Nor Geghi district and left for Armenia with their daughter. Their two sons had already preceded them.

The Payasians are now settled in a well-lit but spartan apartment in central Yerevan. The transition has been rocky -- Gevorg has been unable to find work and the family is living off the earnings of one of their sons, who has found work in a pizzeria. The situation has gotten so dire that 61-year-old Helen, who suffers from diabetes, has even considered looking for work after years as a homemaker back in Syria.

Culturally, there are differences as well. Syrian Armenians speak Western Armenian, a dialect distinct from the Eastern Armenian spoken by people raised in Armenia proper. Their customary Middle Eastern cuisine has been replaced by more Russian-accented local fare.

Steady Exodus

The Payasians took only the barest essentials when they left Aleppo, a sign they hoped to soon return. But four months after their escape, they say they are likely to remain in Armenia for good, even though it means leaving behind the graves of Asatur, Nektar, and other family members who owed their survival to the city.

"We were happy there," Payasian says. "But the situation has changed."

Watenpaugh, who lived and studied in Aleppo in the 1990s, doubts even the ravages of the current conflict will be enough to persuade the Armenian community to abandon the city anytime soon. But over the next quarter-century, he predicts the population will slowly evaporate, driven away by an atmosphere that is no longer so welcoming to minorities or Christians.

In a war that has already left some 20,000 dead and send hundreds of thousands more fleeing Syria's borders to safety, the demise of Aleppo's historic Armenian community may seem a minor consequence.

But looking at the steady exodus of minorities from neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq, Watenpaugh maintains that the trend has the power to shape regional politics for generations to come -- just as the Armenian genocide did before it.

"If Aleppo loses its Armenians, if it loses its Arabic-speaking Christians," he says. "Aleppo will lose its vibrancy, and will also lose a lot of its ability to interact on a commercial basis with the rest of the world. If Aleppo can't survive as a multicultural city, I really worry about the rest of the region, in terms of issues of tolerance, human rights, and the ability of different kinds of people to live side by side and prosper."

* This story has been changed to clarify a reference to the mass killings of Armenians.

Written and reported in Prague by Daisy Sindelar with additional reporting by Naira Bulghadaryan in Yerevan
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Tlkatintsi from: Yerevan
August 24, 2012 10:43
"....the mass slaughter and deportation of Anatolia's ethnic Armenians between 1915 and 1922." The author's description should have read "of native Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire..." I don't understand the use of the term "ethnic" nor the restrictive geographical term of Anatolia....
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 24, 2012 12:52
There is no way of making all Armenians happy. There will be something found to complain about.
In Response

by: Mary from: NY
August 24, 2012 13:27
"But it was the so-called Armenian genocide, the Turkish slaughter and mass deportation of Armenians in the early 20th century, that laid the foundation for the city's contemporary Armenian community".

"So called Armenian Genocide"? Which armenian will sign under such sentence?

I was in Aleppo until 2003. I am old enough to remember Hama's events, but the attack on the armenian school children is a totally new story to me! I, my two brothers, my over 20 cousins were in different schools, none of us had heard about those attacks.

By the way, how would you react if I use "so called Hama slaugter"? and I am not even a sunni arab?
In Response

by: VTiger from: China
August 24, 2012 13:53
Turks always need to complain without thinking.There are Circassian,Turkmens as well in Syria who are exactly in the same situation as other minorities.
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
August 24, 2012 14:59
Man,you dont understand that the ottoman empire didnt exist in 1915-1922 ??? And,onanimouse,you`re bloody right `bout the armenians-the only way for all of them to be happy is to renounce their names and history and everything armenian,to become anonymouse and write stupid posts like thou.
In Response

by: VTiger from: China
August 24, 2012 15:34
Armenian Genocide started in 1895 during sultan Abdul Hamid the second & continued during the Young Turks' time.
'so called Genocide' term is completely unacceptable when the article is written by 2 journalists & one of them happens to be an Armenian.This an insult at the highest level.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 24, 2012 23:38
Camel Anaturk, what is stupid, calling out whining our trolling in all rferl articles with a drag nickname and making up incomprehensible sentences? Have you ever made one single proper argument anywhere? I highly doubt that.

by: Donovan from: PA
August 24, 2012 13:08
>Their customary Middle Eastern cuisine has been replaced by more Russian-accented local fare.
what nonsense is this? What exactly is 'russian accented' in Armenia? Sunflower seeds?


by: Evan from: Indiana
August 24, 2012 13:20
I never know much about the plight of the Armenians and why they were living in the Middle East. Great article. I hope they find safety, peace, and prosperity.

by: Darwin Jamgochian from: USA
August 24, 2012 14:07
Why can't authors point out that most of these refugees are not returning to their "ancestral homeland"? Who's responsible for that? Another example of tweeking history!

by: Avetis from: Armenia
August 24, 2012 14:31
"Aleppo No Longer A Safe Haven For Syrian-Born Armenians" ... in large part thanks to the machinations of those who fund this CIA front office known as "Radio Liberty".
In Response

by: Jack from: US
August 24, 2012 15:38
more to the point, Armenians and other infidels do not feel safe in Syria any more thanks to US government sponsorship and support of Sunni terrorists from "Syrian Free Army"
In Response

by: Avetis from: Armenia
August 25, 2012 18:01
When you look at Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, the Caucasus during the Chechen uprising in the 1990s, Serbia in the 1990s, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria... you will realize that the Anglo-American-Zionist global order has been the number one sponsor of Islamic terrorism around the world for the past thirty years.

by: Darwin Jamgochian from: USA
August 24, 2012 15:33
Wouldn't it be appropriate to put Turkey on the list of countries to receive broadcasts from Radio Liberty? Is Turkey still off limits? As far as I know, Armenia and Turkey are both democracies.
In Response

by: rick
August 25, 2012 23:01
turkey is already in their business . . . is part of NATO !

Not neccessary give problem to friends

by: f**k-American-hypocrisy
August 25, 2012 03:22
I am sure that if those Armenians who have been interviewed for this article knew that the authors are going to question the suffering of their grandfathers by using offensive terms such as "so-called Armenian genocide," they would refuse to let those "journalists" in their homes. We live in a country where my tax money is being used to build museums for commemorating one genocide but the same government refuses to even recognize another one and its propaganda machine which is again funded by taxpayer money insults me by questioning a historical truth only to appease a so-called ally.
Indeed , F**K American Democracy
In Response

by: Alex from: LA
August 25, 2012 20:52
It's not a matter of democracy, but ethic and morals. Who ever is in control of US foreign policy and it's not president of US or cabinet, but US corporate interest are the US foreign policy. When these politicians fail to get re-elected, they become CEO's, CFO's, COO's and other important position in the corporate America. That the way the cookie crumbles in US. Follow my rules or else I'm not nice to you, excpet Israel, Pakistan, Turkey and Azerieshistan
In Response

by: Avetis from: Armenia
August 26, 2012 14:50
You just described "American democracy". Like the other commenter said - F**K American Democracy!

PS: There hasn't been a genuine presidential election in the US for several generations. US presidents are spokesmen or executives representing the empire's special interests. I suggest you wake up to the real political world you live in.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 26, 2012 03:21
Yes, every nation should have its genocide tale right? That way they have something to tell to their children. Armenians get offended or not, but whatever went on in that time has nothing to do with genocide. I'm not even going to water down it, call it a massacre, tragedy, etc. I'm saying it straight. There has never been any genocide in history committed against Armenians.
In Response

by: the-same-guy
August 26, 2012 19:28
We will call it by its right name: GENOCIDE and we will keep calling it even if you and some idiots on RFERL And Fox "news" don't like it.

by: Haik from: USA
August 26, 2012 04:24
When someone uses the term “The so called Armenian Genocide”, like you just did in your article on Armenians in Syria, is an enemy of truth and justice. It is also an insult on the 3 million Armenians whose remains are scattered all over their ancestral lands from Turkey’s genocidal policies on Armenia from 1895 till 1921. So when you decide to write another article on the Armenians and plan to use the term “So called Genocide”, please don’t do us any favors, for you’re no different than the criminal perpetrators of the first and only true genocide… The Armenian Genocide!
In Response

by: Moderator from: Prague
August 26, 2012 08:03
The reference has been amended. Thank you.
In Response

by: Herman from: Canada
September 15, 2012 21:35
This article it is an insult to the real Sunni Muslim Syrian people who welcomed the Armenian after their run from the Turkish violence. it was the Muslim who gave shelters and foods to the Armenian when they came and not the alawis and their criminals of assad's thugs.I think the simplest way for gratitude toward this great syrian people is to support his cause in his struggle for freedom from this tyrant and not to support the tyrant who is bombarding and killing more than 200 innocent people per day. All i can say is the Arabic proverb who says "you do good deer and you receive bad consequences" shame

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