‘Syrian refugees improve Armenia’s social fabric’
The presence of Syrian refugees in Armenia’s mono-ethnic society has been celebrated in the capital Yerevan through the personal initiative of an art curator and three photographers who have been documenting the migration since the eruption of the war in Syria in 2011.
A documentary photo exhibition that opened on Friday was called Home to Home, to highlight the fact that the 20,000 new arrivals were descendants of Armenians who fled from Turkey to Syria during another war more than 100 years ago.
The idea for the event came from Anna Kamay, an art curator, who told Al Jazeera that she was fascinated by the positive changes introduced by the refugees in her community.
Kamay said the new arrivals started small businesses – including new restaurants with good service – demonstrated strong work ethic and even brightened up the streets by wearing colourful clothes.
“People in Yerevan dress mostly in dark colours … These people brought lots of new colours with them. There are kind of a novelty here, bringing cultural and economic change to the country,” she said.
“Armenian community was a very strong one in Syria, and if it wasn’t for the war, they would never move to Armenia. So it is a very unfortunate circumstances, but at the end, we have what we have, a boost to the local economy, a very precious human capital and also diversity that we really lack in Armenia.”
It is not clear whether any of the 20,000 refugees moved on to other countries or returned to Syria, but the initial number put Armenia – with its population of 2.9 million – high up on the list of the countries with the highest per capita ratios of refugees to nationals – six refugees to 1,000 locals.
Their integration was relatively easy as the new arrivals had the same ethnicity, religion and language [with different dialect].
“Initially they’re taken a little bit like foreigners … Armenia is mono-ethnic, so people here don’t know how to deal with others,” said Anush Babajanyan, one of the three photographers featured in the exhibition, along with Piruza Khalapyan and Nazik Armenakyan.
“But Syrian Armenians are very communicable, open and lively so a lot of the times they make the right first step and that helps.”
The hardest part for the refugees was the lack of economic opportunities, she said.
“People don’t tend to move to Armenia, they tend to leave due to our economic difficulties,” she said.
Some of the Syrian Armenians even settled in Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict region that is internationally recognised as part of neighbouring Azerbaijan where cross-border shootouts are common.
They were lured by free rural accommodation provided by the de facto government and the prospect of feeding their families by working the land.
“It is interesting because it is not so peaceful there, but a lot of people who moved there say: ‘If I am going to be in a conflict zone, I want to be in a conflict zone that relates to my people. I can relate to this conflict more than the conflict in Syria’,” said Babajanian.
From Aleppo to Yerevan
The unwanted prospect of involvement in the Syrian conflict made Shant Klzy Muradian, 19 at the time, decide to seek shelter in Armenia as well.
The native of Syria’s Aleppo city arrived in Yerevan in 2015 with his brother, leaving behind his parents and grandparents. His mother joined him recently.
“It is not very easy here, but I don’t see us ever going back home, but maybe in 10, 20 years we will reconsider,” he told Al Jazeera.
The 21-year-old is one of the refugees whose life is featured in the exhibition.
Muradian was reluctant to have his photo taken at first, but then he changed his mind.
“At the beginning, I was not comfortable with it. But now I am happy I did it because maybe it will help other refugees to get more support when they arrive,” he said.
“I was lucky. My cousin [who arrived four years earlier than me] helped me to find a job [at a kitchen], but maybe others will not have relatives or friends here [to get them started]. It will be harder,” said Muradian.
Kamay said only time would show whether the refugees would stay in Armenia, move on to other countries or go back to Syria, but it was very important for her and the photographers to document “this moment when we have 20,000 Syrian Armenians among us”.
“It is a story of not only migration but also of courage, resilience and willingness to start a new life.”
Follow Al Jazeera’s Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter @tamila87v