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21.1.14

The Housing Conundrum: Syrian Armenians in Armenia

Sarkis Balkhian
 

“My father passed away a few years before the beginning of the conflict. My mother works as a cook for 12 hours a day, while my 14-year-old brother attends school,” says Daron, 16, a Syrian-Armenian waiter in Yerevan. “I can’t go to school because I have to support my family.”
The 34 months of the Syrian crisis has resulted in 120,000 deaths, 7 million internally displaced persons (IDP), and 2.3 million refugees.1 Although the situation of the refugees across the Middle East, or even in certain European states like Bulgaria,2 is drastically worse than the circumstance of the Syrian Armenians in Armenia, nonetheless those who have resettled in Armenia are also facing numerous economic, social, and legal challenges.
According to the Republic of Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora, more than 16,000 Syrian Armenians have entered the country since the beginning of the crisis in March 2011, and more systematically with the beginning of the armed conflict in Aleppo in July 2012.
Nearly 11,000 continue to reside in Armenia (including in the Nagorno Karabagh Republic). The vast majority of the 5,000 who left Armenia have returned back to their homes in Syria,3 while a small number of people have become refugees in Europe and other parts of the world.4 Due to financial constraints, more than 70 percent of the population has not been able to purchase apartments. This housing situation has been the primary obstacle to the integration of Syrian-Armenians in Armenia. Whereas for the past 17 months, numerous local and international organizations have provided stipends for rent or housing in shelter homes, an inclusionary housing solution has yet to be developed.

Housing programs and projects
In the early stages of the Syrian-Armenian migration to Armenia, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) provided monthly stipends of $100-150 to support individuals and families with their rental fees for a period of 3 months.5
The Armenian Caritas (Armenian Catholic Church) in Yerevan has sheltered more than 45 of the most needy at its center, and has provided them with food and other forms of assistance.6 Most recently, on Nov. 27, 2013, the head of its Department for Migration and Integration announced that the organization would be allocating a significant portion of the 270,000 euros received from the Austrian government, via the Austrian Red Cross, toward the leasing expenses of 100 families for the next 6 months.7
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s (ARF) “Help Your Brother” program has provided more than $32,000 to the “Kashatagh” foundation, to aid the construction and renovation of homes in the Kashatagh region of Karabagh, where more than 35 Syrian Armenians currently reside.8 The Tufenkian Foundation, the Assistance to Self-Determined Artsakh Charitable Foundation, and other organizations are also supporting resettlement efforts in Karabagh.9
In Yerevan, “Help Your Brother” is planning the construction of apartment buildings in the Davtashen district. Two-hundred Syrian-Armenian families will be able to purchase apartments there at minimal cost by submitting applications at the “Help Your Brother” headquarters in Yerevan.10
Through the relentless efforts of the Minister of Diaspora, Hranush Hakobyan, and the order of President Serge Sarkisian, the government approved the construction of the “New Aleppo” district in Ashtarak city. On July 23, 2013, the Ashtarak City Council allocated more than 11 acres of land to the Center for Coordination of Syrian-Armenian Issues NGO for the “New Aleppo” housing project.11
As of December 2013, more than 300 Syrian-Armenian families had submitted registration forms to the Center for Coordination of Syrian-Armenian Issues, and have expressed a willingness to pay up to 50 percent of the construction cost for the apartments.12
On Dec. 9, 2013, the final plan for the “New Aleppo” district was presented by Vahe and Gohar Tutunjians, the co-presidents of the Pan-Armenian Association of Architects and Engineers. According to the initial estimates, the project will cost around $30 million and will feature 22-30 apartment buildings, swimming pools, garages, playgrounds and other amenities. Most importantly, it will house more than 500 Syrian-Armenian families.13

Analysis and conclusion
“We came to Armenia with only a few thousand dollars, which has long run out,” explained Daron. “My mother makes $300 per month. I make around $400-500 while working up to 70 hours every week. The most we can save up each month is around $150 because we have to pay $200 for rent.” Daron is neither the norm, nor the exception.
Having worked with the Center for Coordination of Syrian-Armenian Issues for almost a year, and due to my current involvement with the Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization, I estimate that at least 15-20 percent of the Syrian Armenians in Armenia do not have sufficient funds to purchase apartments.
According to the most recent data, more than 250 individuals are awaiting access to free-of-charge shelter homes in Armenia, while 200 are currently being housed in shelters that do not comply with the “Adequate Standards of Living” set fort by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
I have been an advocate (albeit, with some reservations) for the construction of an Aleppo neighborhood in Armenia since the beginning of the process. However, in its current form, the “New Aleppo” district does not represent the spirit or vision of its mastermind.
In May 2011, Ani Balkhian, a founding member of the Center for Coordination of Syrian-Armenian Issues and the current president of the Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization, introduced the initial plan for “New Aleppo” during the All-Armenia Fund meeting in Yerevan. She made a verbal proposal then to President Sarkisian. In August 2011, via the Armenian Consulate in Aleppo, she sent a formal written request to the president requesting government-designated land for the construction of an Aleppo Neighborhood.
The initial plan for the project was to induce a Syrian-Armenian mass-migration to Armenia by allocating apartments at construction cost. However, for reasons yet unknown, the plan never materialized. After the establishment of the Center for Coordination of Syrian-Armenian Issues, Balkhian reintroduced the idea and, in October 2012, through the Ministry of Diaspora, a second written proposal was sent to the president.
More than two years after the initial proposal, the final plan for “New Aleppo” has been developed and will, as hitherto mentioned, feature 22-30 apartment buildings. On Dec. 7, 2013, the Center for Coordination of Syrian-Armenian Issues, on its Facebook page, announced that “individuals seeking apartments in the ‘New Aleppo’ district need to submit their applications at the organization’s headquarter…transfer $5,000 to the organization’s bank account and sign a preliminary agreement document.”14
There are certain social and financial flaws with the current state of the “New Aleppo” district. In fact, my initial concerns over this project have been validated on both fronts.
Contrary to the Armenian Diaspora in Russia, Europe, the United States, and even Lebanon, Armenians have lived a marginalized life in Syria. Due to religious and cultural reservations, as well as valid fears of assimilation, Armenians had isolated themselves from the world around them. The churches, sports clubs, cultural institutions, and schools were used as a fortress to defend Armenian-Christian identity in Syria. In Aleppo, especially, most Syria-Armenian children who attended Armenian schools were not even accustomed to speaking Arabic until the ages of 12-15.
Today, most Syrian Armenians in Armenia have continued the same secluding and ghettoizing strategies of self-isolation. This is not due to their fears of the local Armenian population, but because they are subconsciously programmed to operate this way. Even the amenities to be included within the “New Aleppo” project—swimming pools, playgrounds, etc.—will further contribute to the isolation of Syrian-Armenians from the local society, and slow down their integration process.
On the financial front, in August 2011, most Syrian Armenians were able to purchase apartments in the “New Aleppo” district by procuring funds through the sale of real estate or other assets in Syria. Now, however, at least 15-20 percent do not have access to $5,000 to use as a down payment, nor are they capable of contributing 30-50 percent of the construction cost.
I, for one, do not understand the logic behind investing funds for amenities—that were non-existent in the neighborhoods of “Old Aleppo” (Meedan, Sulamaniye, Villat, Azizie)—while so many remain excluded from this initiative.
It is my belief that any housing project that seeks to provide durable shelter solutions for Syrian Armenians should be founded on the principle of inclusion rather than exclusion. It should first and foremost address the needs of the most vulnerable Syrian Armenians, rather than solidifying the bourgeois status of the middle class. Although I welcome any housing initiative that ensures the complete resettlement of Syrian Armenians and contributes to their full integration in Armenia, the current plan of “New Aleppo,” unfortunately, does not address the needs of the most vulnerable of the population. It is simply unacceptable.
Finally, as a Syrian Armenian myself, I would like to express my gratitude to the president, the Ministry of Diaspora, the Armenian government, and local and international organizations, businesses, and foundations for their support in both Armenia and Syria. The criticisms presented in this piece are not intended to discourage any organization or to undermine any program or project. Rather, they aim to represent the voice of the voiceless and the face of the faceless, like Daron, and encourage organizations to operate based on the visions of the late Nelson Mandela: “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”

Notes
[1] See http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php?_ga=1.126698767.342266411.1386426334.
[2] See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/23/world/europe/bulgaria-unready-is-poor-host-to-syrians.html?_r=1&.
[3] See http://www.panarmenian.net/arm/news/133582/.
[4] See http://gadebate.un.org/68/armenia.
[5] See http://www.agbu.am/en/239-archive-2013/news-13/1330-agbu-supports-syrian-armenians-2013.
[6] See http://armenpress.am/eng/news/741585/armenian-caritas-to-assist-syrian-armenians-in-housing-lease.html.
[7] See http://www.caritasarm.am/en/media-center/news/81-the-opened-door.
[8] See http://www.aravot.am/2013/05/03/239014/.
[9] See http://armenianow.com/society/features/44597/syrian_armenians_kashatagh_resettlement_in_karabakh.
[10] See http://www.arfd.am/syriahay/?p=1099.
[11] See http://www.mindiaspora.am/en/News?id=2617.
[12] See http://www.panorama.am/am/comments/2013/12/11/lina-halajyan/#.UqgrjCjjzmo.facebook.
[13] See http://armenpress.am/arm/news/743108/tchartarapet-vahe-tutunjyany-nerkayacrel-e-nor-halep.html.
[14] The full text of the announcement on Facebook:
“Աշտարակ Քաղաքի «Նոր Հալէպ» թաղամասի
Մեծյարգոյ դիմում ներկայացնողներ՝
«Սիրիահայերի Հիմնախնդիրները Համակարգող Կենդրոն» ՀԿ կը խնդրէ «Նոր Հալէպ» թաղամասէն բնակարան գնելու հայտ ներկայացնողներէն ներկայանալ գրասենեակ՝ Ալեք Մանուկյան 9, նախնական պայմանագիր կնքելու եւ բանկային փոխանցումով 5000$ կանխավճար ընելու ապա ներկայ գտնուելու 11Դեկտ.2013-ին `ժամը 17- ին Երեբունի Պլազա 9-րդ յարկ, ծրագրի ներկայացման ճարտարապետներու կողմէ:
Կողմերու միչեւ փոխվստահութիւնը ամրապնդելու նպատակով հարկ է նշել՝
• Ըստ նախնական պայմանագրի 2.1.8 կէտին, բնակարանատէրը առանց վնասից հատուցման կարող է ցանկացած պահին իր փոխանցած նախնական 5000$ կանխավճարը ետ ստանալ:
• Աշտարակի Քաղաքապետարանի կողմէ հողաշերտը սեփականաշնորհուած է կազմակերպութեանս ՀՀ անշարժ գոյքի պետական գրանցման N 2408013-02-0005 վկայականով:
• Նուիրատութիւնները եւ Ձեր բանկային փոխանցումները կը տնօրինուին կազմակերպութեանս կողմէ ամենայն պատասխանատութեամբ եւ թափանցիկութեամբ, անոնք հերթականօրէն թարմացուած կը տեղադրուին ՀՀ Ս.Նախարարութեան «Հայերն Այսօր» կայքէջին եւ կազմակերպութեանս դիմատետրի էջին:
Կանխայայտ շնորհակալութիւններով՝
ՍՀՀԿ-ի Յանձնախումբ”

"The Armenian Weekly," January 14, 2014

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