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The Housing Conundrum: Syrian Armenians in Armenia

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Special for the Armenian Weekly

“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.”

'New Aleppo' district plan

‘New Aleppo’ district plan

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”

18 Comments on The Housing Conundrum: Syrian Armenians in Armenia

  1. avatar Victoria Markarian // January 14, 2014 at 6:52 pm // Reply

    I am in agreement with Mr. Balkhian’s concerns. When I read that there would be swimming pools and other amenities, my first thoughts were: Why do they need these kinds of amenities? Isn’t that just going to make local Armenians jealous and resentful of Syrian-Armenians? And how many of them will be able to afford such apartments? I am a member of an Armenian organization that is helping Syrian Armenians, and my husband is originally from Aleppo, so I am very much in sympathy with their plight. Please do help them, offer them some decent and affordable housing, and allow them to assimilate into the greater Armenian population.

  2. Google TED talks – Marcin Jakubowski: Open-sourced blueprints for civilization
    All sort of useful DIY blueprints for Artsakh farmers

  3. avatar Serge Abrahamian // January 15, 2014 at 2:54 am // Reply

    I see no harm in including a swimming pool and other amenities in a project of this scale, in fact it should be the standard requirement for all new buildings. Just because they didn’t have those amenities in Syria doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have them in Armenia. With any housing project we should think long term, Housing should be about living conditions, the environment, the quality of life and not only putting people in four walls. The solution for those who cannot afford is not to build substandard housing for all but to raise funds so that every Syrian Armenian can have quality housing; and no, it is not going to make local Armenians jealous. I now live in Armenia and I have not seen any resentment towards Syrian Armenians. Local Armenians have not complaint about anything Syrian Armenians receive or achieve. I know locals who use SA businesses to help them to establish. Even in villages in Artsakh where the SA have been helped from the community budget there has been no complaint.

    As regard to ghettoisation I again see no problem in that, if people feel better living in compact communities they should not be discouraged. I think for the first generation they will feel more comfortable to continue their traditional way of life and the new generation will integrate anyway. They will mix with the locals in schools, colleges, work places, and social events. So let’s wish them all a good life in Armenia and do everything we can to help them meet their housing, and employment needs. I have no doubt with some serious support from diaspora SAs will succeed in Armenia and make a significant contribution to the economy of Armenia as well.

  4. One more relevant TED talk – Alastair Parvin: Architecture for the people by the people
    wikiHouses for Artsakh!!

    • Dear Mr. Serge Abrahamian,

      I am a Syrian-Armenian and I have lived in Armenia for the last three years (I moved there before the Syrian Conflict started). Though I completely agree that the objective of any housing project should be long term and ensure proper living conditions for Syrian-Armenians in Armenia, nonetheless, there are major flaws with this current project.

      1- I personally don’t believe that the amenities proposed in this project are essential aspects of the so-called “Proper Living Conditions”.
      2- I don’t believe Syrian-Armenians should be granted better living conditions than local Armenians, who struggle every day to survive in a terrible economic environment.
      3- Since the proponents of the project are presenting the “New Aleppo” plan as a relief project to foreign governments and organizations, then they should not be shocked if they receive no funding or very little from it (considering those amenities).
      4- If such amenities are neccissary to ensure “quality of life” as you propose, and you believe that it is possible to raise between $22-30 million for such a plan (so that it becomes inclusive), then once that money is raised, the government should simply make a deal with Mr. Vahakn Hovnanian and purchase apartment buildings and houses for Syrian Armenians at the Vahakni Neighborhood (in order to hasten the process of providing homes to Syrian-Armenians rather than go through years of construction).
      5- Though local Armenians for the most part have been terrific towards Syrian-Armenians, however there is a growing level of resentment towards the preferential treatment Syrian-Armenians are receiving. Though I do not want to believe that the incident depicted in this video “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKiuauuck2I” is the direct result of such resentments (After all, these types of incidents happen all the time in Armenia amongst the local population), nonetheless, if more projects such as the “New Aleppo” plan, in its current format are developed and implemented, then I would not be surprised if the level of resentment increases.
      6- Finally, on the issue of “Ghettoization”, I believe we can simply agree to disagree.

      Thank you for your input. Criticism are always welcome.

      Sincerely,

      Sarkis Balkhian

      Ps. Thank you for everyone’s comments, compliments, criticisms and ideas.

  5. swimming pools a not bad not bad at all dont forget to put some tennis courts after all they are foreigners not like us just a Armenians

  6. Bravo Sarkis. This was a very balanced, sober and informative article. For a moment I thought your work was going to be just another one of the poisonous Armenia-bashing articles that are so prevalent these days in Diasporan circles. So, thank you for taking the highroad and thank you for not blindly doing the corrosive work of Western propagandists. And I fully share your concerns about Syrian-Armenians not doing enough to integrate into life in Armenia. However, this problem is not unique to Syrian-Armenians. It’s a problem most Western Armenian Diasporans have. Just think, we Diasporans do our best to integrate into every Western/European society we live in, but for some reason, when it comes to Armenia we all of a sudden want to preserve our “Western Armenian” heritage. As an American-Armenian I can tell you that a vast majority of Diasproan Armenains here encourage their children to interact with Americans and speak English. These same people would not dare utter a word in “Russified” Eastern Armenian and they, at least in their minds, look down on Hayastantsis.

    Anyway, with healthy and constructive activism, I think the situation of Syrian-Armenians in Armenia will gradually improve.

  7. I second the “no resentment” comment. Nobody here feels any ill-will towards Syrian-Armenians. If anything they try to help their brothers and sisters in whichever way they can. Many Syrian-Armenian businesses are very popular with the locals and they try to support them with their patronage as much as possible.

  8. avatar Random Armenian // January 16, 2014 at 1:16 am // Reply

    A tangential nitpick. A playground, trees and greenery, and even a tennis court are important to have. But I think children should not have to cross the parking and car path to get there. I’m picturing kids crossing to get there and someone driving around the corner of the parking area. There should be a walkway from the doors of the apartment to the park and playground.

    Many buildings in Yerevan have a courtyard behind them, some with trees and even old soviet era playgrounds. This is something Yerevan and other cities should renovate and improve. Trees and some open spaces are good for the mind. You look out the back of the building and you don’t see traffic but something calming. Just a thought.

  9. This project is simply a way to misuse another $30 million for real estate in Armenia, that is already “overheated” with investments.

    $30 million for only 30 apartments is simply nonsense.

    One can easily buy 1000 2 room apartments in Yerevan or 1000 Houses with at least 1000qm land in cities near the place where this Housing is planed to be build…

    The house construction mafia in Armenia already 10 years misusing all the resources that diaspora invests into Armenia and this mafia is supported at highest level.

    One can see on last days the “discussions” between present prime-minister and previous president of Armenia about “who was guilty for pulverising money and generating so much mortgage debts”…

    This is another pulverisation of money

    • Dear Voter,

      I just wanted to correct you, it’s not $30 million for 30 apartments, but rather apartment buildings. Just so no one gets the wrong idea.

      Respectfully,

      Sarkis

  10. I know a place not far a way where one could get for tenth 1/10 of the money ($300t) 5 Houses with almost a hectare land (10000qm) with fruit bearing trees: apricot,plum,pie,grapes etc and for that one will not need to spend a month to get the keys for the house…

  11. There are all kinds of housing opportunities in Artsagh.

  12. What is so wrong with preserving western Armenian culture, esp the language, in Armenia. After all, the government propagates the concept of “One People, One Homeland”; or is this just rhetoric?

    • Dear Tikatinsi,

      I am in favor of preserving the western Armenian culture, esp the language. However, Syrian-Armenians and for that matter, any Diasporan Armenian who moves to Armenia, has to integrate one way or another or else he/she will leave again.

      During the process of integration, they will not only assimilate with the local Armenian population, but also introduce certain Western Armenian values (that are needed) to the local Armenian population.

      However, especially in the case of Syrian-Armenians, if they pursue strategies of isolating themselves from the local population, then they will never come to terms with the idea of permanently settling in Armenia, and will always look for opportunities to leave (which is not the long term plan of our nation, as far as I know).

      As for your statement/question: ” I’d like to ask all these diaspora Armenians pooh-pahing swimming pools, tennis courts, etc. What would it take for you to leave your comfy suburban lifestyles and move to Armenia – just a room somewhere and an electric heater to cook your food?” I COMPLETELY Agree with you.

      Sincerely,

      Sarkis

  13. BTW, I’d like to ask all these diaspora Armenians pooh-pahing swimming pools, tennis courts, etc. What would it take for you to leave your comfy suburban lifestyles and move to Armenia – just a room somewhere and an electric heater to cook your food?

  14. Bravo Mr. Balkhian! Remarkable

  15. is the sweemingpool the thig they ask or need? or is it a way to fill the pockets of the local officials.

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