Hands Across Borders: The Syrian Crisis and the Armenians
BY MARIA TITIZIAN
The crisis in Syria promises to become a protracted human tragedy. The brutality being exacted by both government and rebel forces has already resulted in a level of devastation that to rebuild neighborhoods, buildings, institutions and also lives will require years if not decades. Rebel forces continue to battle on the streets of Aleppo, Damascus, and other cities in order to topple the minority Alawite regime of Bashar al Assad. International human rights groups are already condemning the dozens of cases of war crimes being perpetrated by both sides.
And the Armenian community who for centuries had been living in relative peace and prosperity, whose numbers swelled following the Armenian Genocide when hundreds of thousands found some initial semblance of refuge, is now facing decimation. War, after all, doesn’t discriminate.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Middle East nor do I always understand the very complex configuration of religion and politics that have contributed to tension and civil war in the region. I continuously have to refresh my memory as to which country is Sunni and which one is Shiite and who is covertly or overtly supporting whom and so on. But one thing is clear, the competing interests of the Huzbullah in Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States, Russia and others would seem to indicate that the war in Syria is much bigger than Syria. What I do understand is the human face of war because we here in Armenia are coming face to face with it, on a personal and national level.
I remember the overwhelming feeling of pride laced with profound sadness the first time I went to the Middle East. Over time and over a course of different visits to different cities, I was struck not only by the number of schools, churches and community centers we had built but how we had contributed to the cultural mosaic, how we had played a critical role in the establishment of trades and businesses and how we had created a bastion of Armenian preservation and identity that had sustained the Diaspora. The sadness came from the realization that our numbers were dwindling and following the civil war in Lebanon, when thousands of Armenians were forced to leave, often times with their entire lives in a few suitcases and a few dollars in their pockets, they left behind homes and businesses, and also a legacy that was in danger of disappearing.
Our community in Syria is one of the most important and vibrant Diaspora communities in the world. The majority of Genocide survivors and their descendents can trace their rebirth following the attempt at their annihilation to Syria. My mother was born in Aleppo and later moved to Beirut where I was born. Her father, a survivor and orphan had miraculously made it to Syria after being deported and losing his parents. Our community in Syria therefore has a very important place in our collective past and destiny. Our community in Syria was also one of the first communities to extend its heart and resources and energies to Armenia and Artsakh. And today, members of our community in Syria are finding themselves in the middle of a war that has nothing to do with them but one which they are having to confront.
In light of the difficult and threatening conditions in Syria, the ARF in Armenia initiated the “Help Your Brother” program to send assistance to the Armenian community. Many other Armenian organizations around the world also consolidated their resources by raising money to extend a helping hand to our compatriots there. A few days ago Yerkir Media televised a special segment on the actions being taken by the leadership of the Syrian-Armenian community as they struggle to help one another, as they come together, putting aside their political differences, to ensure their survival. Part of that segment showed the hundreds of boxes of aid sent from Armenia by the Help Your Brother campaign on a special charter flight from Yerevan to Aleppo.
Young Armenians in the homeland, members of the Armenian Youth Federation, the Nikol Aghbalyan Student Association and dozens of others spent days and weeks packing bags of rice, flour and other food products including jams and preserves and cooking oil, placing them in boxes and then loading them on trucks to be delivered to the plane at Zvartnots Airport. These boxes of aid, packed by the hands of young Armenians in the homeland were then unloaded by the hands of young Armenians in Syria. It was a moving scene and a sentiment that should not be lost on us: hands across borders, Armenia assisting the Diaspora.
While many are unhappy with the way the Armenian government and the Diaspora Ministry are handling the situation with the influx of Syrian-Armenians who have come to Armenia to escape the war and attempt to re-establish their lives here, the message that we must take away from the Help Your Brother campaign is an important one. For over two decades and beginning with the 1988 earthquake, the Diaspora stood firm in its unconditional support of the Republic of Armenia, raising millions of dollars and providing assistance and conveying compassion. Today, when one of our Diaspora communities is under threat, Armenia must show its unconditional support by raising money, providing assistance and conveying compassion. These small tentative steps being taken by the government and many organizations and individuals in the homeland is a gesture that needs to evolve still. After 70 years of Soviet rule which had deprived the dispersed Armenians around the world of a lifeline to the homeland and one which had deprived the Armenians of Armenia a connection with the rest of the nation, the concept of reciprocal care and assistance still needs to develop in the mindset of people here.
The experience of the Iraqi Armenians who fled to Armenia to find shelter and safety served as an example of failure on behalf of the government of Armenia and today many of our compatriots from Iraq have left Armenia and those who remain continue to struggle desperately. With the Syrian Armenian experience, officials are attempting to design a structure of assistance, albeit with many shortcomings and missed opportunities. There is no doubt that the Republic of Armenia must begin to fulfill its mission as the parent, the one who potentially has the resources and which must learn to take upon itself the responsibility of coming to the assistance of those Armenian communities that face physical danger.
The Diaspora who for decades organized itself, rebuilt lives and institutions, who acted at times as a government in exile in order to preserve Armenian identity and culture, who struggled to ensure that the world not forget about the Armenian Genocide and struggled ceaselessly to restore the Armenian people’s historic and legal rights, intrinsically and naturally understands the need for collective action, assistance and compassion. That is how we survived. The Republic of Armenia must learn from the Diasporan experience and using those tools must now act in an equally responsible manner.
Reimagining and redefining roles may be a difficult process. There will be mistakes made and many misunderstandings. While we may be unhappy or disappointed with actions taken or untaken, while we may have expectations that are not realistic, while we may demand a more comprehensive action plan on behalf of the government of our republic, we must also remember the individuals who are genuinely trying to help and all those young hands across borders who didn’t need to understand any of this, all they needed to know was somewhere in the world, a group of Armenians needed help and they rose to the challenge.