Angel Agamyan remembers the first day her children attended school in Armenia after escaping war-torn Syria. Still traumatised by ISIL’s killing of their father and grandfather, the children were surprised by the warm welcome they received.
“Imagine just for my three kids, an entire class of 25 children had organised songs and a concert. I was overjoyed. The people understood what we’d been through,” Agamyan said.
Her husband and father-in-law were kidnapped, held captive for three months, and killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northern Aleppo. She decided to flee Syria after repeatedly receiving malicious phone calls from the group, threatening to find and kill her children, too.
As the devastating war in Syria continues for a fifth year, many struggle not only as victims of a traumatic conflict in their home country, but also as unwelcome guests in nations where they seek shelter and reprieve.
Nearly four million civilians have left the country, making the Syrian people the largest refugee population in the world. From deadly passages across the Mediterranean Sea, to life in tent cities, to mistreatment and discrimination, the problems they face echo from country to country.
A normal life
Agamyan arrived in Armenia a widowed mother of three young children with nothing to her name, hoping only to find safety, citizenship, and a normal life.
Thousands of Syrians, particularly members of the Christian-Armenian community, have been able to find refuge and the chance to start over in their ancestral homeland.
“We heard that they took care of people, that it would be easy,” said one Syrian woman, who asked not to be identified
fearing reprisals against relatives back home.
She and her husband, mother, and three children escaped to Armenia after their house in Aleppo was destroyed in a bombing.
“I feel such sadness for Syria. I don’t even have a house to return to,” she told Al Jazeera. “The government was protecting the Armenians, but we were targeted by Free Syrian Army rockets, which they were sending from far away.”
Many of the estimated 100,000 Armenians in Syria sided with President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war, and are often targeted by anti-government forces as a result.
For many Syrians, Armenia represented a safe choice – not only as an ancient homeland and predominantly Christian, but also because its migration policies and repatriation programme made it easy for them to travel and settle.
As of September 2014, more than 16,000 people of ethnic Armenian background had sought protection in Armenia, of whom some 12,000 are estimated to have remained, according to UNHCR.
Assessments of the exact number of refugees arriving in Armenia have been tricky, and there may be many more than counted.
“There is anecdotal data, collected from here and there,” explained Nver Sargsyan from the UNHCR’s Armenia office. “They are de-facto refugees in that they have fled a war, but they mostly don’t have the status [of a refugee] because the government of Armenia undertook special means.”
Those “special means” included regulations authorising consular offices in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to issue citizenship and passports, exemptions on state duties, and accelerated asylum procedures.
Influx and influence
The influx of such a large number of people into the country of only three million is noticeable on the streets of its capital, Yerevan.
Restaurants offering delicious Arabic staples such as hummus and baba ganoush have sprouted up throughout the city.
In the bars and outdoor summer cafes around Yerevan Arabic music wafts out and smoke from nargile – as the locals refer to shisha pipes – perfumes the air.
New shops have opened selling exotic spices that were previously uncommon in Armenia.
A Syrian businessman who owns two shops that sell Arabic spices in Yerevan, told Al Jazeera his family brought nothing along when they left. In order to make ends meet, his wife baked Syrian pastries, and he took them around the local shops for sale. The desserts were new to the country and quickly became popular.
“[They] began asking me for other Syrian goods and spices,” said the man, who also requested anonymity to protect family back home. “So I would place orders with people coming from Syria.”
Eventually he was able to open his own shop.
“Syrian Armenians have come with great skills, they’ve brought great business development to Armenia and they are also very talented specialists,” said Sargsyan.
One of the UNHCR initiatives helps new arrivals earn money. This includes providing the equipment necessary to start businesses in their field of specialisation – a dentist, for instance, would receive dental tools to open a clinic.
While some Syrian Armenians are able to find jobs or open businesses, many find themselves facing a multitude of problems.
Although dozens of aid organisations provide assistance ranging from micro-loans, to medical assistance, tutoring, legal advice, and temporary financial support, local resources are simply insufficient.
“As soon as they enter Armenia, they become discouraged,” said Sargsyan.
“They have very high expectations when they come here, much higher than what the people and the government can guarantee for them. This happens when they face this bitter reality of life in Armenia.”
Armenia has struggled with high rates of poverty and is still recovering economically from the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. That conflict, which erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.
The thousands of Armenian refugees fleeing the conflict zone also settled in Armenia, before a ceasefire took hold in 1995, adding additional strain to the post-communist, post-war economy.
High cost of living
Most Syrian arrivals are surprised by the low salaries and expensive housing.
“Most Syrian Armenians are facing a housing and shelter problem, which makes them feel insecure and reluctant,” said Grigori Hovhannisyan from aid group SOS Children’s Villages Armenia, which provides temporary shelter as well as medical assistance.
While many Syrians have adjusted to their new life in Armenia, others still dream of better days back home.
“Syria was such a great country. Life was so much better there [before the war], without all the difficulties that we have here,” said the Syrian woman.
Agamyan said she’s not sure what to do next. She’s overwhelmed by the cost of housing and her complete dependency on aid in Armenia, but the trauma from Syria still haunts her.
“I don’t think the war will end in Syria, the problem will take a long time to resolve,” she said.
The Syrian spice trader has not given up hope, however.
“When the war is over, I want to go back to Kessab [an Armenian village in Syria]. My land is there, Kessab is also a part of the history of the Armenians, and we can’t abandon the land. This is why my father is still there.”