Nansen legacy lives on for Syrian refugees in Armenia

A jeweller and his family flee Syria and find safety in their ancestral homeland of Armenia

Hovig Ashjian, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria, arrived with his family in Armenia in the autumn of 2012. Thanks to a rental subsidy scheme, they are able to afford a small apartment in Yerevan.  © UNHCR/A. Hayrapetyan

YEREVAN, Aug 12 (UNHCR) - For Hovig Ashjian and his family, life in Aleppo, Syria, was happy before the war. He worked as a jeweller at the workshop he owned, while his wife Tamara was a chef. His 16-year-old daughter Rita went to school.

But when the conflict came and tore the country apart, his family -- who were part of an 80,000-strong Syrian-Armenian community - were forced to flee.

"I lost everything I had - my house, my work, my car," recalled Hovig. "Everything I cherished disappeared in an instant. We were scared. We thought there was nowhere else we could go to but to Armenia, the land of our ancestors."

In the autumn of 2012, Hovig and his family left for Armenia. It took them three hours just to navigate the 20-minute road from their home to the airport. "We were afraid to look back," said Hovig. "We scarcely escaped the shelling."

They found safety and a new life in Armenia, but had to leave all their belongings behind.

"My daughter cherishes the hope that her Bible and DVDs have survived and they are kept somewhere safe in the corner of her room," said Hovig, sadly. "She cannot accept that our house is completely ruined and that there is nothing left."

UNHCR has been helping Hovig and his family to restart their lives through partner NGOs, including Mission Armenia, the Armenian Red Cross Society and KASA Swiss Humanitarian Foundation. Thanks to a rental subsidy scheme, they are able to afford a small apartment in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Hovig has also benefited from vocational training and income generation projects, and used his skills to build a new jewellery business in Armenia.

"I remember I would work day and night to make a piece of jewellery," he added. "I was nervous, thinking if I would be able to sell any. Then, gradually, through socialising with people, listening to them, learning about their preferences, reducing the price and making special orders, I gained people's interest in my work. Many of them have now become my permanent clients."

Today, Hovig's wife has also found a new job, and his daughter has just been accepted to a college. One of his traditional jewelry pieces even won a prize at an exhibition.

At last, having escaped war, life seems to be back on track. "Today, I am proud I can make my small but stable income," Hovig said with a smile. "I thank God for blessing me with the talent to be a jeweller. It helps me earn a modest living and raise my daughter in Armenia."

As a Syrian-Armenian, Hovig knows just how important UNHCR's work is. He is a descendent of the exiled Armenian community in Aleppo which benefitted from the work of Fridtjof Nansen, who helped repatriate thousands of refugees in Armenia, Lebanon, and Syria after 1915. The Armenian community was noted for its craftsmen, jewellers, artisans and businessmen and contributed hugely to the development and prosperity of Syria.

Even though Hovig and others have achieved some success, it is not easy for displaced Syrians to overcome the difficulties in the way of integration. Health-care needs, housing issues, a lack of well-paid jobs, a harsh business environment, language and cultural barriers are formidable constraints facing most Syrian families in Armenia.

"Syrian-Armenians owe much to the great friend of all Armenians, Fridtjof Nansen," said Hovig. "Our grandparents owe their survival to the Nansen Passport that opened doors for a new life in a new land, Syria. So, we should cherish his name and continue a dignified life this time, in our land of ancestors, Armenia."

He added: "Syrian-Armenians who felt fully integrated in Syria have had to flee again, this time to Armenia, the land of their ancestors. But we also contribute to the development of society and economy in Armenia as we Syrian-Armenians have brought with us a large variety of values and skills.''

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, 17,000 Syrian citizens, primarily of ethnic Armenian background, have arrived in Armenia, of whom around 13,000 displaced persons remain as of July 2015.

To assist them, the government is offering simplified naturalisation, accelerated asylum procedures and facilitated short-, mid- and long-term residence permits.

Additionally, UNHCR, through its partner NGOs, is working to address the urgent humanitarian needs of displaced Syrian families by offering a wide range of emergency assistance and integration projects.

By Anahit Hayrapetyan, UNHCR Yerevan, Armenia