An Iraqi Armenian teen shows the way to a new life

News Stories, 30 October 2008

© UNHCR/A.Hayrapetyan
Good Hair Day: Mariam is setting an example with her enthusiasm and her desire to make the most of life in Armenia.

YEREVAN, Armenia, October 30 (UNHCR) Mariam Sargis has spent most of her life in Iraq, but the teenager is now getting an unexpected chance to discover the land and language of her ancestors. And the 14-year-old is thriving; setting an example to her family, her community and other refugees with her enthusiasm.

Mariam left Baghdad in 2004 with her father, Sargis, mother, Najva, and younger brother Minas. They were among hundreds of members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the world's oldest Christian communities, to flee Iraq to escape mounting sectarian violence in recent years. The majority, including Mariam's parents, were born in the Middle East nation.

About 1,000 Iraqi Armenians have been granted refugee or temporary asylum status in Armenia over the past four years. They live in rented houses in the capital, Yerevan, or in the provinces of Kotayk and Ararat.

Most possess limited financial resources and are in urgent need of material assistance. They also find it hard to communicate in an unfamiliar language and a major struggle to make ends meet in an alien land.

"Despite the fact that most Iraqis are of Armenian descent, they only understand Western Armenian [the modern dialect spoken by much of the Armenian diaspora], and, as a result, they face difficulties finding proper employment," noted Bushra Halepota, UNHCR's representative in Armenia.

The UN refugee agency, working through its local implementing partner, Mission Armenia, has been helping the most vulnerable families and promoting local integration of the refugees. But despite this helping hand, some especially the older generation are finding it hard to adjust.

Mariam, with her positive outlook and determination to integrate and succeed, is setting an example to her peers and proving that, with a bit of will and effort, they can manage and also look to the future with confidence. Inspired by both small and big achievements, she is taking firm steps forward.

The outgoing teenager has enthusiastically embraced vocational training and Armenian-language classes funded by UNHCR. And whenever she finds things hard-going she just remembers how bad things were in Iraq.

"When my mother starts complaining, I say, 'But we are safe here, Mum, cheer up,'" Mariam said. "Here in Armenia, I sleep peacefully and have good dreams again. I'm finally free of painful memories."

She wasn't so upbeat when she first arrived here two years ago to what must have seemed like a bleak future. Everything from the weather to the language and the people seemed so different, and even menacing she remembers feeling scared a lot of the time.

But before long the family came under the wing of UNHCR and Mission Armenia, which in mid-2007 launched the assistance and integration programme for the vulnerable Iraqi refugee families in Armenia. Mariam was found a place in school and she seized the opportunity to make new friends, expand her knowledge, and learn the Armenian language and culture.

"I would never have thought the Armenian language could be so different from mine; so rich and beautiful," she said. "My Armenian language learning experience was unforgettable. I seem to have gone through my childhood again, had another first teacher, another community, another life."

She is now studying to be a hair stylist, which will allow her to earn a living once she has finished the course. "The classes are so beneficial and enjoyable. I am inspired by this opportunity," said Mariam, adding that her chosen profession would also serve as an excellent opportunity to meet new people.

Her skills should help her family stay above water during the current hard times; her father used to own a food business in Iraq, but has only managed to find odd jobs in Armenia and is having difficulty paying the rent after using up most of the money he made from selling the family house in Baghdad.

Mariam is so selfless, she gives the credit to others for her happiness in Armenia. "I am thankful to all of the people around me who were so tolerant and caring; my neighbours, my teachers, and my friends," she said. "Thanks to the big support of UNHCR, I now believe in my strength and feel secure."

But she is the one who should be thanked, for making the most of her new life and setting an example to so many others.

By Anahit Hayrapetyan in Yerevan, Armenia