Ilona left everything behind to flee with her husband and three children to Suruc, as Syria's civil war was closing in on their village in Kobane in 2014. This was the second time she had to leave a place she called home after fleeing Baku during the massacres.
Despite successfully escaping, Ilona’s husband, an auto mechanic by trade, was killed by ISIS gunfire when he returned to Kobane to retrieve spare parts from his garage three months ago.
Ilona and her children Varduhi, 16, Aram, 14, and Karo, 7, spent almost a year in Turkey's crowded, often chaotic camps before arriving in Yerevan about six weeks ago.
Becoming a refugee
Ilona fled Baku after the Sumgait massacre in 1989, when she was 16 years old. Her family went to live in Russia for several months but then came back when the situation calmed a bit for Ilona to resume her studies at high school. After graduation, Ilona’s parents sent her to Yerevan to study at the university level. As the situation in Baku grew violent once more, Ilona’s parents were able to escape and meet her in the Armenian capital.
Several years later Ilona’s sister married a Syrian-Armenian student and moved to live in Aleppo, Syria. When she gave birth, Ilona went to visit her and met Hovsep, her brother in law, and the two fell in love. They married in September 1995 and settled in Kobane where Hovsep ran a car repair garage. Living in Kobane was difficult for Ilona who was a city girl, but she acclimated as she had her loving husband by her side.
When the war first broke out, Hovsep continued to work during ceasefires in order to make ends meet. But by summer 2014 things worsened—for their last year in Kobane the family lived without electricity, running water, or sufficient amounts of food.
Becoming a double refugee
At the end of September, ISIS entered the Kobane region resulting in the flight of people from the city and nearby villages.
Ilona and Hovsep learned that Turkey was accepting refugees in bordering Suruc, so they loaded their minivan with all the essentials and fled. In Suruc the Kurdish soldiers helped the family cross the border and sheltered them a public school as no other temporary shelter options were available.
The family stayed in Suruc for over nine months waiting for Kobane to reestablish peace, but it never happened.
The Tomassians had no savings so they lived exclusively off of humanitarian aid. In early 2015, Hovsep started working in Urfa as an auto mechanic to provide for his family. When the situation in Kobane gained some stability in May of 2015, Hovsep decided to return to Kobane with Aram to retrieve the spare auto parts he had left in his garage. One night, as Hovsep entered a shop, ISIS fighters attacked the town killing everyone they found on the streets, including Hovsep in front of his son Aram.
Back to the homeland
Today Ilona’s family shares a two-bedroom apartment in Komitas district of Yerevan that is subsidized by Mission Armenia and Armenian Redwood Project.
Moreover, the Tomassians are now having therapy sessions with a psychologist to help them overcome the post-traumatic stress developed during their experience of the Syrian Civil War.
The children have resumed their studies in a local school and Ilona has already found a job in a workshop, sewing leather goods.
Ilona’s eldest son Hakob still lives in an unofficial refugee camp in the Netherlands, waiting for his asylum papers to be processed by the government. He longs to reunite with his family in Armenia, but knows it may take some time before he can see them again.
Aram is exited to start attending a military school soon but he still dreams of going back to Kobane one day, reopening his father’s garage and living the life he used to have back in Syria.
"I miss my village," he says. "Our house is there, our garage with all the equipment is there, all of my friends are there."
Getting used to the urban life in Yerevan is becoming easier as the family starts acquiring local friends who help them start a new life and assist them on their journey in making Armenia their new and safe home. Ilona is full of hope this is an opportunity for her children to realize their potential and to live in dignity with a sense of belonging.
After safely transporting all 18 Tomassians to Armenia, the ARP's social worker continued to work with Ilona on everyday integration issues in Armenia. In the last month, ARP paired up Ilona Tomassian with a generous (anonymous) Diasporan benefactor/sponsor in order to ease Ilona's transition phase.
Ilona's story while heartbreaking, is no different than all suffering that has resulted from the senseless war in Syria and its aftermaths like the attacks in Paris last week. While we cannot stop the war, WE CAN make a difference in the lives of individual families.
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