I just returned from a workshop in Yerevan, entitled " From Humanitarian Responses to Durable Solutions: Facilitating Local Integration in Armenia of Persons Displaced due to the Conflict in Syria" - organized by the Ministry of the Diaspora, UNHCR Armenia, the Caloust Gulbenkian Foundation and AGBU. The workshop seems to have raised the bar on collective efforts to assist facilitating local Integration in Armenia of persons displaced due to the conflict in Syria.
One of my takeaway realizations from the conference was that Armenia - despite its modest economy - has proved to be a global humanitarian actor in the face of the most acute humanitarian crisis of our young century. Armenia adopted a Non-Camp approach to hosting refugees. This strongly differentiates From the response of many refugees hosting regional countries, where the tendency has been to direct the refugees into camps supported by humanitarian agencies.
The key question in my mind was how Armenia together with the international community was going to address the challenge in the upcoming years, for a crisis that seems to have lasted longer than major World Wars.
Namely, Will Armenia be remembered as a safe transit point by Syrian refugees or more of a host country that allowed them to build new lives ?
My feeling is that it will be a mixture of both. Some, who have relatives abroad will chose to migrate again, in search of a better life and others will chose to stay. Some will even stay in the region with the hope of returning to their homes in Syria when the conflict ends. We just hope that the ones that leave, would appreciate the safe transit that Armenia provided. None were left in refugee camps, nor in homelessness.
In the meanwhile, the political and economic commitments of state and non state actors to the unfolding humanitarian tragedy of refugees will play an important role. It appears to me from the concluding remarks of Madame Hranush Hakopyan, the Minister of Diaspora that the Government of Armenia will not only continue its support, but is also interested in raising the bar in partnership with others. While Armenia has accepted a high ratio of refugees as compared to its population, it is not alone in the region. Turkey's response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been huge according to a new report by the World Bank. Turkey now hosts the largest refugee population in the world and has financed its own refugee crisis mostly through a government-financed approach.
It has increasingly become clear that humanitarian assistance of the last few years must be paired with development interventions that can begin to respond to the scope, long-term nature, and socio-economic impacts of the refugee crisis, which is now a serious global matter. The Yerevan workshop which was focused on the topic of development has raised expectations along these lines.
But I'd like to come back to the plight vulnerable refugees in the West again. Last week I witnessed my first anti-refugee rally in the Netherlands in the presence of heavy riot police on horses.
I also came across some Syrian Armenian youth, who seem to have been living in refugee camps outside of Amsterdam. They looked rather sad and lonely, away from the warmth of their families. When I asked them how long their path to citizenship would take, they seemed as puzzled as thousands of others in Europe. This left me wondering if "waiting things out" in western cities was so much better than life in Armenia.
While humanity awaits for an imminent lasting cease-fire in Syria, it seems to me that Armenia - for some Syrian refugees - might be a better alternative that the blind flight west.
According to UNHCR Armenia, many Syrian refugees like Hovig Ashjian are choosing to build new lives in Armenia. Hovig has benefited from vocational training and income generation projects provided in Armenia, and used his skills to build a new jewellery business in Armenia. Hovig's wife has also found a new job, and his daughter has just been accepted to a college.
Life is just a compilation of decisions made. Some decisions are big, and others are really very small. Each day refugees are going to have to make decisions as they rebuild. Some will alter lives, others will have very little effect on what happens in the future. But decisions are a part of life.
We at the Armenian Redwood Project are diligently working along with our partners to make our modest impact as humanity grapples with more than 60 million refugees globally today. If these refugees were housed in a singly country, it would be the 24th largest country on the planet!
Renowned french Armenian singer, Charles Aznavour (whose parents were migrant survivors of the Armenian Genocide) recently gave an insightful interview to CNN. He concluded the interview with a powerful comment on the migrant crisis. " "Why not welcome migrants ...They bring something with their misery ... and have plenty of things to teach to us".
Armenia - our ancestral homeland - is a tiny country in the Caucasus . It's where we are choosing to contribute to this global cause and make a local impact in the lives of thousands of Syrian refugees today. We believe that by helping them build new lives in Armenia, they will have plenty to teach us and Armenia.
We wish our fellow refugees a resilient safe journey "home". May their decisions be guided with light and wisdom.