Ani Svakjian, who about 16 months ago moved to Armenia from the Syrian city of Aleppo, opens the door with pleasure. The living room is already decorated ahead of the New Year’s Eve holidays, with a modest Christmas tree, and the table and cabinets covered with Kaghand Pap [Armenian Santa Claus] tablecloths.
“In Aleppo, I didn’t work,” Ani begins, smiling. “The married women of Aleppo are queens: they sit at home. My husband worked, and we had our own house. In Aleppo, when one person worked, he would bear the entire family’s burden.”
“We endured for a long time in Aleppo, thinking that things will calm down… until the war reached our house. A missile fell on the balcony across from ours, and a shrapnel broke our window. My son, sitting in the house--- that fragment graced his eyebrow. Thank God that his eye was unharmed. Then my son-in-law’s car was harmed, my husband’s cousin was martyred… And so we decided to leave. It’s been one year and four months that we’ve been in Armenia,” Ani continues sorrowfully. “It was painful. It’s very painful to see what has been around us for years and how it was being destroyed.”
“It’s the fate of Armenians [to be] migrating… The first exile was from Turkey; the second, from Aleppo… We came to Armenia with the sole hope that it will be safe here,” says Ani. “We’re still stressed. We hear a slight sound, we think it’s an explosive, we’re startled ….” referring to the PTSD that most Syrian refugees suffer from
Ani’s mother, Sona, to change the mood of the conversation begins to recall her first visit to Armenia 12 years ago.
“A lot has changed,” she says. “The life of people in Armenia is not bad now: people dress well, neatly, go to church. Yerevan is very beautiful, my neighbors are lovely, the landlord is great. Whichever country you go to, work is what is important. In Armenia, only work is costly. Both [people in the household] must work: one to pay the rent, the other to secure the livelihood.”
“Only my son works now,” says Ani. “He prepares hookah in a cafe. We’re tradespeople, [but] there’s no demand for tradespeople here; the pay is modest; how to provide for one’s family on 3,000 dram a day?”
It’s been a month since Ani has been learning hairdressing. She attends free hairdressing classes for Syrian-Armenians. “We have to work together so we can manage,” says Ani who is a beneficiary with the Armenian Redwood's program with Oxfam in Armenia and receives monthly rent subsidies to help with her apartment rent in Yerevan. She is part of the over 20,000+ refugees that Armenia has provided safe refuge and slivers of hope to.
This new year's eve, thousands of Syrian refugee families in Armenia will gather around the family table — to remember those who were taken away from them, to celebrate the gift of human fortitude, and even as an act of defiance. As for the rest of us around the world, let us rediscover the spirit of gratitude and giving during the holiday season; let us give our Syrian sisters and brothers the unflinching reassurance that they’re not alone in their struggle.