Lessons learned as Syrian-Armenian refugees return to Armenia

Members of the Syrian-Armenians’ Union NGO speak at the U.N. House in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo by: Sam Dolgin-Gardner

YEREVAN, Armenia — Visiting Armenia was always a dream for Nanor Apelian, a 15-year-old high school student with a shy smile, who was born and raised in a tight-knit Armenian community in Aleppo, Syria.

That fantasy became reality three years ago, but it happened under the worst of circumstances. The Syrian conflict drove Apelian and her family to flee as refugees to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city of just over 1 million people.

“We didn’t want to go to any other country. Not the U.S., or Canada, or anywhere. This is our city,” she said, referring to Yerevan, speaking alongside her younger sister and aunt in the capital.

For Apelian and the more than 22,000 Syrians who have reached Armenia since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the journey was a homecoming. They are ethnically Armenian, and bear a deep pride for the land many of their ancestors were driven out of just over a century ago, during the 1915 Armenian genocide.

This connection has eased the transition to Armenia for Syrian-Armenian refugees, who have largely not faced the security and assimilation challenges they find in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Armenia cannot serve as an exact model for other countries that are admitting Syrian refugees — now totaling more than 5.1 million, according to United Nations estimates — on a much larger scale, and in different circumstances, says Christoph Bierwirth, the head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Armenia.

But Armenia’s experience of welcoming Syrian refugees — just under 15,000 of whom remain in the country, after some have moved on to other places — could still offer lessons for refugee resettlement and international development organizations on what is working, and what more needs to be done to facilitate economic and social integration.

For starters, Armenians highly value the “institution of asylum,” given their own national experiences during and after World War I.

But Syrians also came to Armenia with translatable, vocational skills, says Bierwirth. Abilities and background in handicrafts and small businesses are in demand in the landlocked country, sandwiched between Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, which only has one open, main road connecting it to Georgia.

Popular Syrian restaurants dot Yerevan’s lively outdoor cafe scene, and an open market with Syrian goods opened in 2015. Overall, Syrian refugees account for a fairly visible 6 out of 1,000 people in Armenia, a country of just 3 million.

“There is the welcoming factor, and there are also very important, equally important people displaced from Syria who are bringing something to Armenia,” Bierwirth told Devex at the United Nations house in Yerevan. “They come with a very high education, good vocational skills, many had small businesses, textile industries; here they come with entrepreneurial skills with links to neighboring countries. And that can very much help Armenia in further developing the Armenian economy and the society.”

He spoke following a late June World Refugee Day event, which featured Syrian refugee speakers and showcased female entrepreneurs who have launched small businesses in embroidery, jewelry and other crafts.

In 2015, the German Development Cooperation organization Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, on behalf of the German government and with consultation of the U.N. refugee agency, launched an economic integration project for Syrian refugees in Armenia. The coachings and business counseling sessions, among other activities, are aimed to “create better economic preconditions for Syrian-Armenian entrepreneurs and jobseekers who are trying to settle and restart their lives in Armenia,” according to Hans Joachim Zinnkann, team leader of the project “Economic Integration of Syrian Refugees in Armenia.”

So far, 2,750 Syrian-Armenians have participated in the project, which has a special focus on the economic opportunities for Syrian-Armenian women and young people.

The entry into Armenian life — and the business world — is not without complications for Syrians, many of whom arrived to start microbusinesses with “one suitcase, traumatized” from their experiences in the war, Bierwirth explained.

While the Armenian government has facilitated a straightforward process for citizenship for Syrian refugees, the state does not offer temporary housing arrangements or many basic social services, such as health care, for new arrivals. Most new arrivals settle with family, and look to UNHCR for support with their medical needs.

And while the Syrians speak Armenian, their western dialect may not translate well when it comes to writing business letters or working in Armenia’s business environment. UNHCR has provided complimentary language courses, including for Syrians and other refugees who do not speak any Armenian, as well as business coaching sessions.  

“We’ve learned some lessons, I can admit this,” Bierwirth said. “I understand it is not enough to do training prior to opening the business. You have to do training and follow up with coaching phase of at least one year [after the business has opened]. The business environment in Syria has a much more bazaar economy, and is very different to what what you have in Armenia.”

Zinnkann highlighted several main challenges facing Syrian-Armenians as they work to set up their own businesses and become financially independent. First, there are the differences in business culture, economy and marketing opportunities.

“Most of the Syrian-Armenians point out understanding taxation and accounting regulations as one of the challenges they face,” he said in an e-mail.

Most Syrian-Armenians also do not have higher education backgrounds, which can limit their work opportunities in Armenia, according to UNHCR. The cost of basic necessities and rebuilding their lives can make it difficult to raise funds to restart businesses, or establish new ones. That can make facing high interest rates for business loans in Armenia especially challenging.

One Syrian-Armenian entrepreneur said she is finding her footing after three years in Armenia, with the help of a female-led initiative of entrepreneurs, Syrian-Armenians’ Union NGO, which operates with support from GIZ.

“It is our only home, because we are Armenian,” said Maral Sheuhmelian Berberian, a former teacher in Syria who now embroiders fair trade-certified baby shoes and other products. “It has been hard, the transition. At first we did not have anything here, but there was nothing in Syria.”

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.