“I am in limbo. Why marry and have kids if they grow up and leave me with their mother at this age? My two sons have left Syria after our town, Kassab, located northwest of Syria on the boarders with Turkey, was attacked by Jihadists in 2014. One of them lives in London and the other lives in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia,” said Nishan, a Kassab-based Syrian Armenian, who works in tourism sector in the town that is famous for its mild climate and lush green mountains that meet the crystal clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Kassab, whose name is derived from the Latin words “Casa Bella” (beautiful house), is home to a vast majority of Syrian Armenians, who are Christians belonging to the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches, with a very small Muslim minority.
The presence of Armenians in the Levant had preceded the appearance of Christianity. According to multiple historical sources, Armenians appeared in the Greater Syrian lands in the 1st century BC during the reign of the powerful Armenian emperor Tigranes the Great (140BC- 55 BC).
After the Syrian Crisis of 2011, the number of Syrian Armenians had decreased dramatically from around 100,000 to less than 30,000. Their grandparents are survivors of two ethnic cleansing tragedies: the Adana Massacre (1909) and the Armenian Genocide (1915). Many fled to the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, seeking refuge and peace. The current population in Kassab are survivors of a painful terrorist attack that took place in 2014, bringing down the number of Syrian Armenians from 8,500 to around 1,500.
Let’s have a quick view at the Syrian Armenian’s lives, identity and participation in the Syrian political, economic and social scene.
THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY
Syrian Armenians are concentrated in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the economic and industrial capital, Aleppo. However, they exist in small numbers throughout Syrian cities.
On the issue of double identity, Syrian Armenian political and social expert, Magi Assadourian, said: “I am Syrian Armenian; I mean I belong to the Syrian state and of Armenian origin. I was born in Damascus and I grew up, studied and worked in it. I want to die and be buried here in Damascus. As for my Armenian roots, I am proud of them. This double identity, both Syrian and Armenian, has enriched my personality and my thinking big time.”
Assadourian had developed a knowledge of the Syrian Armenian families when she worked in the Armenian Catholic Diocese in Damascus for 3 years as the Archdiocese Secretary.
“Through my work, I got to know most of the Armenian families in Damascus, in particular, and Syria, in general,” she told Majalla English.
“Syrian Armenians who enroll in a Syrian public or private school can speak Arabic fluently. Even church schools that I visited in Kassab teach Arabic as part of the curriculum. That’s why it is hard, most of the time, to recognize Syrian Armenians unless they tell you.”
“The Armenian presence in Syria is an integral part of the national unity. We were and will remain closely aligned with our Syrian brothers and offer our greatest educational and cultural qualifications to support our beloved country, Syria,” Assadourian added.
The Armenian churches in the government controlled areas function as usual with the masses, Sunday sermons and prayers being held with full freedom. The majority of Syrian Armenians belong to the Armenian Orthodox church. Catholic and Evangelical churches exist in all cities and towns throughout Syria that have a Syrian Armenian population.
“The Armenians are a minority in Syria. They are free to practice their beliefs and their feasts, but they have integrated into the Syrian society through their various jobs and professions,” said Assadourian.
Nishan, the tourism expert I met in Kassab, took me to visit three churches that belong to the three different sects.
INVOLVEMENT OF POLITICS and ECONOMY
Syrian Armenians have been represented in the national legislative bodies since the 1920’s. Currently, there are two members in the Syrian Council of People (parliament). Throughout modern Syrian political history, Syrian Armenians have had one parliament member that represents Damascus and another one representing Aleppo.
Currently Rep. Nora Mar Arressian (Damascus) and Rep. Gebraer Ronissian (Aleppo) are representatives in the Council of People for the period 2020 to 2024. Syrian Armenian parliament members are non-partisan. They run as independent members.
However, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnaq), Social Democratic Hunchakian Party (Hunshaq) and the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (Ramgavar) are Pan-Armenian parties that operate inside Armenia and among the Armenian diaspora. They do not operate politically but instead as cultural organizations.
“It is true that Syrian Armenians do not participate in Syrian politics to a large extent, but they strongly condemned the terrorist acts and colonialism, especially the Zionist aggression against Palestine,” commented Assadourian on the nature of political involvement of Syrian Armenians in the local Syrian politics.
It is good to note that the Syrian Council of People has recognized the Armenian Genocide which was committed by the Ottomans in 1915. Syrian Armenian parliament members have pushed in this direction for years. Now, Syria is the second Arab country to recognize the genocide in which 1.5 million (approx.) people were massacred.
“It is one of the most sophisticated and educated communities in Syria. Syrian Armenians have modernized and automated industry in Aleppo. They are specialized in sophisticated industries and have the best craftsmen in the whole Syrian Arab Republic,” said Mojahed Abannasr, a Syrian observer living in Aleppo.
Syrian Armenians have close relations with the Armenian diaspora in the neighboring Arab countries and across the world. Each and every family has relatives in Armenia and abroad.
“The relationship between the Syrian Armenians and the Armenians of the diaspora has always been strong because we are a minority, and we have tried our best to preserve our identity and origins throughout history by supporting each other in Armenia and abroad,” Assadourian explains as being the reasons for strong connections with the diaspora.
According to various estimates, the Armenian diaspora population is around 6 million with only half that number living in the homeland, Armenia.
“I hope my family members and neighbors come back to Syria very soon,” concluded Nishan.