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A Refuge in Lebanon

Syrian Armenians seek refuge in neighboring Lebanon

by Don Duncan with photographs by Dalia Khamissy

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After only a few months in the village of Anjar, 73-year-old Antranig Chakerian decided the blank exterior walls of his new home should be his canvas. He began to draw.

The pictures, however, do not depict scenes of Aleppo, the northern Syrian city where he was born and from where he recently fled with his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law and his grandson. Instead, the walls sport icons, images and poems dedicated to his ancestral homeland, historic Armenia, parts of which now lie in eastern Turkey.

There are drawings of Armenian churches with five paths leading to them, symbolizing Armenian exile. There is also a sketch of Mount Ararat, highly symbolic to Armenians, which looms above Armenia behind its western border with Turkey. And Mr. Chakerian has drawn an image of an obelisk-style monument that commemorates what many refer to as the Armenian Genocide: the death of more than 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey between 1915 and 1918.

Between the various drawings are blocks of handwritten text. “These are nationalistic poems — patriotic poems,” explains Mr. Chakerian, who arrived in Anjar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in September 2012. “These are poems about the great martyrs.”

For all Armenians, the period between 1915 and 1918 constitutes the ultimate exile. It was a catastrophic uprooting that defines and binds them together tightly, even as they remain scattered across the globe. For Syrian Armenians, their flight from their Syrian refuge for neighboring Lebanon is a sad reverberation of their original catastrophe.

“We were confronted with bombs and rockets day and night for a long time,” says Mr. Chakerian of life in Aleppo since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in March 2011. “We wanted to save our souls.”

And so, he and his family fled to Damascus and then took a public taxi across the border to Anjar.

A peaceful, pretty town, Anjar is itself a product of Armenian displacement. It was founded to house Armenians who left the Syrian region of Hatay when Turkey annexed it in 1939. The town’s population is normally around 2,500, but the recent influx of refugees from the war in Syria has doubled that number.

“That puts big pressure on the municipality,” says Nazareth Andakian, a municipal lawyer in Anjar. “We don’t have any more empty houses; all are full. On top of that, because there is currently no government in Lebanon, public funds are not being released to us from Beirut, so the village is going into debt to manage the situation.”

This dilemma is playing out all across Lebanon, in both Armenian and non-Armenian domains. This small country of just four million people has had to bear the brunt of the Syrian displacement crisis; to date more than a million Syrian refugees have fled to the country, according to the United Nations. And the flow shows no signs of stopping.

Before the war, there were between 100,000 and 150,000 Armenians in Syria. Of this population, some 20,000 have already fled to Lebanon, while others have fled north, to Armenia, or to Jordan in the south.

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