Why Syrian Armenians are avoiding Turkey

Why Syrian Armenians are avoiding Turkey
Sibel Hurtas

In large part because of the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, today there are 3,585,738 Syrians in Turkey, according to official numbers.


As a result of the war, Kurds and Turkmens sought refuge in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. All Syrian ethnic groups flowed into Turkey save for Syrian Armenians. This attracted the attention of journalist Serdar Korucu, who has been doing research into refugee communities along the border. Korucu told Al-Monitor last week that when he saw there were practically no Armenians among the refugees, he told himself, “This can’t just be because of the low ratio of Armenians to the overall Syrian population. There has to be another reason.”


While looking into the issue, he met a Syrian Armenian in Turkey and asked her, “When Turkey is so close, why are Syrian Armenians not coming there?” She told him, “Yes, Turkey’s border is very close, but in real life it is too remote from us.”


Korucu attributes the distance separating the two peoples as what is often referred to in Turkey as the “1915 incidents,” or the Armenian Genocide by Armenians.


“Syrian Armenians were the ones who fled to Aleppo from Anatolia about 100 years ago. Their genocide memories are so fresh they decided not to come to Turkey,’’ Korucu said. The memories of genocide caused Armenians to opt for more difficult and dangerous travels instead of going to Turkey, he said, adding that some went to Lebanon, some to Armenia and those who could traveled to Western countries.


Korucu spoke with 22 Syrian Armenians, 21 of whom had settled in Armenia. Korucu published the interviews in a book, whose title could be translated as “Those Absent from Aleppo.”


Manuel Khesisyan of Aleppo told him, “I was born in Aleppo. My father was born while escaping the genocide. My mother was also born in Aleppo. We constantly listened to their sagas of the genocide. We know what our father and grandfather told us. One and a half million Armenians were killed. There is our Maras [in southeast Turkey]. Our grandchildren should know that we had our homeland and we were expelled from it.”


All those who spoke with him had memories similar to Khesisyan’s. They all had listened to the memories and testimonies of their grandparents who were deported from Anatolia in 1915, about the life-risking travel they underwent to arrive in Syria, how they lost so many people during their escape and how they then established their lives in Aleppo. Referring to the raging war in Syria, Korucu said that 100 years after “the genocide, this community received another hard blow.”


Saghik Rastgelenian, now in Yerevan, Armenia, spoke of the chain of disasters he had to cope with. He told Korucu, “As Armenians our lives are full of adventures and tragedies as if this is our destiny. I used to participate in April 24 observances [Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day]. They were very painful. But that pain reminds us that we are also strong.”


Lena Shamliyanise Serdar spoke with Korucu in Yerevan and told him, “This ongoing Syrian war is our second genocide. My grandfather lived through the first genocide when they escaped to Syria from Urfa in 1915.”


Shamliyanise tried to explain to Korucu why she spoke of a second genocide: “The debate on genocide in Syria was not the massacres targeting Armenians but Yazidis. Until they were saved by the Kurdish YPG [People’s Protection Units] what Yazidis suffered under the IS [Islamic State] was labeled as genocide by the research commission set up by UN Human Rights Council. Why do some Aleppo Armenians call their experiences genocide after they have become families settled in Aleppo? That is the trauma of the original genocide. Armenians had the same experience during the Sept. 6-7, 1955, Istanbul pogrom. Istanbul Armenians lived through this pogrom, which actually targeted the Istanbul Greeks, but they believed they were facing a new genocide.”


Could the possible life-or-death choice of avoiding Turkey while trying to escape death in Syria be just the product of memory? Korucu said other factors are also involved, saying, “Syrian Armenians think that if they come to Turkey they will be mistreated because they are Armenians. One of them I spoke with in Yerevan said, ‘When they ask my identity in Turkey, I give different answers. Instead of saying I am a Syrian or an Armenian, I respond, depending on my mood, I am Lebanese or I am Bulgarian. There is no resentment of Lebanese in Turkey because they are not coming to stay. But Syrians have bad image. I was trying to avoid that.”


There is only one unnamed interviewee in the book, a Syrian Catholic Armenian who chose to stay in Turkey; Korucu said she represents the mindset and prevailing mood of Syrian Armenians. “I have been working with refugees since 2013. I interviewed hundreds of them in Turkey but never encountered the hesitation, the tension I saw in this Armenian woman I spoke with at Antakya,” Korucu said.

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