While walking the narrow streets in the vicinity of the Armenian Patriarchate one can hear Eastern Armenian being spoken. Pasted on the windows of the numerous internet telephone call centers in the area, one even eyes Armenian notices advertising the per-minute rates for calling Yerevan and Vanadzor.
There are about 3-5 thousand Armenians from the ROA residing in the vicinity of the Patriarchate. This was the number noted by several Armenians from Bolis active in community affairs.
These ROA Armenians rarely attend church services, most likely out of fear of being videotaped by the surveillance cameras mounted at church entrances. The comings and goings in all likelihood are monitored by the security services of the state. The Patriarchate itself is under heavy surveillance, a small police unit being posted on the street out in front with a series of video cameras strategically placed.
Armenians from the ROA started coming to Turkey as of 1992. In those early days they brought different electronic gadgets, gift items, crystal chandeliers, and cognac and food items along with them. Our Bolsahay acquaintances said that during those initial years they would purchase these items as a way of assisting their compatriots. Haroutiun, one of the reporters at the Agos newspaper, said that, “Later we realized we really had no need for this stuff so we stopped purchasing it.” He recounted the time when two ladies from Armenia had brought two overstuffed suitcases full of Armenian books to Bolis, thinking that Armenian books weren’t to be found there. When Armenians from the ROA saw that the merchandise they were bringing wasn’t selling in Bolis they began transporting Turkish goods back to Armenia. At the time none were entertaining the notion of staying in Turkey. They were fearful of doing so.
“At first we warmly welcomed these Armenians. We invited them to our homes and found work for them. Istanbul-Armenians don’t really have extravagant drinking toasts so when we heard the toasts of these Armenians at New Year’s gatherings we got all emotional and patriotic. They would say - your house is like a second home for us, a bit of the country we left behind. I believed they would work, amass some money, and then return to Armenia. But exactly the opposite happened. They got married and settled down. They even married Turks and Kurds. Then we found out something that really amazed us. We would find work for them but they’d then distribute these jobs to one another on a commission basis. They would take the passport of the job seeker as collateral, threatening not to return it if payment wasn’t made for services rendered. We only found out about this scheme two years after the fact.” recounts Bolsahay Gayaneh, our guide in Istanbul.
Afterwards, Armenians began exploring all possible ways to stay in Turkey. The fact remains that at the border only a 30 day visa is issued to all comers. Some return to the Georgian border when the 30 days are up, only to reenter Turkey for another 30 day period. A certain segment of women have actually married local citizens, but it’s only a small percentage that has married a Bolsahay. The rest have entered into marriages with Turks and Kurds and have thus obtained Turkish citizenship. Other schemes have also been tried. For instance, certain women have “separated” from their Armenian husbands and have married either Turks or Kurds. After a year or two they divorce their new husbands and remarry their former ones who are now eligible for Turkish citizenship as well. We weren’t able to find out what such a scheme costs to execute. While in Istanbul we met a woman from Yerevan who was able to obtain citizenship papers in this way. Today, her husband and two children are also Turkish citizens. Since there have been no studies or research on the matter it’s truly difficult to say how many Armenians from the ROA have obtained Turkish citizenship.
Most of the ROA Armenians living in Turkey reside in the cities of Istanbul and Trabizon. As to the question, what kind of work do they do in Istanbul, the simple answer would be, whatever they want. Furthermore, the majority of the bread-winners are women. Below is a list of the basic job sectors they’re employed in.
1. Home Care Attendants - These women care for the elderly and children at an average monthly salary of $600-700. Armenians covet such type of work since no documents are required and there’s a low-risk of being caught. In addition, their room and board is taken care of by the family or individuals who employ them. There’s no need to pay rent or money for meals. If the family is well-off the monthly wage can rise to $1,000.
2. House Cleaning - A substantial segment of women are employed in this sector. Such work is also deemed to be desirable with average monthly wages in the $300-500 range, depending on the generosity and resources of the individual employer. Some of the women work both for Bolsahay households and in Turkish ones as well, where the pay is higher. After learning the basics of the language many of the women go off to seek work in well-to-do Turkish households.
3. Commerce and the Service Industry - Women in these fields are employed in commercial shops, wholesale retail establishments, hotels and restaurants.
4. Sex Trade - Some women have also found work in this sector of the economy as well. They mainly are located on the port city of Trabizon and other resort towns along the coast. There are no statistics as to the number of women so engaged. Back when the human trafficking investigations were taking place in Armenia one frequently met the victims of this trade, those who willingly participated and those who were deceived into it. There are a number of well-known pimps who have been on the run from Armenian law enforcement and Interpol for years. Most of them permanently reside in Turkey. One of them, a woman from Ijevan called Gohar, married a Turk and changed her last name. In Trabizon, she’s the major player in getting Armenian women from the ROA involved in prostitution there. This, however, is a separate issue all together and one that “Hetq” will certainly cover at a later date.
As Armenian women became the main wage earners, shouldering most of the family responsibilities, many started to divorce their husbands later on. Bolsahay Gayaneh offers the following explanation for the high divorce rate, “Those who came here got divorced. The husbands would sit at home while the women worked. These wives found a certain freedom and they had every right to. They were out there earning a living while the men folk did absolutely nothing.”
It is much harder for the men to find work. They cannot be legally employed in any firm or company. Mostly, they find jobs in factories or in construction as laborers. A few have even found work in the jewelry trade. In the factories they mostly are shoemakers, tailors or porters. If they are caught as illegal workers it can translate into a whole lot of trouble for their employers. This is why many Bolsahays are quite wary of hiring ROA Armenians. Those caught illegally residing in Turkey are fined $1,500, their wages confiscated and summarily deported. It is not clear how many, if any, such Armenians are being detained in Turkish jails. One Bolsahay put it this way, “There aren’t any because no one is concerned enough to delve into the matter. In other words, there is no information.”
Why doesn’t the Turkish government deport Armenians illegally residing and working in the country? First and foremost, they are a political card to be played when deemed appropriate and the Turkish authorities don’t hesitate to raise the matter from official podiums at such times. Also, the Turkish economy needs cheap labor and these Armenians fill this gap to a small extent.
Bolsahay Gayaneh related to us what a police acquaintance of hers said on the matter, “When I spoke to this policeman he stated that they didn’t want to round up the Armenians because there’s no Armenian Embassy here. If we round them up we’d have to take care of them. The government would have to foot the bill of housing and feeding them in the jails. But the police know exactly who lives where.”
Why then do Armenians from the ROA travel to Turkey? After all, every Armenian knows the history of the Genocide and thus subconsciously the Turk is to be considered enemy #1. Turkey is the closest country to Armenia where one can travel to at minimal cost. For $100 one can reach Trabizon or, better yet, Istanbul. The second reason is that it’s safer than say, Russia. In addition, living costs, that’s to say apartment rentals, are cheaper too. Ideal conditions for trade and commerce exist as well. You can buy goods and immediately ship them anywhere you like. On the streets of Istanbul you can see Azeris, Georgians, Moldovans and of course Russians as well. A working knowledge of Russian is considered an asset when applying for a job in a restaurant or store. In a word, the city of Istanbul not only entices one with its blue straits and seas, it historical monuments and temperate climate, but also as a center of commerce, where meals are cheap and there’s an abundance of inexpensive hotels and the people, on the whole, hospitable.
When I asked Bolsahay Gayaneh about the Armenian community in Turkey she swiftly countered, “Please don’t call us a kaghout.” (The Armenian for “colony”, a word mainly used to describe Diaspora Armenian communities) In fact, it would be absurd to describe an Armenian still living in Sassoun as being part of the Armenian kaghout in Turkey. That individual is living in his native home, where he was born and where Armenians have lived for consecutive millennia.
Jan Gavrilof, another Bolsahay acquaintance, put it this way, “Our community is really the most misfortunate of all. Are we a colony or not? Yes, we are a colony in the sense that Istanbul isn’t historic Armenian land. But, we are not a colony since Istanbul is in Turkey, where my fatherland once existed. I was born here. So were my father and grandfather. We Armenians have been here for thousands of years.”
After the deportations Jan’s grandfather, not able to make a go of it in Russia, returned to Turkey in 1920. At the border when asked his nationality he told them, I’m a Russian and my last name is Gavrilof.
Istanbul - Yerevan