Talin Vartanian is a Syrian-Armenian school teacher who arrived in Armenian two weeks ago with the hope of finding work and staying on due to the troubles now wracking Syria.
For the past seven years, Talin has taught biology at the Karen Jeppe Armenian High School in Aleppo. The school, with an enrolment of some 1,200, is named after the Danish missionary and social worker Karen Jeppe who assisted Ottoman Armenian refugees and survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
Before arriving, Talin filed for dual citizenship at the Armenian Consulate in Aleppo. “I filed out of a sense of national belonging. I want to be a citizen of Armenia,” she says, adding that she hopes to receive her citizenship paper in about two months.
She has already translated her diploma from Aleppo State University and has handed the certified documents to the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs here in Yerevan. The Ministry promised to assist Talin in finding some work but gave no specific deadline.
“I don’t know where to turn”
“I don’t know where to apply and have no idea if other institutions will accept us. I am still searching. I have two months to look. If things get worse back in Syria, I will stay here. But if I can’t find any work in Armenia, I’ll be forced to return. I’d like to remain here and get involved in something but I don’t know what,” Talin told me.
Classes at the Karen Jeppe High School resume in September.
Talin’s older brother came to Armenia eight years ago to study medicine since, as Talin states, the level of education is higher in Armenia. Then too, the issue of national “belonging” also played an important role. Here, there are Armenians at each turn. Her family bought an apartment in Yerevan back then and Talin feels this is a significant advantage, when compared to other Syrian-Armenians, given the price of real estate here.
Talin now lives with her brothers in Yerevan. Her older brother works as a dentist in a hospital and studies at the Medical University. Her younger brother is a first year student there.
Her parents and sister have stayed on in Aleppo. Talin’s sister is an English literature specialist and teaches at the Grtasirats Elementary School there.
The rest of my family will come to Armenia if there is work
“If I can find something here in the way of work, the rest of the family will come too. It will take a long time to resolve the problems now going on in Syria,” says Talin.
She says that the first aim of Syrian-Armenians coming to Armenia is to see whether or not they can find employment. Based on this, they will then decide whether to stay or not.
“Many have come to Armenian like me. Perhaps they have come as tourists and then will stay for three months. If things get worse back home, they will stay. If the situation improves, they will return. I haven’t met many Aleppo Armenians here. Diaspora Armenians have trouble finding work here. It’s tough starting a business here and often employers give the reason that ‘you aren’t a local Armenian’.” Talin notes.
While the Syrian army hasn’t entered Aleppo, Talin says the safety situation has suffered. You can walk the streets but not at night-time. There’s the constant threat of being robbed or kidnapped for ransom.
“If the government isn’t able to deal with the opposition, the situation will get worse. I think that Christians, especially Armenians, will start to think about emigrating. There’s no alternative. They will go to Armenia, America or Europe. Wherever it’s convenient,” Talin says.
Those establishments in Syria where Armenians worked prior to the current troubles are still open, but there is no commerce in Aleppo. Life in the city has expired.
“The state institutions are still open and paying salaries but that could change overnight. If things get worse, the government can declare that it can no longer pay any wages,” Talin says.
The young school teacher says the Aleppo Armenians want peace and see the current government as the only guarantor of peace. She says that the Armenian community enjoyed various religious and minority privileges under the Assad government.
She says that there are no Aleppo Armenians voluntarily engaged in military actions, but that some Armenian males have been conscripted into the Syrian Army.
No Armenians in Syrian Parliament for the 1st time
Talin laments the fact that as a result of the recent parliamentary elections there will be no Armenians represented in the legislature - a historic first. None of the three Armenian candidates in the race won.
“I think the Armenian community will face a tough time resolving the issues facing it. This was a real blow to the community,” she argues.
Various accounts put the number of Armenians living in Syria at 40,000 to 80,000. Some 45,000 are said to reside in Aleppo. No one can say for certain how many have left since the war began.
While Armenians have lived in Aleppo since ancient times, refugees fleeing the Ottoman massacres and the 1915 Genocide turned the city into one of the largest Armenian communities in the diaspora. There are entire neighbourhoods comprised solely of Armenians.
Talin says that she knows of not one Armenian in Aleppo who doesn’t speak Armenian. Many in fact, speak better Armenian than Arabic.
“I must say that it’s a great miracle that we all speak Armenian. Even the Arab shopkeepers have learnt Armenian just to be able to speak to us. Our ties with the local Muslims are so cordial, they feel the need to do this,” Talin notes.
She says that because there aren’t that many Armenians in Damascus, Homs and Qamishli, preserving the language is more of a problem.
The war, not assimilation, threatens Aleppo Armenians
Talin says that most Armenian parents in Aleppo send their kids to Armenian schools. Those who cannot afford to pay the tuition are assisted by community charitable organizations and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“Armenian children are not deprived of attending Armenian schools,” she says.
Lessons at the Armenian schools are taught in Arabic and state exams must be given in Arabic as well. This is because even private Armenian schools fall under the jurisdiction of the Syrian education system.
Talin points out that it is forbidden to speak Armenian during regular class sessions and that spot inspections can be held at any time to monitor this.
The advantage of Armenian schools is that there are 5-6 hourly classes of Armenian language instruction per week. Religion and literature classes are also in Armenian.
“During recess and in the school yard, all the kids speak Armenian. I speak to them in Armenian as well, but not during class,” Talin says.
She says that Armenian cultural life in Aleppo is quite active and there are always various events to mark religious and other holidays.
Talin told me that there really isn’t any threat of assimilation in Aleppo.
The only threat to the community is the current warfare raging throughout Syria. Talin says if the situation deteriorates, it just might lead to the loss of the community as a whole.
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