Friday, 21 September

An Émigré’s Journey – Part 2

Where Do the Roads from Armenia Lead?

When I awoke the sky had brilliantly opened up. I was introduced to Lili's son who somehow managed to chat in Armenian. His most darling expression was "Armenian cognac". Evidently, he had heard the term from the grownups. The boy named everything Armenian that he liked – Armenian cartoons, Armenian pilaf, Armenian juice, Armenian cars...

The three of us went on a tour of the town's tourist attractions. When he got home, Lili's husband Artyom also returned carrying some heavy bags. He put the groceries in the fridge and asked,
-Anything else we need?
-No, Lili answered and began to cook, feed the child, wash the dishes and perform other chores.

I remembered that when we were rooming together, none of us could cook for beans. We ate packaged soups, boiled potatoes and pickles. Once, when we got real adventurous we prepared some dolma. Only after eating did we realize we had forgotten the salt.

Now, Lili was a real whiz in the kitchen.

-Yeah, we also need this, but not now. You know how much I've wanted to kick up my heels and act without a care in the world, like a kid again? Back then I hadn't even been on a plane. But now? I wish I never got in one. It was too early.

I tried to lift her spirits somehow.

Lili continued by saying:

"You might look at us and say things ain't so bad. But you can't imagine the difficulties we went through. They told us that the visas and paperwork would be cheaper if we went via Moscow. But they tricked us. We had to wait in Moscow and wound up spending all our money. We landed in Sweden with just a few Euros to our name. You know that's chump change for this country. There was nothing to eat and I was pregnant at the time. We turned ourselves in at this nearby camp. It was like living in a jail, even though they gave us a separate room. Boy, the people we lived with – Africans, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis; you name it. And the body odor and smell; wow. I had to change my clothes after each meal."

"When they gave us a place to stay there were four Arab families residing in the building. We were lucky. One of the Arab women really helped us out a lot. I was about to give birth but hadn't a clue what to do. I was in a lot of pain, but I figured it was normal. The woman told me not to worry. We finally made it to the hospital. The stress probably caused the complications later on. I always thought that my mother would be at my side when I gave birth. It was all so confusing; the strange faces around me. When I returned home with my child, it was that same Arab woman who told me how to wash and care for the baby."

"For several months I was too scared to do it myself; she would bathe my child. I took over when the baby got bigger. Who would have figured that an Arab woman would fill in for my mom? My life as a refugee has two stages; before and after childbirth."

"In the beginning, I missed my mother very much and would cry. I'd tell Artyom that I missed my family and the house back in Armenia. I'd tell him – let's go back. He'd tell me all this would pass, and it did. When the child was born, those longings faded away. You ask me if I don't miss Armenia and the people back home. Of course I do. It's just that the memories have receded down into depths of my soul where they remain."

"Even my mind has dulled. Don't you sense it? Like I'm waiting for something. If they would only grant us our papers. We'd feel like real citizens of this place. But they have already rejected us three times."

"When we first arrived we hadn't a clue. The rallies staged by Levon Ter-Petrosyan were in the news and the topic of the day. We were informed. But we just handed ourselves in. If we only thought things out like we do now, we would have long since gotten our citizenship papers. You'd be amazed at the stories Armenians concoct when they get here."

"Some act like they are crazy. Some have their kids taken from them for safe keeping until they get their papers. It's really astonishing what some people will do."

Lili told me all of this in a certain state of fear. I clearly saw that she wanted to flee; not to see or hear. But she had seen and heard it all – the stories told by Armenians during their refugee status interviews. Turns out that people would tell others waiting in line what tall tales they used that worked. It was a kind of self-help agency for fellow Armenians.

One such useful bit of information was the episode with Vazgen.

He turned himself in to the Swedish Migration Service. At the refugee camp he met Nora, a woman from Azerbaijan. The two agreed to help each other out.

They told the Swedish authorities that they were in love and couldn't go back to either Armenia or Azerbaijan. They were given an apartment and lived together for awhile. In time, they actually did fall in love. Vazgen's family isn't even aware of what happened.

My girlfriend said the couple is afraid to marry. She said all the Armenians, those with or without papers, were fond of Nora, especially after she learned Armenian.

Armenians without the proper papers cannot work. Those with papers don't want to work.

Most are engaged in buying goods stolen by Arabs and Africans and reselling them in Armenia. This is how they pay off their debts back home.

Some Armenians would even boast about it. "You know how much money I send back to Armenia each month? In Armenia, I couldn't have earned half of what I send back. Even if I worked all day and night," said one.

Once, when I suggested that the family might consider returning to Armenia, Lili's husband shot back, "Why should I return, Ani? Did you think I have chosen an undignified life? Just the opposite. To live a dignified life I had to come here. Here, yes, I obey all the laws and drive correctly. It's because this government respect those rights that I don't have. Armenia has become a great place for crooks. A normal guy walking the streets of Yerevan gets into a thousand fights and feels slighted. I am bringing the rest of my family here. We'll start a business and live normally. I'll feel respected and I'll respect others in turn.

I returned to Stockholm with a head full of jumbled thoughts. I was warmly received by a Swede named Tomas and stayed at his house. Tomas drives a bus and looked to be past 60. He lives alone and probably never got married. He skirted the issue in conversation. The house was an oasis of calm. Tomas was very kind and caring towards others. In fact, he would look for young kids in despair and trouble and help them out as best he could.

Not all Armenians who come to Sweden do so to be "respected" Most come to make money and there's a secret way to do so.

During the day, the refugees pass around various types of technical equipment – cameras, video recorders, computers, etc. In the end, this equipment takes on a used appearance and is sent to Armenia.

The Arabs came up with the ways to steal and passed them on to the Armenians. These Armenian thieves have special bags to get the stolen goods through the security machines at stores. They are lined with aluminum foil.

It seems that Kristineh, a girl who just turned herself in, wasn't so lucky. They arrested her a few days ago.

"They took her in for theft," said Lili. "It seems the bag she tossed the goods into wasn't completely closed and the security machine alarm went off. She arrived with her with her girlfriend and husband to make some money. Her husband is now in the refugee camp."

I had met the husband the first day I arrived when we turned off the road in the car driven by Artak, to drop off the cigarettes. Kristineh was released a few days later.

That day, Lili's husband invited her over for something to eat. She had to return to the camp later on.

Before Kristineh arrived, my girlfriend said she had grown tired of greeting such people.

I expected Kristineh to be somewhat dejected and resigned from the shame of being arrested. It turned out she was quite animated and in good spirits. She even had some fun on the internet, checking out the latest in the social networks.

Kristineh wasn't much of a talker though. When a telephone call came she immediately left the room. Lili seemed uneasy in her presence.

After Kristineh left, Lili turned to me and said,"Artyom makes out like he's a grandfather to all the Armenians who come here. He's always busy finding them a place to stay."

One of those he helped was Vahagn. He had graduated from the University's Legal Faculty but decided to come to Sweden to "make some money."

Before turning himself in, Vahagn had prepared his story for the interview.

Since he had a load of relatives in Sweden, one of the Armenian translators working at the Swedish Migration Service helped him prepare for the interview

Immediately after preparing his story of being deported from Armenia, Vahagn turned himself in.

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