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Sara Petrosyan

Lack of Finances, Poor Planning Doomed "New Aleppo" Housing Project in Armenia

A plan to build a housing complex outside Yerevan for Armenians, first conceived more than a decade ago, never got off the ground due to a host of organizational and financial problems still disputed by the parties involved.

The plan to construct the neighborhood, to be called “Nor Haleb” (New Aleppo), took shape in 2012. The concept, proposed by then Minister of Diaspora Affairs Hranoush Hakobyan won the approval of the Armenian government and the local Ashtarak Municipal Council.

The parcel of land in the Aragatzotn town of Ashtarak, a short drive from Yerevan, remains barren.

Of the thousands of Syrian-Armenians who fled to Armenia to avoid the conflict in Syria, most preferred to live in Yerevan.

"The majority of Syrian-Armenians didn’t want to live outside of Yerevan, because there it’s the one city in Armenia that has infrastructure, and the quality of education and healthcare in other communities is not sufficient," says Vardan Marashlyan, co-founder and executive director of the Return to Armenia Foundation.

In 2015, Lena Haladjian, who ran an NGO called the “Coordinating Center for Syrian-Armenian Problems” told Hetq that the plan was to build 488 apartments for those who escaped the war in Syria. The estimated cost was US$30 million, and the hope was that benefactors would raise the bulk of the money and that those who signed up for apartments would provide the remainder. The larger the apartment, the more future residents would pay.

At the time, Haladjian told Hetq her organization had received 660 applications for housing at Nor Haleb and that a bank account was opened for benefactors to contribute to the construction drive.  She said 52 million AMD ($109,148) had been donated.

Hakobyan says Yerevan Municipality architects and the Tutunjian family from Qatar covered the costs of the blueprints for the apartment complex.

The former minister, who served until Nikol Pashinyan came to power in Armenia in 2018, claims Syrian-Armenians told her they had no money to pay their share for the apartments and wanted them for free.

 "Our country was established, strengthened, developed. We were not France or England, and we could not build free neighborhoods for them," says Hakobyan.

Vardan Marashlyan, the deputy Diaspora minister at the time, says he was against the idea of building a neighborhood for the Armenians from Syria.

 "I was against it in the sense that a ghetto should not be formed. They should not live separated and isolated even outside of Yerevan. They should be integrated," says. Marashlyan.

He says the idea was not bad, but faster and more flexible solutions to solve the housing issue were needed. Building a new neighborhood was a long-term process and some newcomers would leave the country.

Marashlyan argues that many Syrian-Armenians were in no position to assume such long-term financial obligations given the restrictions on selling their assets in Syria.

"At that time, there were many apartments for sale in Yerevan. Perhaps one could think of an option, thanks to which they could receive an interest-free loan from the state or, through a state-diaspora joint fund and purchase real estate. The money they were given for rent was given to have their own apartment," says Marashlyan.

In 2019, six years after the apartment complex failed, the Ashtarak Municipality demanded the return of the five hectares of land it donated to the “Coordinating Center for Syrian-Armenian Problems”. The land was returned that same year.

Hakobyan says that during the first two years of their stay in Armenia, Syrian Armenians thought the war would end soon and they would return to Syria.

Thus, Hakobyan claims, they demanded their children attend Arabic language schools.  In response, the government opened such a school were 402 Syrian-Armenian children were studying.

Hakobyan says when the civil war in Syria intensified, she convened a meeting with parents and convinced them to enroll their children in local Yerevan schools.

The former minister says the Armenian government granted business loans to Syrian-Armenians and resolved many of their bureaucratic problems like shipping equipment to Armenia customs free.

“They opened car washes, then opened restaurants and cafes, and established small pastry factories. We organized the sale of their handicrafts in different places and advertised the products,” Hakobyan says.

Hakobyan now claims she got a call from Grand Holding CEO Hrant Vardanyan, who said he’d donate $100,000 to assist the Syrian-Armenians and that she wanted to use the money to buy houses for them in various villages or build apartments. (The company is Armenia’s main producer of cigarettes and candy.)

“I invited Syrian Armenians, representatives of all structures and parties, the Armenian Benevolent General Union, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, traditional political parties and other organizations. I told them that I am making the first investment on behalf of Hrant Vardanyan, 100 thousand dollars, and let's think about building New Aleppo. They were also excited. I requested they list how many people and under what conditions they want to have an apartment. I suggested establishing a non-governmental organization, electing a council, and opening an account so that they can manage the funds themselves," Hakobyan says.

 The Coordinating Center for Syrian-Armenian Problems NGO was thus created to coordinate the assistance efforts and the Ministry of the Diaspora issued an appeal to citizens of Armenia to support the New Aleppo project. The ministry claimed 100,000 Armenians from Syria had moved to Armenia and needed housing.

In September 2014, then Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan hosted a   Kuwaiti parliamentary delegation. The head of the Armenian-Kuwaiti parliamentary friendship group, Faisal Fahad al-Shay, noted that Kuwait was ready to support the construction of the New Aleppo district. No money was ever donated.

George Barseghian, now chairman of the “Coordinating Center for Syrian-Armenian Problems”, says the diaspora, unfortunately, did not respond to calls to donate funds for the project.

Hakobyan says $ 243,000 was collected in total, of which $100,000 was donated by Hrant Vardanyan.

Marashlyan says the Armenia government should have stepped in financially rather than relying on donations from the diaspora.

“The state's support for immigrants should have been to develop certain schemes related to the purchase of apartments, to subsidize the purchase of apartments, setting conditions. For example, if they live in Armenia for 5 or 10 years, if they leave, then paying off the subsidized interest becomes their obligation. With that, you connect a person with the country, you create financial leverage,” he tells Hetq.

The number of Syria-Armenians who moved to Armenia and the number who still live in the country is open to debate.

Hakobyan says that from 2012 to May 2018, some 21,000 Syrian Armenians immigrated to Armenia and received Armenian passports. Only 3,500 people left the country.

“There were people who had relatives in Sweden, America and Canada and moved there. There were rich people who went to developed countries to get a better life, better education,” she says.

Barseghian says number of Syrian-Armenians in Armenia is now 8,000.

Top photo: New Aleppo apartment complex on paper

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