Life was tough for George, his wife Ani and their twins after they fled Syria’s war to Armenia but the COVID-19 pandemic has only made it harder. His work as a taxi driver dried up and Ani’s business baking bread for neighbours stalled.
They once had a prosperous lifestyle in the Syrian city of Aleppo and they tried as hard as they could to make ends meet in their new home. But as a national lockdown took hold, it was even difficult to pay rent on their apartment on the outskirts of the capital Yerevan.
“We have to struggle every day of our life in Armenia relying on the support from others, hoping for a better future for ourselves and our children,” said Ani. “We can hardly pay the bills.”
The family came to Armenia rather than heading somewhere new because it was the land of their ancestors. In some ways, that decision made their lives easier.
The family knew the language and, though they had to adapt to a different dialect and customs, it was easier than starting from scratch.
Around 22,000 Syrians have fled to Armenia since the war began in 2011 of which an estimated 14,000 remain.
The Syrian-Armenians have links to Armenia dating back a century and the government has welcomed them warmly, in part because of the cultural and historical connection. Their ranks include professionals such as doctors, engineers, IT specialists and teachers and many have business and artisanal skills valued in their new country.
“We welcome the support given by Armenians to displaced people.”
But life for many is difficult especially since the pandemic and it is estimated that some 500 families are in dire need of help with sustainable housing.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is providing humanitarian support in the form of cash assistance and other support to some of the most vulnerable. The support includes vocational training, micro-credit loans, tools to generate income, education in local marketing, as well as counselling and coaching.
In addition, UNHCR also advocates for the social and economic rights of Syrians and other displaced populations and promotes their inclusion in state programmes and development schemes on an equal basis with locals.
“We welcome the support given by Armenians to displaced people, who have struggled along with many local people during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNHCR has always advocated for the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced people in line with our mandate,” said Anna-Carin Ost, UNHCR’s representative in Armenia.
“Without this support, we would not be able to cope.”
The emergency assistance, distributed by the non-governmental organization Mission Armenia, has enabled the families to meet basic needs. UNHCR is also providing psycho-social support and counselling during the pandemic.
“Without this support, we would not be able to cope with the challenges that accumulate day by day,” said George. We started from scratch … but we were reaching some progress… but now the COVID-19 lockdown pushed us backwards, and that has been so painful.”
“The assistance we receive is life-saving for us,” said Ani, adding that they needed to juggle rent, food and paying for electricity.
For the 12-year-old twins, Salpie and Sahag*, lockdown has meant doing lessons online on a computer lent to them by their school, even though the internet connection is sometimes shaky.
Salpie said she wanted to become a singer, while Sahag, remembering the country where he spent his early childhood, imagined a career that could give his hopes for a better life concrete form.
“I want to become an engineer and construct beautiful houses with gardens. One day, I will build a big house like the one we had in Aleppo,” he said.
*Names changed for protection reasons
Originally published on UNHCR on 28 May 2020