For Syrian Armenians, exodus evokes flight from genocide a century ago

A century after Armenian genocide survivors fled to Syria, their descendants are fleeing Syria for Armenia

Snare drums rustle and trumpets blare. Chocolates from a famed confectioner in Syria are handed out among the crowd. The hall falls silent. A minute of remembrance is observed for the more than 200,000 killed during almost four years of civil war in Syria.

Hundreds of ethnic Armenians from Syria, among the thousands who've fled here to escape the fighting, gathered recently in downtown Yerevan. They came together to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Armenian Central High School in Aleppo, Syria, a cornerstone of Armenian identity in a city now devastated by war.

"Armenian schools keep Armenian identity alive," said a woman who fled Aleppo as rebels rolled into the city in July 2012, and who, like others interviewed, did not want to be identified for security reasons. "My parents went there, I went there, the school is like..."

"A treasure for Armenians," another young woman chimed in.

The attendees had left their homes and businesses, schools and farmlands, fleeing to Armenia's capital as Syria descended into chaos. Many are descendants of people who had gone to Syria to escape the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1918 under the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place.

The current exodus is one of the most significant movements of ethnic Armenians since then.

"We are the descendants of those who survived the genocide," said Lena Halajian, who heads the Center for the Coordination of Syrian Armenians' Issues, a nongovernmental group here helping refugees adapt. "I fear history is repeating itself."

Participants at the celebration here read Armenian poetry as a video of the Aleppo school — showing a modest library and students, their hands stretched upward, fingers twitching as a teacher asked a question — flashed on a screen. A quartet including well-known Aleppo violinist Hovhannes Moubayed plays Dance of the Rose Maidens, by Aram Khachaturian, the late Soviet Armenian composer.

The violinist, 44, fled Aleppo more than two years ago, and, like others, he said he had embarked on a new life after leaving most of his belongings behind.

"Now I try to work as a music teacher," said Moubayed, who directed a state music school in Aleppo. "I've started [in Armenia] at the very bottom. But step by step, maybe I can survive."

Some refugees had been targeted by militants.

"They handcuffed and blindfolded me once they knew I was Armenian," said a Syrian Armenian who gave his name as Krikor. "Then they whipped and burned me."

Gnarled scars stretch up his forearms now, and he shuffles uneasily. In summer 2013, Krikor said, fighters with Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front abducted him from a shuttle bus in northwestern Syria's Idlib province. He escaped hours later and made his way to a government checkpoint, and safety. The experience convinced him it was time to leave.

Other Syrian Armenians have been kidnapped for their perceived wealth. Still others have been killed in the crossfire or for sectarian reasons. Syrian Armenians, part of the country's 10% Christian minority, have been targeted by militant Sunni Muslims, who have become the dominant part of the opposition.

Most Syrian Armenians speak Arabic and Armenian, a fact that has helped speed their assimilation in Yerevan.

Armenian schools play an integral role in preserving cultural roots among the massive Armenian diaspora. The Armenian General Benevolent Union, a nonprofit group promoting Armenian identity globally, provides funds for the Aleppo school. The high school remains open, but the population has plummeted.

"The problem is that it can be dangerous for students to travel there," said Hagop Mikayelian, 71, a former administrator at the school who was kidnapped by a rebel group and held for ransom in 2013.

In September, Islamic State militants reportedly bombed an iconic Armenian church and museum in the eastern Syrian city of Dair Alzour that memorializes victims of the Turks. Lost were rare documents detailing the mass killings, say community members, who also note that bones of some of those who perished were laid in the foundations of the now-destroyed monument.

"The memorial was living proof of what happened to Armenians," Halajian said. "They want to erase our history."

As Armenians worldwide prepare for centennial memorials in April, Turkish backing for Syrian insurgents is further fueling Armenian outrage. The government has supported sundry rebel factions, including radical Islamists, as it aggressively pursues its goal of ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

And last March, extremist fighters poured into the Syrian Armenian town of Kassab from across the border in Turkey. Most of the town's population fled south to territory still under control of the Syrian government. Kassab is celebrated among Armenians as a refuge for those who fled Turkey a century ago.

At the school anniversary gathering, a choir sings Armenian hymns as ceremonies come to a close.

Generations of graduates flood the stage, embracing while a photographer clicks away.

Special correspondent Johnson was recently in Yerevan. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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