War in Syria challenges the Armenian diaspora

To understand why Zaven Khanjian wants the Armenian community in Syria — a dwindling population caught in the crossfire of civil war — to endure, you have to go back nearly a century.

Long before in-fighting began more than two years ago, Armenians settled in Syria after being driven out of Turkey during the genocide of 1915.

Destitute and sick, the Christians were welcomed by the mostly Arabic Syrians and flourished, especially in Aleppo, a city close to the Turkish border and hard hit by war between rebel forces and the sitting government.

"We want the community to survive as long as the war is going on," Khanjian, a Glendale real estate agent and Aleppo native, who leads the nonprofit Syrian Armenian Relief Fund, said.

But while many Armenians may feel indebted to Syria — a country that welcomed them when they were at their lowest point — thousands continue to flee amid an increase in the number of kidnappings and reported damage to homes and churches.

Even an Armenian genocide memorial has been ransacked, said Lena Bozoyan, chairwoman of the Armenian Relief Society of Western USA's executive board.

Humanitarian aid is the primary goal, but there's also a deeper desire to prevent an Armenian community with historical significance from disintegrating completely.

"The dwindling of the community in Syria will have a detrimental, long-term impact for the cultural vibrancy of the diaspora as a whole," said Ara Sanjian, director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

But the effort to preserve the diaspora in Syria is increasingly difficult as fighting rages on, especially in Aleppo, which claims the largest Armenian population. Most Armenians with roots there are known to be loyal to the current regime, but Khanjian said philanthropic efforts out of Glendale are apolitical.

The U.S. recently announced plans to bolster support of the rebels after determining that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its own people.

The Syrian Armenian Relief Fund, launched last year in partnership with Glendale-based Armenian Relief Society and other Armenian philanthropic groups, has sent $500,000 in assistance to struggling Syrian-Armenians. Organizers raised another $100,000 at a benefit concert in Hollywood two weeks ago.

The money is sent to a coalition of Armenian nonprofits in Syria that doles out food, clothing, construction materials for damaged buildings, and medical care to the needy. During Armenian Christmas in January, the group dispersed cash to about 5,000 families, Khanjian said.

Before the fund started, the Armenian Relief Society had already collected $100,000 for Armenian schools.

But there are some things the fund won't pay for, such as relocation costs.

"We want our people to stay there," Bozoyan said.

Population estimates vary, but Sanjian, of the Armenian Research Center, said that before the conflict began, there were about 70,000 Armenians in Syria, 70% of them in Aleppo. Armenian news agencies have reported that more than 10,000 have fled to Lebanon and Armenia, but some estimates peg the exodus as being almost twice that.

Syria's 22.5 million people are 90% Arab, with Kurds, Armenians and others making up the rest of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook. Armenian is widely understood in the country, although it's a different dialect than what's spoken in Armenia — a hurdle for incoming refugees.

While the Armenian government has adopted several measures to ease the transition — such as permitting Syrian drivers licenses — the country is struggling economically and many Syrian-Armenians yearn to return home, Khanjian said.

But home continues to be plagued by stray bullets, power blackouts and kidnappings, some of which reverberate even here in Glendale.

At St. Gregory Armenian Catholic Church in Glendale, the congregation — many of whom are Aleppo natives — pray at Mass for a Catholic priest who was kidnapped five months ago. Who took the priest is unclear, said Fr. Antoine Noradounghian, also from Aleppo.

"Everybody is telling you something different," he said.

Kevork Krajian, a Glendale resident and doctor who moved here from Aleppo about nine months ago, said for a while the war hadn't encroached on his hometown, until one day, an 80-year-old man came into his radiology office.

The man had been drinking coffee on his balcony when an object fell from the sky, puncturing his back. Krajian couldn't take an X-ray because the electricity was out, but the man refused to go to another doctor.

When power was restored, the X-ray showed a stray bullet had punctured the man's right lung. He survived, but others weren't so lucky. One of Krajian's friends died after a piece of shrapnel tore through his stomach, kidney and spleen while walking to work.

Already U.S. citizens, Krajian, his wife and two sons — one of whom has autism — were able to quickly flee the violence. They had lived in Glendale for seven years prior to moving back to Aleppo in 2009 with dreams of starting an autistic school in Syria.

That dream was quashed after the building he planned to use for the school, his parent's summer home, fell under an area controlled by rebel forces.

Despite being unemployed, Krajian said he is happy to start a new life in Glendale, but is heartsick about the people he left behind.

"How can you not be sad or upset?" he said. "Our stability is gone."


Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.

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