The reverberations from US President Barack Obama’s recent declaration on the end of US combat operations in Iraq are being felt in Armenia. Hopes are rising among hundreds of Iraqi-Armenian refugees that they might soon be able to return to Iraq and regain a sense of economic security that has remained elusive in Armenia.
“In Iraq, we felt more masters of the country than we do here,” said Arshaluis Eghiazarian, an Iraqi-Armenian refugee who formerly worked as an energy company manager in Baghdad.
Prior to the US-led invasion in 2003, about 25,000 ethnic Armenians called Iraq home, according to the National Administration of the Armenian Community in Iraq, a Diaspora organization. Today, approximately 8,000 ethnic Armenians remain; most in Baghdad, with some population clusters in northern Iraq.
When fighting erupted, thousands of Iraqi Armenians opted to take advantage of Armenian Embassy’s offer to gain refuge in Armenia. The refugee experience proved hard for many, however. Most had difficulty finding jobs, and had trouble adapting to the new customs that they encountered in Armenia. As a result, the majority are hoping to resettle in third countries. And now returning to Iraq is another possibility.
Armenia currently has an official unemployment rate of 7.3 percent; a number that some researchers believe is actually closer to 27 percent. While jobs are scarce, the cost of essential goods and services, especially food, keep on rising. The negative economic trends are a major reason why refugees like Eghiazarian expressed mostly bitterness about their experience so far in Armenia.
Among the 26 Iraqi-Armenian families living in one apartment building in the village of Darbnik, a hamlet of 1,300 people eight kilometers from Yerevan, some blamed the United States for its intervention in Iraq, while others praised Washington for promoting democratic reforms. Regardless of their stance toward the US intervention, though, all of those interviewed recalled their lives under Saddam Hussein as a time of relative bliss.
“If not for the war, we would never have left Iraq,” said Mouna Barseghian, a mother of five, whose family moved to Armenia from Baghdad in 2004.
The three-storey apartment building where Barseghian and 150 other Iraqi-Armenians live was renovated with the assistance of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Viva-Cell-MTS, Armenia’s largest mobile phone operator. The refugee families were given full ownership of their apartments in 2009.
While thankful for their 70-square-meter flat, the Barseghians claimed that their Darbnik apartment was as big as the lobby of the Baghdad mansion they say they used to own. They complained about Darbnik’s dirt roads and lack of public transportation, but acknowledged that their lives were safer in this village than in Iraq.
“At least we know that if we go out, we’ll come back,” said Barseghian. Nonetheless, she complained, “living is expensive, wages low.” Barseghian’s husband works as a communications engineer, but she alleged the family could not make ends meet on his salary.
Since 2003, the UNHCR and Save the Children have provided monthly financial assistance and clothing vouchers, plus classes to give Iraqi-Armenian refugees needed language and job-hunting skills. This year, Save the Children also started a project to provide refugee families with farm animals. “If not for the UN and Save the Children programs and their assistance, we wouldn’t have survived,” Barseghian claimed.
The Armenian Migration Service has also provided assistance to help integrate Iraqi- Armenian refugees. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Diaspora plans to offer language training and job training opportunities to facilitate employment.
Azat Khachatrian, the village head in Darbnik, whose population is mostly made up of ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, suggested that Iraqi-Armenians have had a far easier transition than that experienced by other refugee groups.
“Many Iraqi Armenians are in a better condition now than compared to the Armenians who fled from Azerbaijan two decades ago,” Khachatrian said, in reference to the 1988-1994 conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh. “They were given newly restored apartments quite quickly. Their employment issues are being solved; it’s easier since the majority of them are craftsmen.”
Nonetheless most Iraqi-Armenians are eager to leave, said Vigen Ktikian, vice-president of the Iraqi-Armenian Union of Armenia. “It’s natural. Even locals do not have jobs here, and it is even more difficult for Iraqi-Armenians” who may not be as familiar with the language and customs, said Ktikian. “The best dentist in Baghdad, with a large clientele there, is now unemployed here.”
Reminiscing about a 100,000-dinar [about $85] bonus she once received from Saddam Hussein for a good job performance, refugee Eghiazarian mulled over the trade-off between being safe and being back home. “Our life turned upside down, but now I am thinking that if we are going to [experience hardship in Armenia], I’d rather we die of a bomb explosion in Iraq,” she said.
Iraqi-Armenians who have had better economic luck in Armenia are naturally not as eager to leave. Thirty-five-year-old Ani Margarian’s husband and his brothers have set up a successful car repair service in Yerevan. After four years in Armenia, Margarian says her family has adapted to their new life. “It seemed [at first] that government should have done more then they did, but now I understand that the country has so many problems,” said Margarian. “[W]e have settled here and it is safe. … So I won’t go back.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.