- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 October 17, 2003 

From Baghdad to Yerevan: Families forced from Iraq are happy in Armenia

Former Iraqis are happy to be back home, even though they don't yet have houses of their own in Armenia.

When the Armenian day is closing the Avetisyan family gathers on the balcony of their three-room apartment to look, once again, at Mount Ararat colored by sunset.

"We always heard from our elders about this wonderful mountain but we had never seen it. Every day, every minute we look at it but still we miss it," says father of the family, 44 year old Andranik Avetisyan.

The family fled Iraq in 1999 to Jordan, as an unhealthy atmosphere begin to affect their lives in Baghdad.

"Saddam Hussein's regime was accompanied by robbers and murderers. When my husband wasn't at home we closed all windows, locked all doors and stayed at home," says Andranik's wife, 34 year old Silva Asaturyan. "In the street you must have always watched your children because they could be kidnapped for ransom."

There was no country to receive them as they were citizens of Iraq. Jordan offered six months' shelter, after which they would have to pay the government about $1 per day for each of the family's four members. The Avetisyans lived in Jordan for two and a half years, and on September 1, 2001 moved to Yerevan.

"We were forced to come here," Andranik says. "But we stayed with pleasure and we grew to like our country."

Silva excitedly interrupts her husband. Her eyes are filled with tears and her voice trembles, "Armenia is very charming. When I stepped onto the land I felt at once that it was ours, it was our city and nobody could tell us, 'who are you?'"

They came to Armenia with two daughters. Rita is 10 and Mariam is six. Their son, Levon, was born in December 11 last year and as they say, "Levon is Hayastantsi."

"When my son was born we still were citizens of Iraq. We applied to the Iraqi embassy to register my son's name in my passport as it is a common practice in Iraq. They refused saying that by Saddam's new order it is prohibited to take the name of another nationality," says Silva. In other words, the child could be registered in Iraq, but not with an Armenian name.

The Avetisyans are proud that their son Levon was born in Armenia and thus he is Hayastantsi.

So the Avetisyans renounced their Iraq citizenship and became citizens of Armenia.

According to Andranik, for getting Armenian passports they were told to present registration, but they had no registration (a residential address). And if you have no registration then you can't be admitted to citizenship.

"So we had to find a family that agreed to register all of us in their apartment for $200," says Silva adding, "many people earn money here that way."

The Avetisyans live in Yerevan's Zeytun district renting an apartment that costs $40 per month.

For the first six months they were in Armenia, Andranik had no job and the family lived off savings from Iraq. Now Andranik, an accountant by profession, is working as part of the construction team at the Hotel Armenia.

"The only thing I'm dissatisfied with is that it is hard to find work in Armenia and salaries are low," he says.

But Silva is quick to give perspective to her husband's mild criticism.

"Salary is low, $120," she says. "But I'm satisfied. Most of the things from my house were given to me by other people. I have nothing. In Armenia I don't even know whether we can ever buy an apartment or not. But I'm satisfied. My soul is at peace. I have no fears for my children. When Andranik is late I don't worry."

Andranik was born in Kirkuk and Silva in Baghdad. After getting married he lived secretly in Baghdad as, according to the law (since 1990), anyone not born in Baghdad cannot go there to live.

"You should have seen our house there, our stores, our cars. We were financially secure. But living for 32 years in a foreign land I never felt it was mine," says Silva.

Two months before the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq last spring, Silva also persuaded her sister, Susan's family to move to Armenia. They sold all their possessions and paid $20,000 to cross into Syria, including the necessary cost of arranging a "marriage" for the sister Emma, as unmarried women are not allowed to leave Iraq.

"My husband had been doing military service for 10 years," says Susan, age 37. "My 11 year old son, Heros, had already been taken for military training by that time. Many Armenians died during Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). I was terrified when I thought I could have lost my husband in this needless war."

Her husband, Harut Salatyan, 39, says Baghdad turned into an uncertain city.

Silva Asaturyan is enjoying every homework since her soul now is at peace.

"My wife was pregnant. Three children and my wife's sister were with us. We secretly escaped. In Baghdad people betrayed each other very often. They only wanted just to earn money."

Harut tearfully describes their flight from Aleppo to Yerevan.

"In Baghdad we were told that Ararat looks beautiful from above and that we should purposefully look at it. When we heard we were crossing the Armenian border I immediately started to look. The beauty astonished us."

The members of the two families excitedly interrupt each others' stories of resettlement. The adults speak Western Armenian, while the children talk like Hayasatantsi.

Heros studies in third form and is very happy he is in Armenia. He is asked why it is good for him to be here.

"I'm surrounded with Armenians and everyone speaks Armenian," he says.

Susan gave birth to a son, Shiraz. Both mothers are happy to have children born in Armenia.

"After genocide our forefathers emigrated to Iraq and we were born there," Susan says. "Our children were born here, and we pray to God their children will be born here too."

According to them many Armenians from Iraq come here and later leave for other European countries asking for shelter as Iraqi refugees.

"They are provided with an apartment and pension for all family members. My mother and brothers are in Sweden," Andranik says. "Silva's mother and brother escaped to Canada. But we are not going to leave this place. All of them are worried there because they are afraid one day they will be returned to Iraq."

But secure of her place in Armenia, all Susan says she worries about is the approaching cold.

The families say good bye to their guests while eight-year old Hury waves an Armenian flag, smiling.

According to Agnes
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