Armenia’s national airline, Armavia, has resumed regular flights to Syria amid a growing influx of Syrian nationals of Armenian descent fleeing the escalating violence in the troubled Middle Eastern state.
An Armavia plane flew to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, on Monday and returned to Yerevan the following day for the first time in nearly four months.
The company suspended the flight service in March, citing the worsening security situation. Air communication between the two countries has been carried out only by the Syrian Air airline since then. Its Yerevan-Aleppo flights have been fully booked until September, a fact that led to calls for Armavia to enable more Syrian Armenians to take refuge in their country of ancestors.
The Armenian carrier said late last month that it has decided to resume the weekly service at the request of Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Its spokeswoman, Nana Avetisova, said on Wednesday that all 104 tickets for its first July flight from Aleppo were quickly sold. Avetisova denied reports that Armavia has sharply raised the ticket prices.
Hundreds of Syrian Armenians are believed to have moved to Armenia in recent months. With no end to fighting in Syria in sight, thousands of others may follow suit in the following months. According to immigration authorities in Yerevan, about 3,000 of them applied for Armenian citizenship last year and another 2,700 in the first five months of this year.
Garbis Arabaltian, a middle-aged hairdresser from Aleppo, was among 320 people who arrived in Yerevan on a Syrian Air flight early on Wednesday. He was greeted at the Zvartnots airport by his teenage son, who migrated to Armenia two months ago and has already found a job at a Yerevan hotel. “It’s better to be in the homeland,” said the young man.
Arabaltian said his wife and younger son will join them soon. “My wife had a real ordeal last week,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “She was at a clinic where [armed men] terrorized a doctor.”
“Things are very tense,” said one woman. “We don’t know what will happen next. For example, there was an explosion yesterday. Everyone was shocked but fortunately … nobody was hurt.”
Not all arriving Syrian Armenians have decided to relocate to Armenia on a permanent basis. Some of them said they plan to stay in the country for several months and monitor further developments at home.
“This is our third trip to Armenia this year,” said one man who arrived at Zvartnots with his family. He said he will fly back to Aleppo later this month and will be joined by his wife and children in September.
He said the turmoil in Syria is not the only reason why they travelled to Armenia. “There is a desire to come to Armenia and this situation is helping us to do that. We also have [Armenian] identity and own a home here,” he explained.
There are an estimated 60,000-80,000 ethnic Armenians in Syria. The vast majority of them live in Aleppo.
Armenia’s government has been accused by the opposition and other critics of doing little to assist in their repatriation. Government officials and Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian in particular deny that. A senior official from Hakobian’s ministry told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that it has set up an ad hoc commission tasked with helping Syrian Armenians find housing and employment in the country.