YEREVAN, Armenia – He still has the same cell phone, an early smartphone purchased in Aleppo before Syria’s three-year-long conflict turned the life of this formerly well-off businessman upside down. On it are photos of a life now long gone – a happy extended family of Syrian-Armenians posing in its well-appointed home, unaware of what was to come.
In Aleppo, Sako, 60, owned an auto-repair business that employed 15 workers. He made a substantial amount of money, he says – enough to buy four apartments in Aleppo and two cars, and eat out regularly at the city’s pricier spots. Then the war hit his business, forcing him to flee with his wife to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where years earlier he had sent one of his sons to study to be a pharmacist.
Now he rents and operates a small, tidy falafel and shwarma stand in the center of town, while his wife, a former anesthesiologist, manages another outpost next door. Here, they share a one-bedroom apartment with several other family members. There are no more nice cars, few restaurants, no employees to perform the manual labor.
“It’s like going from a royal lifestyle to a gypsy lifestyle,” he says.
Sako and his wife, also 60, are among tens of thousands of people seeking refuge in Yerevan. While hundreds of thousands of refugees wear out their welcome in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, the government of Armenia, which considers itself the global center of the diaspora, sees the thousands of Syrian-Armenians fleeing the conflict as undertaking a homecoming of sorts. UNCHR has estimated that there were up to 80,000 Syrian-Armenians living in Syria before the conflict, and that 11,000 of them have moved to Armenia.
On a hot summer day, Sako served falafel on the shady, tidy patio of his kiosk and discussed adjusting to life now – and dealing with memories of a different time:
I left Aleppo two years ago and came directly to Armenia, it was September 11, 2012. We were doing very well. We had four apartments in Aleppo. We had a spare car-parts business in the industrial area. That’s where our garage was.
Business was very good. And it was good even after the conflict started. People still needed auto parts. But when violence finally reached Aleppo, it stopped. Six months before coming to Armenia, the business just stopped. Because of the lack of security on the roads, we weren’t able to go to our workplace. It was 15 kilometers away from my house, and the journey was very dangerous. I won’t give you an exact figure, but I had a 93 percent drop in profits. There, I had 15 workers. Here, it’s just me. I am the only worker.
I had two cars, a Hyundai Sonata and a Kia. Then cars for my wife and my son. At least once a week, we went to nice restaurants and cultural events.
Before we came, we were very connected to Armenia because my oldest son studied pharmacy here. I sent him here to study. A year before coming here, we applied for Armenian passports. We came here to sign the papers and things got even worse in Aleppo, so we couldn’t go back. We stayed for good. Remember, Armenia is not taking all Syrians, it’s taking only Armenian-Syrians.
A lot of Syrian-Armenians who are here now who came after the conflict are not finding proper jobs, it’s been a lot more difficult. After we came, we were here for nine months doing nothing. We had savings. [Still], we didn’t have enough cash, but I had relatives who loaned me money. After nine months I realized I wasn’t going back to Aleppo and I would be here a long time. I knew I could prepare good food, good sandwiches, so I decided to rent this place and start the business.
I used to wake up at 8 a.m. and go to work at 9 a.m. At 5 p.m. I would close. But I did nothing with my hands, I was the boss and managed 15 workers. Now I wake up at 7 a.m., I go to the market at 8 a.m. At 10 a.m. I come here and open the kiosk and I work until 12, 12:30 a.m. at night.
Now we go out maybe once a month. In the winter, I never go out at night but in summer, once a month. Still, this all hasn’t affected me much psychologically, because I like to work.
We are living in a one-room apartment, all of us together. We’ve been trying to find another place close to this area but everything is too expensive. Our main residence in Aleppo was 170 square meters, six rooms. We had central heating and air conditioning. My kitchen was as big as this [restaurant]. Our things are all still there, locked in the apartment.
The other three apartments, I bought for my sons. My biggest worry now is to be able to get back to Aleppo to sell everything and to have money for me and my sons for the future. Everything is standing still, locked, I can’t sell the apartments or do anything. I only wish to go back to Aleppo in order to sell my homes and my workplaces. At the time we left, I was in the middle of expanding my business.
Some of my workers went to Latakia and are working in different places, some are in Beirut and some joined the Free Syrian Army. I’m only in contact with the workers who are still in Latakia.
I miss my home, my lifestyle, my freedom, my social life. Some of my friends are still in Aleppo, others have gone to Beirut, to the U.S. At night when I can’t sleep, I stay awake and I talk to them. Before the conflict, I didn’t have too much to worry about. Everything was on track in my life. My sons had finished their military service, I had secured their futures. I had done well.
I don’t have one particular outstanding fear. I’m healthy and working and good. My major concern is to be able to go back and sell my belongings so that I can buy a home here and establish myself. I’m not thinking of going back, or staying here. I’m thinking about emigrating to the U.S.
Sako’s name has been changed and his answers have been edited for clarity. Katarina Montgomery and Syria Deeply contributor Abu Leila contributed reporting.