Navigating the Syrian Crisis: An Interview with Zepure Reisian

The following interview with Zepure Reisian, an Aleppo-based member of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) Central Executive, was conducted at the Armenian Weekly offices in late August. It provides a glimpse into the challenges facing the Armenian community in Syria, and the efforts to alleviate those difficulties.


The Armenian Weekly: How would you describe the situation in the Armenian-populated neighborhoods of Aleppo today? How safe are they?

Zepure Reisian: Let me first say a few words about the demographic makeup of the Armenian-populated neighborhoods in Aleppo. As you know, millions have been displaced as a result of the war, and many in Aleppo have taken refuge in relatively safer areas of the city; as a result, the neighborhoods in question have witnessed a demographic change as well.

ARS volunteers prepare means for needy families in Syria

The Nor Kyugh region has the largest concentration of Armenians. In 2012, the area was the scene of clashes. That year, many families left their homes and took refuge in the houses of relatives or in houses provided by the Aleppo Armenian Emergency Relief Committee. Fortunately, no Armenian family has remained without a home—they all have found a shelter. However, despite being in the same city, they haven’t been able to return to their homes, which are under the control of rebels.

In terms of security, there is no safe moment; there are only relatively calmer periods. The situation can flare up at any moment. In the Nor Kyugh region especially—and there are Armenians still living there—clashes resume often, and shells fall on buildings that still house some residents. In such cases, Armenian volunteers rush to the area to help extinguish fires and assist the population.

During the severe shelling on Nor Kyugh, when it was necessary to transport the area’s population in an organized manner to safer areas and underground shelters, Armenian volunteers took on that responsibility. When Aleppo was in need of water or during bread shortages, again volunteers provided water and distributed bread to the needy. The sacrifices of these heroic volunteers are countless and praiseworthy.


A.W.: The school year is around the corner. Tell us about the situation of the schools.

Z.R.: Several schools that were caught in the crossfire or were in unsafe areas have stopped operating over the past several years, and the students have moved to other schools. For example, students of schools affiliated with the Armenian Prelacy were moved to the Gulbenkian School, and are using the school’s building during the morning and afternoon shifts. Naturally, under these circumstances, certain classes were removed from the curriculum—for example, physical education and arts and crafts sessions.


A.W.: What are the major challenges facing the community today?

Z.R.: Initially, the main concern was over security and safety. Soon thereafter, though, economic hardship began to overshadow the security challenges. Many people lost access to their stores and businesses, and while some found alternatives in safer areas of the city, many others remain jobless and without an income. The high rate of inflation has only made things worse. Under these circumstances, there is a good number of families that cannot survive without humanitarian assistance.

The war has taken a toll on everyone. Working in schools, we notice how children have been affected by the harsh conditions. Often, the cues are very subtle—the sparkle in their eyes is no longer there. When we look at old photographs of the schoolchildren, the differences become all the more obvious. We do our best to keep their morale high, but outside of those few hours at school, they are, unavoidably, faced with the harsh realities of war.

For example, recently, during the hottest days of the summer, the water shortages took a heavy toll on everyone. People mainly tried to resolve this problem by trying to obtain water from the wells. Every morning, families would first tackle the water problem before going about their lives.

Electricity shortages have become the norm for several years now. Initially, families spent many nights—even New Year’s Eve and holidays—under candlelight. Over time, solutions—although costly—were put in place. Electricity generators replaced the candles in many households. Today, these solutions provide 8-10 hours of electricity every day, and neighborhoods are no longer covered by a blanket of darkness. Still, there are many families that cannot afford to pay the weekly electricity fees, and spend their evenings under the candlelight.

People’s resilience has been worn down over time. Many people nowadays cannot deal with the darkness at nights, and often pay for electricity at the expense of other necessities.

The greatest of challenges, of course, is the uncertainty. There is no hope on the horizon. The attempts at negotiation, and the ongoing clashes on many fronts, are constant reminders that this situation may continue for much longer. One cannot plan for the future. All one can do is fend for oneself and one’s family in the present.


A.W.: Talk about the efforts of the ARS in Aleppo, and the challenges the organization faces as it tries to alleviate the difficulties.

Z.R.: The local ARS body, the Syrian Armenian Red Cross, is part of the Emergency Relief Committee, and is fully engaged in the efforts of that committee. The Red Cross’s center in Nor Kyugh was damaged and forced to shut down early on during the conflict. Thus, the infirmary and medical services divisions were moved to another location, where they continue to this day. Our relief operations have also been moved to other locations, depending on the security situation.


A.W.: What kind of assistance does the ARS provide?

Z.R.: The ARS distributes food and other provisions to around 350 families every month. On holidays, we have special packages that help families maintain their holiday traditions—eggs for Easter, ingredients for cakes and cookies, etc. At different junctures, we’ve also provided additional financial aid to the needy.

Before the war, the Syrian Armenian Red Cross was self-sufficient. As the conflict progressed, we began to heavily depend on the support of the ARS bodies worldwide, coordinated by the Central Executive of the organization. Their support has been instrumental, and many program were implemented thanks to the assistance we received. Here is a brief overview of those programs.

In April 2012, the ARS was the first Armenian organization to initiate a worldwide fundraising effort to support Armenian schools in Syria. In that period, we provided schools with $100,000, through a fund that was established later that year—the Tbrots Fund. The following year, we provided $75,000. During the 2014-15 academic year, we were able to provide $40,000 to the same fund.

The Hot Meal Program has provided meals prepared at our centers to needy families several times a week since October 2012. This program has had a tremendous impact. Many families tell us that even when the meal is provided on a weekday, they sometimes feast upon it on the following Sunday, as they can rarely afford cooking food with meat.

In 2013, when there was a fuel crisis and gas prices skyrocketed, the ARS initiated the Warm House Program, distributing the equivalent of $100 in Syrian pounds to each family, so that they may secure, at least in part, the fuel necessary for heating their homes in the winter cold. The funds were distributed in the beginning of two winters.

Some of our programs have been able to expand or to provide additional support thanks to the initiative of the ARS regions. For example, under our Amanor (New Year) Program, the ARS of Canada funded the distribution of jackets and sweaters to children during the Christmas season.

The ARS of Eastern U.S., in turn, supported several projects focusing on assistance to families. The first round supported families with newborn children in 2013, at a time when procuring food and medication for babies had become extremely expensive. One hundred and sixty families received such assistance in three phases. Later, as international organizations began providing support for families with newborns, the program shifted focus towards families with many children. Here, too, the funds provided by the ARS Eastern region supported many such families.

I would like to note that non-Armenians also receive support from us. For example, when a few years ago a significant amount of assistance was sent from Armenia through the “Oknir Yeghport” initiative, the assistance was also distributed to non-Armenians in our neighborhoods. Similarly, an international organization currently uses Aleppo’s Dikranian Center and its volunteers to provide daily meals to the area’s population, Armenians and non-Armenians alike. There is no discrimination. Conversely, the we also receive food bags from the Red Crescent and distribute it to the people.


A.W.: Many Syrian Armenians have been internally displaced or have left the country. Can you talk about this exodus?

Z.R.: The Armenian population of towns like Tel Abyad, Arabpunar (Kobane), and Der Zor were forced to vacate their towns. As we discussed earlier, Armenians in some parts of Aleppo were also displaced internally, moving to safer areas in the city. Others temporarily moved to Latakya, Tartus, and nearby areas.

A second group has temporarily moved to Lebanon. Others have moved to Armenia. Among these, there is a significant number that wishes to return after the war. Still others have moved to Western countries.

The community leadership cannot and does not ask or force anyone to remain or leave. This is a decision that is taken by the families themselves. There is currently no effort to evacuate the community, however. Such a step implies tremendous responsibility, and we are not in imminent danger as, for example, the Yezidis on Mount Sinjar were. Yes, the situation is volatile, the shelling is ongoing, and battles rage on. However, moving an entire community has tremendous implications, and the truth of the matter is that even those who have moved to Armenia continue to face serious difficulties.

It is our wish that those who have already moved to Armenia receive the necessary support from the Armenian authorities to remain in the country and not use the country as a transit point to the West. After all, if a family wants to leave Aleppo, Armenia should be the most viable destination.


This interview was conducted by G.B. for the Armenian Weekly.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: Navigating the Syrian Crisis: An Interview with Zepure Reisian

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