Fleeing violence, finding home


Armenian Christians persevere in the Middle East and the motherland

by Cara Taylor and Talin Topalakian | Mission Crossroads

Jan, Kohar and their children spent a year seek refuge in Armenia. Even with all of the difficulties and insecurity, they prefer to live at home in Syria. (Photo courtesy of Kohar)

Syria — “We were only surviving, not living,” Kohar recalled of the war years since 2011 — before her family fled Syria.

When sniper-fire hit her husband, Jan, getting medical care for his foot was a battle — prices were skyrocketing and doctors were scarce. The wealthy who could leave already had. Like everyone left in the rubble of the once prosperous, diverse city of Aleppo, these two minimum-wage earners needed help. The Jinishian Memorial Program (JMP) — part of a network of churches and charities giving hope to the desperate — came alongside with health and social services.

Kohar held out hope until September 2016, when a rocket destroyed their home, terrorizing the children. In a matter of days, they found a way out.

Along with 22,000 ethnic Armenians, they retraced their ancestors’ journey, leaving home for homeland. Armenia was eager to welcome them. Most would not call themselves “refugees.” In the 1915 genocide, Ottoman death marches had scattered this first Christian nation into the Syrian desert. Then Soviets ruled the Caucasus until 1991, but now the fledging republic of Armenia is in a season of renewal.

Kohar’s young family claimed their one-way tickets from Aleppo to Yerevan, six months’ rent to get settled and obtain their new Armenian citizenship.

“At first we went with hope,” Kohar said. But dreams dissolved as they struggled to make a decent living as a janitor or caretaker. They hadn’t expected to feel like foreigners. “It was very strange and painful,” she said.

Locked in by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia faces deep poverty and high unemployment. Here, JMP is on a mission to develop sustainable communities for indigenous Christians. It’s a cause that Woodside Presbyterian Church in Yardley, Pennsylvania, has joined. “We realized the need for a strong and flourishing nation built on the rock of Jesus Christ,” says pastor Doug Hoglund.

JMP farm cooperatives, entrepreneur coaching, business loans, innovative health-care systems and extensive debate and youth leadership programs engaging 5,000 students each year have all contributed to major shifts in society. By spring 2018, these movements successfully achieved the historic “velvet revolution,” unseating a corrupt government and strengthening Armenia’s democracy.

The pull back to Syria, however, was too strong for Kohar. When she and her family heard that Aleppo was safe in late 2017, they decided to return to their birthplace.

“Here is where I grew up,” Kohar explains. “Here, my parents and friends live. I’m used to life here. Even working for others, my husband feels better.”

In post-war Syria, JMP focuses on medical assistance and housing needs. Funds helped Kohar’s family open a spice shop. Returning has its risks: They’re renting until costly repairs are possible, and the children still suffer trauma. But their smiles reflect the dignity of people at home.

Share the vision to help Armenian Christians thrive by giving to the Jinishian Memorial Program: pcusa.org/donate/E051792

This article is from the Fall 2019 issue of “Mission Crossroads” magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers within the U.S. three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission and also available online at pcusa.org/MissionCrossroads.

Cara Taylor is a communications associate with the Jinishian Memorial Program.

Talin Topalakian, who contributed to this article, is the Jinishian Memorial Program’s country director for Syria.


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