YEREVAN, Armenia — At the newly opened Cilician School in this former Soviet republic, the textbooks are in Arabic, photocopied from a single set flown out of war-torn . The curriculum is Syrian, the flag on the principal’s desk is Syrian, and the teachers and students are all Syrians.
They are also ethnic Armenians, driven by Syria’s civil war to a notional motherland most barely know.
“Those who are coming here clearly want to go back,” said the school’s principal, Noura Pilibosyan, who came from Aleppo, Syria, in the summer. “Armenian is our language, but our culture is Syrian. It is hard to come here.”
Their ancestors fled the Ottoman genocide in what is now Turkey nearly a century ago and flourished in Syria, reviving one of the many minority groups that have long coexisted there.
Now, the flight of Syrian Armenians — one of many lesser-noticed ripple effects that could reshape countries well beyond Syria’s neighbors — is raising questions about the future of Syria’s diversity. And it is forcing Armenia, which depends on its strong diaspora communities to augment its otherwise scant geopolitical heft, to make delicate calculations about whether to encourage their exodus or slow it.
For now, Armenia is hedging its bets. It is sending aid to Armenians in Syria, helping them stay and survive. But it is also helping them come to Armenia, temporarily or permanently, by fast-tracking visas, residency permits and citizenship.
“Our policy is to help them the way they tell us to help them,” said Vigen Sargsyan, the chief of staff to Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan.
About 6,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Armenia as fighting engulfs Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where an estimated 80,000 of Syria’s 120,000 Armenians live. More arrive each week even as a few trickle back, unable to afford Yerevan or stay away from houses and businesses they left behind unguarded in Syria.
Ethnic Armenians are a fraction of an accelerating flood of fleeing Syrians expected to reach 700,000 by year’s end, mainly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. But since the Armenians, unlike other Syrians, can easily acquire an alternative nationality, Syria could see one of its vibrant communities permanently diminished.
Syrian Armenians are known for their gold and silver craftsmanship and exquisite cuisine. They are also a critical component of Syria’s connection to Russia and the West, serving an intermediary role through their relations with the global Armenian diaspora.
Aleppo represents the last vestiges of Western Armenia, which was historically divided from what is now modern-day Armenia by Mount Ararat, a separation that through the centuries gave rise to different languages and cultures.
While Syrian Armenians have remained officially neutral in Syria’s civil war, as Christians many are wary of the rebels’ Islamist strains, and as Armenians suspicious of the rebels’ Turkish support.
The Cilician School, with 250 students, reflects the ambivalence of Syrian Armenians here: many want to return to their existence in the diaspora, even as they are welcomed in their historical homeland.
“Armenia always said, ‘Come to your home.’ They always asked us to come back,” said a man who identified himself only as Harout and was visiting a new Syrian Armenian club here in Yerevan, the capital. “Honestly, I love Armenia, but I wouldn’t leave Syria. I am praying just to go back.”
For Armenia, the Syrians’ arrival reignites a debate over how to manage its relationship with Armenians in the diaspora: encourage them to immigrate or keep them where they are, from the United States to the Middle East, generous with remittances and committed to lobbying abroad for Armenia’s interests.
Advocates of resettlement contend that Syria’s loss could ultimately be Armenia’s gain. Not only do they want to protect fellow Armenians, they want Syrian Armenians — often skilled, wealthy, educated and entrepreneurial — to help the struggling post-Soviet economy, stem high emigration and bring new ideas.
“Such diversity only enriches a nation,” said Vahe Yacoubian, a lawyer based in California who invests in Armenia and has advised the government.