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Catholic Sentinel | Portland, OR Monday, October 24, 2016

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Syria's Armenians risk a winter without food, shelter
Catholic News Service

YEREVAN, Armenia — Thousands of previously middle-class Syrians now stranded in Armenia are rapidly running out of resources and could soon have no shelter, food or medicine, said an international aid group official.

"There is a big need on the humanitarian side: food, shelter, medical needs," said Walter Hajek, head of international disaster management for Austria's Red Cross.

"The highest influx (of Syrian Armenians) was in early summer of last year, and those were mostly of middle-class status, and they came here thinking it would be temporary, and that was obviously not the case," he said.

Hajek said the Armenian government was helping Syrian Armenians with work permits and Armenian passports, free medical care at government hospitals and clinics, free schooling at government-run schools, and free space at several government shelters, but this aid was not enough.

"If you go to the hospital, they treat you for free, but (buying) medication afterward is a problem for them," he told Catholic News Service Sept. 28. He said he had seen urgent cases of asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart conditions, medication for which was too expensive for many of the Syrians to buy.

Hajek estimated that at least 40 percent of the Syrian Armenians now in Armenia were children, and that many of them were in need of baby food and baby carriages, as well as pens, paper and other school supplies because their parents had run out of money.

"Most of the (Armenian Syrians) we met are living in apartments and say they have no savings left, and it will be crucial to support them," added Hajek, who was to return to Austria Sept. 29 to present his findings and push to get funding for a project he said he hoped would include paying the Syrians' rents and utility bills.

Hajek said his organization was already working with other international aid agencies, including the Catholic charity Caritas, to provide basic services to the Syrian Armenians. For instance, they were pay for classes in the local Armenian dialect, legal advice, and some materials needed to start small businesses.

The Armenians coming from Syria "want to work. They are not used to receiving (charity) and they want to earn their own money. We provide them equipment, such as ovens (and) kitchen utensils, tools they need to start their own businesses," Hajek said, adding that several Syrians had already opened small bakeries in Yerevan, and that at least one had a rented a farm and intended to grow and sell produce.

Armenia is currently sheltering 8,000-10,000 Armenian Syrians. They are the descendants of Armenians who, nearly a century ago, fled mass killings at the hands of Ottomans in what is now Turkey, then went on to flourish in Syria.

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