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Darbnik: A new home for Armenian refugees Gayane Mirzoyan

Darbnik lies just 10 kilometres from Yerevan. Over the past 28 years, the village has become home to Armenian refugees from three conflicts.

In the early 1990s, Armenians fleeing the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh came here from Azerbaijan. Some of them were housed in the old college building. In 2009, social housing appeared for refugees from Iraq, with 46 Armenian families from Iraq receiving accommodation. Several years later, they were joined by Syrian refugees.

Before the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the village – which used to be called Shorlu – was home to an Azerbaijani population. Its inhabitants then became refugees. Today, Darbnik village has 2 342 inhabitants. Almost all the families that came here were forced to start their new lives in Armenia from scratch.

Living in two homes

Rada Arutunian dreams of setting up a handball team in Darbnik village

In 1989, Julietta Arutunian was forced to flee Baku with her two daughters and grandchildren. Despite help from her neighbours and friends, remaining in her native city was becoming dangerous.

‘Our block had 60 flats, and we were all friends. I’m still in touch with some of our neighbours through the Internet. But in 1989, the attacks against Armenians began. One day, a crowd armed with axes began to break down our door. We phoned Bakhman, our local policeman, an Azerbaijani, and he helped us get out,’ Julietta recalls.
Julietta Arutunian was born and raised in Baku. Nowadays, she considers Darbnik village to be her only home

Julietta’s daughter, Rada Arutunian was able to escape thanks to her courage and quick wits. With her excellent command of the Azeri language, she was able to convince the crowd of attackers, as well as the officials on the way to Baku airport, that she was not Armenian.

Rada Arutunian playing on the Youth Handball Team of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic

In a curious twist of fate, arriving in their relatives’ home in Uzbekistan’s Kokand, the family found itself in the midst of a new conflict – that in the Fergana Valley.

"We had to hide under the table from the shooting. We had fled one danger, only to end up in the middle of a new one," Rada recalls. On 1 January 1990, she gave birth to her daughter Ellada. In March of that year, the family moved to Yerevan.

Ellada Arutunian gives private Russian and French language lessons to schoolchildren in Darbnik village

The first refugee families were housed in the old college building. The family of seven was forced to share a single room in the halls of the residence with a shared bath. Suddenly, ordinary everyday comforts turned into an impossible luxury.

"My brother and I slept in a box. One night, there was a fire. Our little ‘bed’ instantly caught fire and I had to be rushed to emergency care," Ellada recalls.
Little Ellada and her brother in the room which was home to all seven members of her family (early 1990s)

Almost all those coming to the village had been city dwellers in the past. In order to survive in their new life, they had to learn to work the land. Apart from doing this, Rada volunteered for international organisations. Now, Ellada volunteers for humanitarian organisations too.

As a schoolchild, Ellada damaged her spine. In order to ensure that they could care for her properly, the family moved to a new wing in the halls of residence. That way, they could have slightly more comfortable accommodation, although this meant they could not privatise their home.

By buying some furniture and household necessities cheaply from neighbours who were leaving the halls, the family was able to furnish its modest new flat.

Rada’s eldest daughter Regina Arutunian and her four children still live in a flat lacking basic utilities. They live on child benefits. The decrepit building is unsafe for habitation.

Gayane Arutunian and her niece Regina live in the old college building in Darbnik village
Regina's daughter

"I’m scared of the children going out on the balcony – it could come crashing down at any minute," she explains. "The courtyard is not safe, either. But we have nowhere else to go, so we stay there."

After realms of letters from refugees, the state finally allowed the flats in the building to be privatised. The property is not in any decent state, yet for the refugees who did not own a home, this was still good news.

"They can’t really leave the house now, they can’t go anywhere or visit relatives, because their home could be given to another family," Rada explains.

A New Wave of Refugees

Karine Bagdoyan comes from the Syrian city of Raqqa

The Arutunians’ neighbour Karine Bagdoyan came to Darbnik from the Syrian city of Raqqa. Before the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Karine recalls, there were around 80 Armenian families living in the city. In 2011, the conflict started as civil resistance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Yet, gradually, neighbouring states, terrorist groups and world powers came to be involved in the hostilities. In 2013, Raqqa was occupied by the Islamic State terror group, which declared the city its capital. Karine Bagdoyan and her family were forced to flee their native city immediately.

The bloody battles for Raqqa raised the city to the ground. Remembering her old home with great warmth, Karine says she still misses her friendly neighbours.

"The UN and Mission Armenia helps us," she continues. "It’s just hard that there isn’t any work."

Karine’s husband works repairing cars. She and her mother-in-law raise the couple’s two children. In October 2017, Raqqa was finally liberated, yet Karine’s family is unlikely to return: the once flourishing city now lies in ruins.

It is currently home to over 40 families.

The building is home to Armenian refugees from Iraq, Syria and Azerbaijan

Ani Margaryan left Baghdad in 2004. In Iraq, the men are normally the breadwinners in the family, she says. But in her own family, she is now the only one earning a living, which she is able to do thanks to her sewing machine, a gift from the UN Mission in Armenia.

Ani Margaryan was born and raised in Baghdad
"My father always taught us that unless you work hard, you will have nothing. He wanted us to understand that money doesn’t just come out of nowhere, he wanted us to be able to earn it for ourselves. He didn’t just hand us loads of cash. He gave each of us our own small business such as a hairdressers or a small shop. We lost everything in Baghdad, but now each of us has been able to pick ourselves up and carry on," Ani says.

Ani met her husband in Armenia after he lost his first wife in Iraq. The two children from his first marriage came to live with him and Ani, and the couple now also have two children of their own.

"I remember Iraq with such warmth. We never used to notice who was from where. But after the government was overthrown, chaos broke out, and it got dangerous staying there. When they began to kidnap children, we got really frightened, and left," Ani explains.

After several years spent renting flats in Yerevan, the couple was finally given accommodation in the new building in Darbnik. Ani became active in pushing for better services in the village. "When we first arrived, there was not much here. There was no football pitch, no kindergarten, no convenient transport. We began to put pressure on the authorities to sort things out, and eventually, minibuses appeared instead of the dusty buses, and began to run every half hour," Ani recalls.

Refugee Day at Darbnik village school
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