Nairi Mouzenian (centre), Sarina Mouzenian (left), Lwiz Tachijan
Nairi Mouzenian (centre) and her Syrian Armenian family fled and sought refuge in Australia. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS
  • refugee

Syrian Armenian refugees in Australia fear for homeland

Farid Farid October 7, 2023

To apply as a refugee for Australia, Nairi Serobian-Mouzenian had to go back to Aleppo at the height of the civil war, dodging snipers and enduring a month of bombings to be issued a Syrian passport.

Her papers were lost on the way to Lebanon when she left Syria in 2012, and she needed proof of identity.

Three years later, she braved checkpoints and aerial bombardment to make it back into the war-scarred country that had uprooted the sizeable Armenian community she hails from.

A burned Armenian truck near Khankendi, Azerbaijan
The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been contested for decades with several wars fought.

Most Armenians who settled in Syria over a century ago are direct descendants of survivors of the 1915 genocide, where one million people were killed by Ottoman soldiers.

“It was hell. It was one month where I saw a lot,” the 32-year-old graphic designer told AAP.

“Life was beautiful one day and then I hear the sound of a bomb that was very loud close to our house.

“All I remember is screaming and my dad being upstairs and thinking I hope nothing happened to him.”

He escaped with a small head injury from flying shrapnel.

She described another incident when a soldier at a checkpoint in her densely packed neighbourhood told her to find another route because there were snipers on the roof.

Ms Serobian-Mouzenian made it safely to Sydney in 2016 with her family and is expecting her first-born in coming months.

But she cannot but help feel powerless with about 100,000 Armenians from the Nagorno-Karabakh region leaving their homes in recent days under shelling from Azerbaijan.

The year-long blockade, devolving into a war, has been internationally condemned as a modern-day genocide.

The two former Soviet countries have contested the region (known as Artsakh to Armenians) for decades, with several wars breaking out including the most recent conflict in 2020.

“I feel very sad from the depths of my heart because Syrian Armenians have gone through it (mass exodus) and now other Armenians are going through it again,” Ms Serobian-Mouzenian said.

“Our history is all a struggle from one place to another, and it’s so sad to see where we live in a century (where) we have technology and no one is doing anything.

“It’s like you’re standing in the middle of the ocean with no one helping.”

Anne Gharibian heads up settlement services at the Armenian Resource Centre in Sydney, a volunteer-powered group which provides about 3000 Iraqi and Syrian Armenians with help ranging from filling out Centrelink forms to giving advice on family reunification.

The centre is desperate for funds to keep up with demand.

It is expecting the fallout from the Nagorno-Karabakh exodus to reach Australian shores, with many Armenians having links to the territory.

Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh at a tent camp
About 100,000 Armenians have fled their homes under shelling from Azerbaijan.

A delegation of seven Australian parliamentarians from NSW and Victoria visited a refugee camp in Armenia for those fleeing, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong in September urged Azerbaijan to cease its military escalation.

But Ms Gharibian is calling on the Australian government to dedicate a special intake for Armenian refugees as it did for Afghan, Syrian, Iraqi and Ukrainian asylum seekers in recent years.

Sonik Oghlian was living in Sydney when the conflict in Syria took a turn for the worse in late-2011.

She sprung into action and managed to get her mother, as well as her brother, his wife and children, out to Lebanon for a few years and then later as humanitarian entrants to Australia in 2016.

“We never felt safe in Syria even though it was our physical home for decades,” she said, referring to her experience as a descendant of genocide survivors.

She said seeing images of the mass exodus of Armenians happening in real-time in recent weeks entrenched the complex feelings of being a refugee.

“It starts with the genocide and it’s a cycle. It always goes back to square one, to the feeling you don’t have a home.”

These feelings of helplessness are compounded knowing that she has a young relative serving in the Armenian army.

“It feels safe in Australia, the help we got here and there’s a future for the kids … but the worrying is always in the back of your mind,” she said.