Migration and displacement in Armenia: Three stories of loss and perseverance

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Migration and displacement are often expressed in big themes and numbers: thousands of refugees, tons of humanitarian aid, hundreds of shelters. The reality is that displacement is more of a jigsaw puzzle of small fragments — memories, losses, and upheavals. 

Approximately 90,000 people, 88% of whom are women and children, have been displaced to Armenia in the recent flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between 27 September and 9 November 2020 - the heaviest fighting since the early 1990s. 

As of May 2021, 36,989 displaced people still reside in Armenia in desperate conditions.  

The UN in Armenia provided emergency assistance in the form of hygiene kits, animal feed, and other relief amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. And, as with other displaced people who have faced trauma and uncertainty, a step towards the community’s healing has been their ability regain their livelihoods and generate some income. 

Below, some of those who were displaced share their personal stories of struggle and perseverance.  

Arevik Arzumanyan and her daughter Qristine Avetisyan fled their home and left all their belongings and their business, due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  

“When we arrived in Armenia, we found refuge in the Gegharkunik province. I thought it was just for a short period of time. Now I know that we lost our home forever,” says Arevik.  

After settling in Gegharkunik, Arevik and Qristine set out to re-establish the business they left behind – a beauty salon.  

But COVID-19 made matters worse.  

That’s where IOM Armenia — part of the UN Country Team in Armenia’s conflict response — stepped in. IOM provided basic home and hygiene items to support displaced families. Since the recent outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, IOM Armenia has distributed some 4,000 hygiene kits across Armenia. 

“They [IOM] took 70 percent of our family’s burden away,” explains Arevik.  

The mother-daughter duo were eventually able to restart their business again.   

“We are among the luckiest,” Arevik says.  “We never gave up. I know it’s such a privilege for us to have this business when so many people struggle more [than us].” 

Venera Amirkhanyan used to live in a village in Nagorno-Karabakh with her children while her husband was a migrant worker in Russia. When the fighting broke out, Venera sent her youngest children to stay with relatives living in the Sisian region of Armenia, while she and her eldest daughter stayed, thinking the fighting would end soon. They too fled to Armenia in November of last year. Her husband, unable to break his work contract, joined them later.  

“Unfortunately, we were unable to bring most of our belongings. We managed to bring only one cow and one pig, leaving behind our poultry,” Venera explains.  

“It was very hard at the very beginning – the weather in Armenia was much colder, it was difficult to adapt, especially without having any type of fuel in winter,” says Venera. “[The biggest challenge is not having your own house and roof.”  

As part of the UN in Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh crisis response, FAO supported displaced families who had to leave their farm animals behind, providing them with  chickens, animal feed, agricultural equipment or materials to build temporary shelters for their livestock.   

Venera says the animal feed helped her keep their cow alive, and enabled her family to buy new livestock.  

She hopes that in the future she can open a store. “It will be so much easier then.”  

Khaltur Oseyan’s family lived in Nagorno-Karabakh before the fighting broke out. He, his wife Telik, and three of their children came to Martuni, a city in Armenia, where they had relatives. 

One of Khaltur’s sons is on military duty in Nagorno-Karabakh. He worries about him. He also worries about supporting his family. 

After ensuring his family’s safety, Khaltur returned to Nagorno-Karabakh to be closer to his son and to try to bring some of their livestock to Armenia. He only managed to bring one cow with him to Armenia.  

“Considering all these problems, FAO’s assistance was crucial for us. We were able to feed our cow, and we are so grateful for that,” says Khaltur.  

In the future, he wants to expand their livestock again and start cattle breeding, but the conditions this year haven’t been great for that. But Telik is hopeful that they will solve their problems, step by step. 

It is estimated that the people who fled from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia brought about 12,000 to 55,000 cows and 60,000 to 90,000 small ruminants (e.g. sheep and goats) with them, while others lost all their cattle and poultry. There simply wasn’t enough time.  

The UN in Armenia, working with 35 humanitarian partners, continues to respond to the most immediate humanitarian needs of people displaced from in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. They focus on education, shelter, protection, food, health, and other areas. The UN in Armenia is currently shifting from humanitarian assistance to long-term development support. Read more about UN Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh crisis support. 

This story was written by Mariam Alikhanova, UN Resident Coordinator’s Office, Ani Grigoryan, FAO, and Anna Bisharyan, IOM, in Armenia. Editorial support provided by Michal Shmulovich and Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office.