Armenia’s Lebanese repatriates support humanitarian efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Small business owners from Lebanon who sought new opportunities in Armenia are now finding themselves at the frontline of Armenia’s humanitarian efforts amid the ongoing war with neighboring Azerbaijan.

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“We’re running from place to place every day, delivering food donations to different camps and displaced families,” said Sarkis Altounyan, a Lebanese-born resident of the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

He is the founder of the Lebanese Armenian Community of Armenia, an NGO that supports food donations for those displaced by the conflict.

The organization currently works with seven Lebanese and Syrian restaurants in Yerevan, providing over 300 hot meals a week. “We started off as a group of five families who made donations, then we decided to reach out to the city’s Lebanese restaurants.”

In addition, a group of Lebanese-Armenian doctors have volunteered on the frontline to treat the wounded, Altounyan said.

Read more: Lebanese Armenians spring to action to defend Nagorno-Karabakh

Looming humanitarian crises

Armenia faces a humanitarian crisis as it enters its second month of war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

According to the latest official data, over 1,100 Armenian soldiers have been killed since the fighting began, with thousands more injured. On top of this, new cases of the coronavirus pandemic have spiked, rising from an average of 300 new cases a day before the conflict began to over 2,400 new cases on October 23.

“Most of the private hospital beds in Yerevan are full from treating casualties. And we have more coming,” said Fouad Reda, a Lebanese plastic surgeon who has treated soldiers at his private clinic in Yerevan, “There are few beds left in the state hospitals.”

According to the Human Rights Defender’s Office of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, which is controlled by ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, 90,000 people have been displaced from the territory after civilian settlements were shelled by Azerbaijani forces. The majority are staying in camps and disused buildings in the country’s capital, Yerevan, and nearby provinces.

“Most of the children and families we are feeding have family-members on the frontline,” said Altounyan.

Read more: Lebanese-born Armenian opera singer Kevork Hadjian dies on Nagorno-Karabakh frontline

Seeking stability, finding war

Thousands of Lebanese citizens have migrated to Armenia in recent years, fleeing economic and political instability. Most of these were of Lebanese of Armenian descent responding to Armenia’s offer of citizenship and repatriation opportunities.

Others with no Armenian heritage sought new lives here after the Velvet Revolution in 2018, which saw a new government come to power promising reforms.

“There were new opportunities opening up in Armenia. I’ve been here two years with my family, discovering the country,” said Joe El Khal, from the Kesrouane region in Lebanon, who runs a bakery and restaurant in Yerevan that has been making daily donations.

More than a thousand Lebanese citizens moved to Armenia between 14 July and 2 September 2020, according to Armenia’s Chief Commissioner of Diaspora issues Zareh Sinanyan, as quoted by Hetq. Lebanon’s economic crisis had deepened, and Beirut was reeling from the aftermath of the August 4 blast.

But others were weary of the instability, which they thought they had left behind in Lebanon. “I’m doing this to help children who have been displaced, not for any politician or political reason,” said El Khal, “I left Lebanon because of its politicians.”

Read more: Lebanese Armenians commemorate genocide