Navigating new realities: Stories of hope and hardship among Nagorno-Karabakh refugees

Journalist: Ruzan Gishyan,

Photographer: Vaghinak Ghazaryan,

Illustrator: Tina Chertova

Topic: Conflict Future

"I chose a few pictures to take with me and burned the rest,” recalls Christine Tovmasyan, 42. “Do you know what a terrible feeling it is when you burn the pictures of your whole life?” 

"Mommy, are you thinking of Artsakh (Armenian name of the Nagorno Karabakh) again? Why are you crying?" asks her daughter Anna, 5. "I remember too."

Christine vividly remembers the first Artsakh war when she was just 10 years old. She's determined not to let her children experience the same hardships.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that of the 100,670 individuals who crossed from Karabakh to Armenia in 2023, 97,740 were officially registered․

The Tovmasyan family were one of many who embarked on the journey to Armenia after Karabakh fell to Azerbaijan. It took the family of five approximately 38 hours to reach safety "By the night of [September] 29th, we arrived in Goris, Armenia, feeling half-hungry and half-asleep, with crying children," recounts Christine, the mother of three (18-year-old Eric, 13-year-old Yana and 5-year-old Anna). The Tovmasyans fled their home without knowing where they would settle. After spending a day in Goris, the first Armenian city after crossing the border, they made their way to the capital, Yerevan, where Christine tirelessly dialed every number in her phone until she found a temporary place for them to stay.

Photos from the family’s  final days in Stepanakert and the seemingly endless road to Armenia remain in her phone.

As of October 11, 2023, 40 percent of the refugees were placed in  temporary government housing, which includes old or vacant buildings—mainly in the capital Yerevan and in Syunik, which is close to the Karabakh border. 

Christine's family of five, along with her brother-in-law’s family, eventually ended up in Parpi, a village approximately 28 km from Yerevan after a friend of her husband’s offered them a free place to stay. 

The children quickly adjusted to life in the village, which has around 2000 inhabitants. They started attending kindergarten and school. Christine said Anna struggled a bit because her classmates didn’t understand her dialect. But within weeks, she was settled and making friends.

The children do not want to leave Armenia; they feel safe and happy here. After months of malnutrition, they are enjoying their favorite candies and playing with their friends.

Others have struggled to find their place in Armenia. More than 9,000 of those displaced by the conflict have left the country, according to data from the National Security Service: 16,585 left Armenia via air and land, with just 6,660 returning by May 2024.

In reality, however, it’s hard to say how many Artsakh citizens ultimately stayed in Armenia: estimates range from 11,000 to 15,000 left for another country, according to Artsakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan. During a panel discussion in March, he stressed that all the data comes from information received from local self-government bodies in Armenia. Adding to the confusion is the fact that those who left Karabakh as early as 2020 and went on to live outside of Armenia, traveled using Armenian passports. 

At a press conference on May 1, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan disputed claims that large numbers of refugees have left the country. His comment was in line with earlier statements he has made to encourage the Karabakh population to stay in Armenia. 

"I want to make this very clear: if our brothers and sisters in Nagorno-Karabakh are unable to return to their homes, our policy is to do everything possible to ensure that all forcibly displaced persons remain in the Republic of Armenia. This is a crucial commitment. We want everyone, without exception, to stay, live, and work in the Republic of Armenia. That's our policy," Pashinyan said at a government session on October 12, 2023.

To help people settle in Armenia, the government created a "temporary protected status" for people displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh. This status, which is valid for a year, is available to anyone currently in Armenia or abroad whose last registered address was in Nagorno-Karabakh. The government is also offering them Armenian citizenship. 

But for many, the only real option is to leave due to housing costs and the lack of jobs. After receiving their documents a significant number migrate to Russia, where they have relatives. There are other destinations, as well. For example, the Paris City Council granted honorary citizenship to Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, prompting some to relocate to France.

The government has allocated over $100 million and implemented programs to aid those affected by the conflict, emphasizing the importance of keeping Armenia as their home. 

The displaced individuals argue that the aid provided is insufficient. Upon their arrival in Armenia, they found that local rents and the cost of living had risen due to the 2022 influx of Russian migrants, complicating their decisions about their future. 

The Tovmasyan family currently receives AMD 50,000 (about $130) a month for each family member. However, Christine is skeptical about a program that is being discussed, which proposes to provide three million drams (about $7700) to each family member to purchase a house. The sum is significantly less than housing costs in major cities. For example, a one-bedroom apartment (about 40 square meters) in the suburbs of Yerevan starts from $80,000.

"When you lose what you have, sometimes it feels safer not to have it at all. You don't even know what might happen next, and then you risk losing it again. So you try not to experience that pain a second time. We don't have tomorrow; we don't even think about it," says Christine.

"There are five people in my family," she explains. "Even with a total of 15 million drams, I can't afford to buy a two-room house with basic amenities. Prices like that just don’t exist in our village. Maybe in border villages, but things there are really uncertain and tense. Also, having to pay the money back in 10 years basically makes it a loan.”

Christine says that they are considering moving to Russia because they have relatives there, rent is cheaper, and they're familiar with the language and culture.

"We're not choosing this," she emphasizes. "It's the situation that's pushing us. We're forced to go; it's not about seeking a better life or more money. I've always worked as a senior accountant, but in Russia, I might end up in a simpler job. I'm not known there, and my education might not be suitable. If things improve in Armenia, if the government changes, maybe we could stay."

Armine Tovmasyan, Christine's sister-in-law, aged 34, agrees. She says that this summer, her husband plans to visit relatives in Russia, and if he finds a good job opportunity there, they'll consider moving.

"If we leave this house, then we'll have to go," she states. "Russia isn't my first choice. I can even say that it’s my enemy, but it seems more suitable for living."

Armine, who sings in the Artsakh State Choir, has been going to rehearsals once a week despite the fact the choir stopped paying salaries in September. 

"There are moments when you fear you'll be homeless forever, yet you try to stay optimistic. If there was some compensation for the price of our lost house or support, we could rebuild it with our hard work," says Armine.

Psychologist Iren Tairyan, who worked with displaced people from Artsakh in 2020 and 2023 through the International Organization for Migration, says exposure to stress and trauma creates emotional, psychological, and physiological turmoil. While some individuals quickly come to terms with their new reality and take action, many others struggle to organize the essentials for their lives and make decisions due to their inability to accept their circumstances.

"After experiencing trauma or intense stress, people require time to recover. However, recovery also depends on the availability of favorable conditions, which are often lacking, given the unstable situation in Armenia," she says. "The absence of a sense of security hampers the recovery process. In such circumstances, individuals may be more inclined to accept ready-made solutions offered by those around them, particularly if they have friends or acquaintances in other countries promising support and assistance."

The psychologist notes that many people describe feeling as though they are suspended in mid-air, unable to envision the future. Moreover, she observes that many individuals liken the loss of land and home to the loss of a child, emphasizing it is vital that they process this loss in a healthy way.

"We advise our clients that to avoid feeling lost and uncertain, they must take action and strive to construct their own reality,” she explains. “This reality is something everyone can shape, possess, and relocate wherever they choose. Waiting around for a miracle or for someone else to fix our problems just pushes solutions further away. Even doing small things to make our immediate situation better can really help us deal with the bigger, uncertain problems"

The 2024 World Migration Report says that there are approximately 281 million international migrants globally and the number of displaced individuals due to conflict, violence, disasters, and other reasons has reached the unprecedented level of 117 million.

Silva Beglaryan, 45, knew even as she packed her bags in Artsakh that Armenia wouldn't be their final destination. Her husband's cousin in Volgograd, Russia, invited them to come live with him and even promised to help them get settled. After spending a month renting in the village of Nor Geghi, Nor Hachn, Armenia, Silva's family and her husband's brother's family moved to Russia. It was a difficult choice because it moved them further from the home and lives their lost—including the graves of their relatives—her father, brother, and sister.

But the promised assistance has helped the family start to make a new life. In Volgograd, the family has a free place to stay and her husband, a history teacher in Artsakh, is now working as a manual laborer. Their 22-year-old son, Narek, is working  several  jobs to save money. His goal is to replace the computers they left behind in Artsakh and to resume his studies as a programmer. The youngest son, 15-year-old Gegham, is already studying in the 9th grade at the local school.

Silva says the transition to life in Russia has been difficult: they don’t know if their application for citizenship will be approved and Narek and Gegham have struggled to make friends.  Instead, they socialize online with friends from Stepanakert who are now living in Armenia and in other countries.

Nevertheless, the family is starting to see their future in Russia.

"If Artsakh is no longer Armenian, we won't return," Silva says. 

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