To understand why Zaven Khanjian wants the Armenian community in Syria — a dwindling population caught in the crossfire of civil war — to endure, you have to go back nearly a century.
Long before in-fighting began more than two years ago, Armenians settled in Syria after being driven out of Turkey during the genocide of 1915.
Destitute and sick, the Christians were welcomed by the mostly Arabic Syrians and flourished, especially in Aleppo, a city close to the Turkish border and hard hit by war between rebel forces and the sitting government.
“We want the community to survive as long as the war is going on,” said Khanjian, a Glendale real estate agent and Aleppo native who leads the nonprofit Syrian Armenian Relief Fund.
But while many Armenians may feel indebted to Syria — a country that welcomed them when they were at their lowest point — thousands continue to flee amid an increase in the number of kidnappings and reported damage to homes and churches.
Even an Armenian genocide memorial has been ransacked, said Lena Bozoyan, chairwoman of the Armenian Relief Society of Western U.S.A.
Humanitarian aid is the primary goal, but there’s also a deeper desire to prevent an Armenian community with historical significance from disintegrating completely.
“The dwindling of the community in Syria will have a detrimental, long-term impact for the cultural vibrancy of the diaspora as a whole,” said Ara Sanjian, director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
But the effort to preserve the diaspora in Syria is increasingly difficult as fighting rages on, especially in Aleppo, which claims the largest Armenian population. Most Armenians with roots there are known to be loyal to the current regime, but Khanjian said philanthropic efforts out of Glendale are apolitical.
The U.S. recently announced plans to bolster support of the rebels after determining that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its own people.
The Syrian Armenian Relief Fund, launched last year in partnership with Glendale-based Armenian Relief Society and other Armenian philanthropic groups, has sent $500,000 in assistance to struggling Syrian-Armenians. Organizers raised another $100,000 at a benefit concert in Hollywood two weeks ago.
The money is sent to a coalition of Armenian nonprofits in Syria that doles out food, clothing, construction materials for damaged buildings, and medical care to the needy. During Armenian Christmas in January, the group dispersed cash to about 5,000 families, Khanjian said.
Before the fund started, the Armenian Relief Society had already collected $100,000 for Armenian schools.
But there are some things the fund won’t pay for, such as relocation costs.
“We want our people to stay there,” Bozoyan said.
Population estimates vary, but Sanjian, of the Armenian Research Center, said that before the conflict began, there were about 70,000 Armenians in Syria, 70% of them in Aleppo. Armenian news agencies have reported that more than 10,000 have fled to Lebanon and Armenia, but some estimates peg the exodus as being almost twice that.