In his flat on the outskirts of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, Hovig Ashjian squints through a microscope as he plucks a minuscule shard of diamond and gently sets it into a silver ring. Originally from Aleppo, the jeweller moved to Armenia when fighting between militants and government forces intensified.
“I came here with nothing,” he recalled. “One day I saw the tanks outside my home and people shouting so I said to my wife: ‘Come on, better run’.”
They raced to the airport in a drive that was normally 25 minutes but took three hours as they navigated the myriad roadblocks. They were just in time to catch what proved to be the last direct plane from Aleppo to Yerevan.
Mr Ashjian is one of around 15,000 Syrians of Armenian descent the United Nations estimates have sought refuge in the country since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011.
In pictures: Syria conflict
In pictures: Syria conflict
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Syrians carry children amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl on a street covered with dust following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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Syrians react as they stand amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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An injured Syrian man walks out from the rubble of a destroyed building following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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People stand on the rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo
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Syrian residents stand amid the rubble of destroyed buildings
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A Syrian resident grasps a mattress amid rubble in the al-Firdous neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo
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A bullet-riddled parking sign stands amid debris in a deserted street leading into the old city of Homs
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A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas
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A mosque is pictured through shattered glass in the old city of Homs, as rebel fighters withdrew from the city centre in line with a negotiated withdrawal deal with the government after having held out under tight siege for nearly two years
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Buses carrying Free Syrian Army fighters leaving Homs. Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a cease-fire deal with government forces. The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad's rule, earning it the nickname of "capital of the revolution"
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Syrian government forces hold up a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad (L) while others raise the national flag on top of a pole in the old city of Homs
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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad run through Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr crossing after their release by rebels. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria
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A Syrian woman and two children walk past heavily damaged buildings in the northern city of Aleppo
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A man carries a wounded girl following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Mowasalat neighborhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A wounded man sits as he is treated at a makeshift hospital following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Sakhour district of the northern city of Aleppo
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Debris rises in what Free Syrian Army fighters and Islamic rebels said was an operation to strike Al-Sahaba checkpoint, which is considered a gateway to Al-Dayf valley, and remove forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Maarat Al-Nouman, Idlib province
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Men try to put out fire at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Civil Defence members try to put out fire
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Survivors react at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Residents queue as they wait to receive food aid distributed by the UNRWA at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus
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Belongings of Syrian rebels inside a chapel at Crac des Chevaliers, the world's best preserved medieval Crusader castle in Syria. The village was destroyed in fighting between the government and rebel forces while the castle, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, also has been damaged over the past two years
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Hosen Sabah, a 16-year-old student is comforted by his mother at a hospital in Damascus. Nosen was wounded by a mortar outside his school, while 14 other students were killed and over 80 wounded
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A Free Syrian Army fighter works on a locally made launcher before firing it towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Mork town
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Syrian policemen and citizens inspecting the site of a car bomb at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus. According to Syria's Arab News Agency (SANA), a car bomb explosion has gone off in the countryside of Damascus and initial information say there are casualties, where a car rigged with explosions was remotely detonated at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus during engineering units it was trying to dismantled it
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Opposition fighters carrying a rocket launcher during clashes against government forces in the Sheikh Lutfi area, west of the airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man helps a woman to make her way through debris following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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A Syrian man reacts as he carries the body of injured boy following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 33 civilians were killed in the attack
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Syrian rescue workers carry the body of a woman following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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Syrians gather at the site of reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
At the end of next week, on 24 April, Armenia – a landlocked former Soviet nation of three million in the South Caucasus region bordering Iran and Turkey – will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1915 massacres by the Ottoman Empire of Armenians living in what is now eastern Turkey. Armenia and some other countries consider those events, during the First World War, a genocide that led to the deaths of 1.5 million of their people, although Turkey denies this and disputes the numbers killed. Those not slaughtered escaped, or were marched into the deserts and beyond, and survivors built sizeable communities in Syria, Lebanon and across the Middle East.
Yerevan, with a population of one million, is often called “the Pink city” due to the abundance of rose-coloured volcanic rock used in many of its buildings, adding a flash of colour to the sea of ramshackle Soviet-era apartment blocks.
The crowning glory of the city’s skyline is the snowy peaks of Mount Ararat, believed by Christians to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Its name is omnipresent in Armenia, from football teams to cigarette brands and brandy companies, and is a rallying cry to the global diaspora – made all the more potent by the fact that it is located just inside Turkey, whose border with Armenia has been closed for three decades.
As Mr Ashjian speaks, jets can be heard sporadically whooshing overhead. Russia maintains 3,000 troops at a base in Armenia’s second city, Gyumri, and also provides Armenia’s air defences. “It’s like being back in Syria. Sometimes we wonder if they are coming for us!” says Mr Ashjian with a wry smile. The planes used by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, sometimes to bomb its people, are mostly Russian built.
Not that everything in Armenia is happy for the refugees from Syria who have arrived. Finding work is difficult in a country with unemployment at 21 per cent; the average wage is just £200 a month.
Even aside from the cultural contrasts, there are language problems for the new arrivals: many diaspora communities speak Western Armenian, a dialect spoken by their ancestors in the Ottoman Empire. Although it is fundamentally the same language deep down, it is heavily influenced by Arabic and Turkish.
For Mr Ashjian, however, it is a cautious but hopeful beginning of a new chapter in his family’s life. “It’s very different because we are in our land, the land of our ancestors,” he said. “We drew pictures of Mount Ararat in school but now we can see it with our eyes. Yes, now it is in Turkey, but it’s a more beautiful view from our side.”
Beneath Yerevan’s stylish Northern Avenue, in a chilly converted garage of block of flats mainly populated by Syrian-Armenians, Ani Balkhian runs the Aleppo NGO. Founded by women from the city, it assists refugees with housing, employment, children’s education and language classes. They keep regular contact with Armenians still living precariously in Syria.
Ms Balkhian and her colleagues recently raised funds for families in Kessab, an ethnic Armenian town in north-western Syria that was attacked by al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in March last year. Villagers were kidnapped, churches set alight and cemeteries desecrated. Kessab was previously the scene of a massacre by Ottoman forces in 1915 and there is a widespread view amongst Armenians that last year’s incursion had the assistance, if not direct involvement, of Turkish authorities – claims vigorously denied by Turkey.
“Armenians were happy in Syria,” she said. “Now everything has changed. The culture of killing is inside the people now, so how can you go back, how can you send your children there? We used to dream that someday we would go to our homeland of Armenia, but then we were forced to come here. It’s like a second genocide for us.”
Like all those who fled, Ms Balkhian had to leave most possessions behind. Her home and her family’s textile factories in rebel-controlled areas were looted, she said, and belongings she tried to ship out have been stuck at the Syrian port of Tartus for six months. One item she managed to rescue and transport, a bookcase of carved walnut wood, dominates her office yet stands bereft of books – emblematic of her vanished life back in Syria.
Even so, refugees have begun to transform Yerevan’s cultural life. Its cuisine has been infused with lamajoun (Arabic-style flatbread pizza), and sweet-smelling smoke clouds around pavement cafés as Yerevanites have taken to smoking nargile water pipes. On a Saturday night in an underground cocktail bar, Aleppo-born singer Rena Derkhorenian and her all-Syrian band Shiver blast out jazz and soul rhythms to a writhing crowd.
Ms Derkhorenian thinks the displacement is a chance to build something new. “Syrian-Armenians and the locals still need to integrate more but this was our chance to come here and make something of this land called Armenia,” she said. “A hundred years have passed and now we need to think differently. This is the time to start something, especially when we have all the diaspora coming. We need to make room for each other… and we need to stay.”Reuse content