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“We are now implementing a second phase [that, until] the end of 2019, will support 600 vulnerable refugee families in Armenia and Lebanon,” explains Ms. Stepanyan. This provides free legal advice, language training, plus vocational and business courses, and counseling. The primary goal, she adds, is to help Syrian Armenians integrate and enter the labor market. To that end, Caritas Armenia collaborates with the state employment agency.

“On the one hand, we lobby in order to improve government policy,” Ms. Stepanyan notes. “On the other, we try to empower Syrian Armenians to be able to protect their interests.”

For many Syrian Armenians in Armenia, the future is now brighter.

Houry Kulkutchyan is a 34-year-old chemist who left Aleppo with her husband and 2-year-old daughter during the most intense fighting. At first, she worked as an accountant. After giving birth to their second child, she decided to start her own business and learn how to produce soap from organic raw material.

But she did not have to go it alone.

“People from Caritas told me that they would be able to help,” Mrs. Kulkutchyan explains. “Thanks to that help, I have had this job for three years now, which also helps provide a living for my family.”

What started with soap has expanded to balsams — and she has found a creative way to bring her Armenian and Syrian homelands together.

“Beeswax is commonly used in Armenian culture, while in Syria it is olive oil,” she says. “So, I decided to make a fusion of these two cultures and created an interesting cream. It is complex work,” adds the chemist-cum-artisan. I come up with the recipe, try it out in small quantities. Then when I like it, I increase the volume I produce. But I attach more importance to the quality, rather than quantity.”

Ms. Kulkutchyan has her permanent, regular customers and manages to make an important contribution to the family budget. She also hopes to participate in an ambitious initiative of Caritas Armenia for the refugees launched last summer.

“In Armenia we will set up a kind of incubator of business,” explains Lusine Stepanyan. “People will bring in their ideas, we will develop them together, translate the business model into a business plan, and finance it. We will include experts in finance, law and marketing to assist them, and we will share a common workspace,” she says.

“Three categories will be eligible to participate: the self-employed, start-ups — up to three-year-old businesses — and small and medium enterprises. We want to bring change, we want the business incubator to continue its operation and to create gains for all of us,” she says.

The ultimate goal is to transform refugees into entrepreneurs, and bring about in Armenia the creativity, energy and vitality that once defined the Armenian community in Syria.

For his part, the spiritual leader behind all of this, Archbishop Rafael Minassian, remains a humble source of optimism, and inspiration.

“My calling is to help unselfishly my compatriots and our humanity,” he says. “God is endowing us. We have to give it back.”

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A communications specialist, Gohar Abrahamyan manages issues of justice and peace in the Caucasus for local and international media.



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