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An Iraqi Armenian teen shows the way to a new life

News Stories, 30 October 2008

© UNHCR/A.Hayrapetyan
Good Hair Day: Mariam is setting an example with her enthusiasm and her desire to make the most of life in Armenia.

YEREVAN, Armenia, October 30 (UNHCR) Mariam Sargis has spent most of her life in Iraq, but the teenager is now getting an unexpected chance to discover the land and language of her ancestors. And the 14-year-old is thriving; setting an example to her family, her community and other refugees with her enthusiasm.

Mariam left Baghdad in 2004 with her father, Sargis, mother, Najva, and younger brother Minas. They were among hundreds of members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the world's oldest Christian communities, to flee Iraq to escape mounting sectarian violence in recent years. The majority, including Mariam's parents, were born in the Middle East nation.

About 1,000 Iraqi Armenians have been granted refugee or temporary asylum status in Armenia over the past four years. They live in rented houses in the capital, Yerevan, or in the provinces of Kotayk and Ararat.

Most possess limited financial resources and are in urgent need of material assistance. They also find it hard to communicate in an unfamiliar language and a major struggle to make ends meet in an alien land.

"Despite the fact that most Iraqis are of Armenian descent, they only understand Western Armenian [the modern dialect spoken by much of the Armenian diaspora], and, as a result, they face difficulties finding proper employment," noted Bushra Halepota, UNHCR's representative in Armenia.

The UN refugee agency, working through its local implementing partner, Mission Armenia, has been helping the most vulnerable families and promoting local integration of the refugees. But despite this helping hand, some especially the older generation are finding it hard to adjust.

Mariam, with her positive outlook and determination to integrate and succeed, is setting an example to her peers and proving that, with a bit of will and effort, they can manage and also look to the future with confidence. Inspired by both small and big achievements, she is taking firm steps forward.

The outgoing teenager has enthusiastically embraced vocational training and Armenian-language classes funded by UNHCR. And whenever she finds things hard-going she just remembers how bad things were in Iraq.

"When my mother starts complaining, I say, 'But we are safe here, Mum, cheer up,'" Mariam said. "Here in Armenia, I sleep peacefully and have good dreams again. I'm finally free of painful memories."

She wasn't so upbeat when she first arrived here two years ago to what must have seemed like a bleak future. Everything from the weather to the language and the people seemed so different, and even menacing she remembers feeling scared a lot of the time.

But before long the family came under the wing of UNHCR and Mission Armenia, which in mid-2007 launched the assistance and integration programme for the vulnerable Iraqi refugee families in Armenia. Mariam was found a place in school and she seized the opportunity to make new friends, expand her knowledge, and learn the Armenian language and culture.

"I would never have thought the Armenian language could be so different from mine; so rich and beautiful," she said. "My Armenian language learning experience was unforgettable. I seem to have gone through my childhood again, had another first teacher, another community, another life."

She is now studying to be a hair stylist, which will allow her to earn a living once she has finished the course. "The classes are so beneficial and enjoyable. I am inspired by this opportunity," said Mariam, adding that her chosen profession would also serve as an excellent opportunity to meet new people.

Her skills should help her family stay above water during the current hard times; her father used to own a food business in Iraq, but has only managed to find odd jobs in Armenia and is having difficulty paying the rent after using up most of the money he made from selling the family house in Baghdad.

Mariam is so selfless, she gives the credit to others for her happiness in Armenia. "I am thankful to all of the people around me who were so tolerant and caring; my neighbours, my teachers, and my friends," she said. "Thanks to the big support of UNHCR, I now believe in my strength and feel secure."

But she is the one who should be thanked, for making the most of her new life and setting an example to so many others.

By Anahit Hayrapetyan in Yerevan, Armenia




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Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and more than 2 million others have fled to nearby countries. While many people were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and general violence. Since January 2006, UNHCR estimates that more than 800,000 Iraqis have been uprooted and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR anticipates there will be approximately 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007. The refugee agency and its partners have provided emergency assistance, shelter and legal aid to displaced Iraqis where security has allowed.

In January 2007, UNHCR launched an initial appeal for US$60 million to fund its Iraq programme. Despite security issues for humanitarian workers inside the country, UNHCR and partners hope to continue helping up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis and their host communities

Posted on 12 June 2007

Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

Angelina Jolie returns to Iraq, urges support for the displaced

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to Iraq in July 2009 to offer support to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who remain displaced within their own country.

During her day-long visit to Baghdad, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited a makeshift settlement for internally displaced people in north-west Baghdad where she met families displaced from the district of Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad, and from the western suburbs of the capital.

Despite the difficulties in Iraq, Jolie said this was a moment of opportunity for Iraqis to rebuild their lives. "This is a moment where things seem to be improving on the ground, but Iraqis need a lot of support and help to rebuild their lives."

UNHCR estimates that 1.6 million Iraqis were internally displaced by a wave of sectarian warfare that erupted in February 2006 after the bombing of a mosque in the ancient city of Samarra. Almost 300,000 people have returned to their homes amid a general improvement in the security situation since mid-2008.

Angelina Jolie returns to Iraq, urges support for the displaced

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