BEIRUT: Seated outside the clothes shop in Burj Hammoud where he works, Syrian-Armenian Ararad Mahdesian gazes into the distance, reminiscing about the place he still calls home.
“I had beautiful days in Kasab. I was born there and I am from there,” the 25-year-old says solemnly, referring to a town in northwest Syria that was overrun by rebels less than two weeks ago while he wasn’t there.
Located on the border with Turkey, Kasab is a historical town with an ethnic Armenian population that dates back to the medieval Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. Until the civil war, Kasab was a tourist destination mostly inhabited by farmers.
Now, like so many places in Syria, it has all changed.
Mahdesian says his 65-year-old father was one of the last people to leave Kasab, and that his relatives are now in Latakia with around 600 other families who all fled due to the rebel attack.
According to Mahdesian, who left a month ago for economic reasons, about 20 people remain unaccounted for and are thought to still be in town.
The effects of the town’s seizure has been heavily felt in Lebanon’s bustling Burj Hammoud, a sprawling suburb northeast of Beirut that was founded by survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and is the hub for the 200,000 or so members of the Lebanese-Armenian community.
On Tuesday afternoon, shops in Burj Hammoud shut for two hours in solidarity with the besieged town.
“We closed for two hours, and we are united with them,” said Toros Papazian, a security guard at Mesrobian School of Armenian Catholics in Burj Hammoud. “Our hearts are with Syrian-Armenians.”
Kasab is now thought to be entirely vacant of the Armenian community that has inhabited the area for centuries and endured prior tragedies including the 1909 Adana Massacre and the genocide six years later.
There are no official figures on how many residents of Kasab have taken refuge in Lebanon, but sources estimated that less than 100 have settled here, primarily in Burj Hammoud or Anjar, a town in the Bekaa Valley with a large Lebanese-Armenian population.
“Of course it sent shockwaves through the Armenian diaspora,” said Vahram Emiyan, the international news editor at Armenian language-daily Aztag, based in Burj Hammoud. “This region is part of the historic [Armenian Kingdom of] Cilicia, and Armenians have lived there since the middle ages.”
Emiyan added, “The forced deportation brings back very terrible memories from the Armenian genocide.”
“Kasab had a specific Armenian culture with their own dialect, their own books, vocabulary and traditions,” said Father Vartan Kazanjian of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate in Beirut, who lived in Syria for two brief stints in the ’90s. “For us, Kasab was the last town left from the Armenian lands.”
“It used to be a secure area,” said Aram Seraydarian, a shop owner in Burj Hammoud. “We are scared, not just for Armenians but for all Christians in the East.”
Kazanjian visited the displaced Syrian-Armenian community in Latakia last Saturday.
“It was very hard to see these people after they left their houses and land behind,” he said.
Kazanjian said that more than 300 people were holed up in a church in Latakia and were short on basic necessities. He added that the situation was made more difficult to bear considering it fell just a year shy of the 100-year commemoration of the genocide.
Kazanjian said one displaced gentleman he spoke to in Latakia broke into tears mid-conversation.
“I told him not to worry and that hopefully he will be able to return home soon,” Kazanjian said, to which the man replied, “I may not see that day.”
Another man Kazanjian met had been displaced twice after fleeing having previously fled from Raqqa to Kasab.
“It’s very hard to see these people suffering,” Kazanjian said.
While the Lebanese-Armenian community has shown sorrow for the plight of their partners in the diaspora, critics have accused them of only showing compassion when fellow Armenians are involved.
“I’m not saying Armenians are others; a human is a human and a person is a person,” said Kazanjian. “I don’t want any person to be killed, but we have a cultural and historical connection to Kasab.”
For Syrian-Armenians like Mahdesian, however, the situation is clearly personal.
“For the last week I haven’t slept well,” he says somberly. “When I close my eyes, I see my village and how I lost everything.
“I don’t care about clothes or shoes, but I care about the memories. Everything is gone.”