Armenian refugee camp to be demolished

Sanjak camp is disappearing. The expanding Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud will consume the 20,000-square-meter area within the next few years, and in the process eliminate one of the last remaining Armenian refugee camps in Lebanon. Sanjak is being demolished to accommodate the growing population of Burj Hammoud and its busy shopping district.

The Burj Hammoud municipality plans to replace Sanjak with St. Jacques Plaza, a commercial and residential center.

Vasken K. Chekijian of VKC Design and Planning is the architect in charge of the project. He said that the plaza, which is the first project of its kind supported by a municipality in Lebanon, will consist of two eight-floor apartment buildings and one 10-floor apartment building. The plaza will also have a landscaped area, he added. It will also contain the first multi-storey parking garage in Lebanon, he said.

Today, a large field of rubble and a few rows of dilapidated buildings are all that is left of Sanjak camp. Streams of running water flow through narrow walkways that are cluttered with debris. Personal belongings such as sneakers and clothes lie abandoned in empty homes.

The camp was established in 1939, in response to Turkey’s annexation of Alexandretta, an autonomous territory, within French mandated Syria. Historian Vahe Tachjian wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Star that approximately 15,000 Armenians lived in Alexandretta, which was located at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, an area that is now the Turkish province of Hatay.

According to information provided by Tachjian, the majority of the Armenian population of Alexandretta fled the province in July of 1939, just prior to its inclusion into Turkey. They migrated south to French Mandate Lebanon. They settled in various refugee camps throughout the country, which had been set up by the French High Commission. In the fall of 1939 a small number of the fleeing Armenians settled inland of an already established “quarantine” area – the present day Karantina – along Beirut’s northern coast and next to Burj Hammoud, which at the time was farmland.

The name “Sanjak” is Turkish for “district” or “province.” It alludes to the lost Armenian “Sanjak of Alexandretta,” from which the camp’s settlers originated.

Throughout the last half of the 20th century the camp gradually expanded and its population diversified. The camp grew to include several other ethnic groups, primarily immigrants from Syria, Southeast Asia and Armenia, said Elyse Semerdjian, a professor of Middle East History at Whitman College in the United States who took up the history of Sanjak in a recent issue of the American publication Armenian Weekly.

While immigrants from various parts of the region moved into the camp, many of the original Armenians who could afford to move relocated to Burj Hammoud. Raffi Kokoghlanian, the deputy mayor of Burj Hammoud, said that just prior to the first phase of demolition, only 30 percent of the people living in the camp were descendants of the original Armenian inhabitants.

In recent years, as Burj Hammoud has expanded and prospered, the camp has remained impoverished.

Kokoghlanian says that for the past several years the Municipal Council debated what should become of Sanjak camp, which he said had become “a slum and problematic.”

The council, he added, decided to build “something that would improve and increase the accessibility of Burj Hammoud’s shopping district and create more middle-class living space.”

According to Chekijian, the plaza will create 184 new apartments, which will be affordable to the lower-middle class, and the parking complex will add 950 parking spaces to the cramped suburb. St. Jacques will also have 70 commercial shops.

Today, half the camp has been leveled. Semerdjian estimated that the camp originally contained about 300 shops and homes that housed around 160 families, while fewer than 45 homes remain.

Semerdjian believes “Sanjak Camp lies at a crucial intersection,” she wrote, “not only for the commercial vitality of Burj Hammoud, but also for the moral consciousness of the greater Armenian community.”

The Armenian diaspora has created a large and relatively affluent community in Lebanon. They number roughly 150,000 and represent approximately 4 percent of the country’s population. Many are descendants of people who escaped the Armenian genocide, however; some, like those who live in Sanjak, are the progeny of the roughly 15,000 Armenians who fled Alexandretta in 1939.

Today, the majority of Lebanese Armenians reside in either Burj Hammoud or Anjar, a town in the Beqaa.

Although no census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932, it is believed that 150,000 people reside in Burj Hammoud, of whom 80 percent are Armenian.

According to information provided by Semerdjian, many of the original Armenian refugee camps were still standing 20 years ago.

The increasing urbanization of cities and the need for more space, which is something not unique to Lebanon, has led to the eradication of important historic and cultural sites in countries throughout the world, and this may become the fate of the Armenian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Semerdjian used Tyro camp as an example. The camp, which was located a few blocks away from Sanjak in Burj Hammoud, was recently leveled and replaced by the Harboyan buildings, said Semerdjian.

For the moment, progress on the St. Jacques project has come to a halt. The remaining residents are refusing to let the municipality buy them out, saying that they are not being offered enough money.

Semerdjian wrote in her Armenian Weekly article that “most families in the camp reported that they were receiving about $3,000-$5,000 compensation from the municipality.”

“The municipality was paying more than the value of the current homes,” Kokoghlanian said.

He added that he believes it is only a matter of time until the municipality and the enduring residents reach an agreement.

Kokoghlanian said the construction of St. Jacques Plaza is an “improvement that will help Burj Hammoud evolve and continue to thrive.”

The suburb, which is two square kilometers in size, is one of the most densely populated areas in the Middle East, say several Web sites; and the city block that Sanjak occupies is precious space.

The Armenian diaspora in Lebanon has made no significant attempt to prevent the camp’s destruction. In reaction to their posture, Semerdjian asked if the community “will continue to ignore the social and economic factors that have contributed to the persistence of this Armenian refugee camp for over 60 years?”

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