If Armenian refugee Vahe Margaryan returns to his country, he will go to prison. Margaryan arrived in the United States seven years ago, fleeing his home country on the urging of his parents, who feared his being forced into a military notorious for its human rights abuses.
Once in the United States Margaryan applied for political asylum, but was denied after his lawyer falsified documents without his knowledge. He remained in the country without legal status.
His case is one in a number involving refugees caught between the limitations of the U.S. refugee protection system and hostile homelands. According to the Executive Office of Immigration Review, approximately half of all asylum cases are denied, often due to bureaucratic issues, like the filing deadline law or the expedited removal law, even though the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services found that the refugee or asylum seeker had credible fear.
April marked the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Turkey, Armenia’s western neighbor and responsible for the death of 1.5 million people during the Ottoman Empire in 1915, refuses to acknowledge the deaths as genocide, according to the United Nations. As a result, Turkey and Armenia have poor and sometimes violent relations. Armenia gained its independence following WWI in 1918.
Margaryan is a product of that tumultuous history.
“The story of the genocide is how the Armenian diaspora was born,” Talar Chahinian, professor of comparative world literature at California State University, Long Beach and assistant editor of the Armenian Review, said. “It is the reason why so many of them have led diasporic, migrant lives. It is difficult to avoid it when it’s so inherently tied to their being.”
Margaryan’s parents ordered him to leave Armenia over seven years ago, just before he graduated from college, so that he would not be forced to join the army against his will. In Armenia, all men 18-27 years of age must serve in the military by law. If they want to go to college, they must enlist immediately after they graduate.
Armenian soldiers are not paid for mandatory service, and the conditions in which the young soldiers live are deplorable, according to multiple Human Rights Watch World Reports over the last several years.
“The generals, the lieutenants are beating the shit out of soldiers. They think they are powerful and can do whatever they want,” Margaryan said. “On the borders there is always shooting from Azerbaijani or Turkish; people die there.”
Chahinian argues that this is all part of a century-long battle for recognition.
“Armenian communities were formed and flourished all around the world in the many decades following 1915,” Chahinian said. “Armenians across generations hold the genocide and the dispersion as the most important identity-defining moment in their recent history.
Armenia is home to some 2.9 million people, though most Armenians now live outside of the country with a total of around 7 million across the world, according to Armenia Diaspora online. Approximately 1.4 million Armenians live in the United States, one million of which live across Los Angeles County.
The U.S. has also refused to officially recognize the genocide, fearing it would alienate Turkey, a strong ally in the Middle East.
And while it also does not recognize Margaryan’s claim to refugee status, after his marriage to U.S. citizen Tania Margaryan six months ago, he began the process of obtaining a green card. The couple’s new immigration lawyer has been in Tania’s family for 20 years.
But when Margaryan requested that officials at the Los Angeles Armenian consulate update his passport or give him any sort of identification – needed for the green card – he was told he would have to return to Armenia, where he faces certain arrest.
Because the Armenian government refuses to issue a form of ID, Margaryan is barred from the kinds of activities that most legal residents take for granted: he is unable to open a bank account, go legally to a bar, or rent a car.
“I love my country, it’s the friendliest country in the world, people are nice, but the government is destroying everything,” Margaryan said, referring to Armenia. His eyebrows knitted into a frown, he speaks in gruff tones of his native Armenia. “What’s good for them is money; they don’t care about humanity at all.”
Referring to the country’s military conscription, Margaryan said he saw several friends come back from the army mentally ill.
“After the two years, you are losing your teeth because there are no vitamins or nothing. When you are coming back, you are pretty much a half-person. After two years, you are a crazy person.”
When he missed his enlistment date, military officials came knocking on his parents’ door. For their safety, his parents pretended they didn’t know anything, he said.
“I don’t know what my father did, but he said, ‘go to the embassy.’ That day [I left].”
Armenian men are typically required to have the military stamp of approval in order to leave the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Margaryan, who studied hotel management in the capital Yerevan, says when he arrived to the United States he stayed with his papi, or grandfather, who had come years before. He said he always wanted to come to the United States, but he didn’t know that he would never be able to return to his home country.
Of all the things in Armenia, he says he misses his mother the most. “In the seven years, not seeing her is the hardest thing.”