Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the First Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Armenians have fled Armenia. Some fled to escape the war and mandatory military service. Others, due to the economic crisis that followed Armenia throughout three decades of its independence. Some have returned, some hope to return, but others say they don’t think they will ever see the Armenia they want to live in. Vigen, Narek and Gayane (all names have been changed for security reasons) all left Armenia for a better life in three different decades. Here, they share the stories behind their decisions.

Vigen was born in Vanadzor. His memories of childhood are of being constantly on the road. He was four or five when his family first decided to leave Armenia; Vigen’s father was wanted by the Armenian police. They went to Russia first, then to Moldova, to Belarus, then again to Russia. When Vigen’s father passed away, the family moved back to Armenia. He was nine at the time. A year or so later his mother decided to take Vigen and his brothers to the Netherlands.

Vigen remembers life as a refugee. “First, our room was very small. In the beginning we were at a temporary center. Then we were moved to the main refugee center. There were people who were staying there for years. In other words, it was an unpleasant experience. Thankfully, I think we only spent about ten months there.”

Growing up, Vigen always wanted to learn more about Armenia, but his mother had endured many traumatic experiences there, and was trying to make her children integrate more into Dutch culture. “She would almost get panic attacks when I spoke about wanting to move back to Armenia,” Vigen remembers. His mother didn’t open up much about her own experience, but there were bits and pieces about Armenia being a dangerous and hopeless place. Despite this, Vigen remembers his mom confessing that if she were to make that decision all over again, she would probably give Armenia a second chance, but at the time, she needed to protect her kids.

Talking about the war, Vigen remembers his father, who fought in the first Karabakh War and the stories they heard about the war as children, about what Armenians had done to Azerbaijanis during the fighting.

“I don’t know why those stories were told in front of children, especially with such pride. It’s like an unending cycle. I can tell you similar stories about what the other side did, but is that really the point? I am Armenian. I can talk on my behalf and on behalf of my nation. I should take that responsibility especially when it involves my father…I think Armenia made many mistakes in the conflict since the 90s that could’ve been avoided and given the country a better geopolitical situation. I think extreme nationalism and militarism gave us nothing…It’s sad that so many people had to be cut off from their loved ones, families, their environment, their atmosphere, etc.”

Currently, Vigen lives in Belgium and works as a film director. However,  he often thinks about moving to Armenia permanently and creating movies there. “Even though it’s my birthplace, it will be a new atmosphere, new triggers, everything will be new for me. That’s interesting from a creative point of view.”

After a life of constantly being on the road, it took Vigen years to find the feeling of “home” anywhere he has lived, whether the Netherlands, Belgium or Armenia.

“To me, home is a place where it’s warm, safe, and where you want to go back,” he said, adding that now, more and more often, when he thinks about finding a permanent home, he thinks about Armenia.

Narek left Armenia in August 2018, after a violent, homophobic incident that targeted both him and his family. He realized he wouldn’t be able to find a job anywhere in Armenia without being recognized, or having a normal, safe life. He moved to The Netherlands as a refugee and requested asylum.

Narek grew up in a rural village in Armenia. His early memories are that of a quiet and mundane life. He moved to Yerevan in 2014 and discovered that people can be conservative in Yerevan too. Sometimes, even more so than in his village.

Narek, like a lot of people in Armenia, had high hopes about the 2018 Revolution. He hoped the problems queer people were facing in Armenia would be addressed more. However, even though Narek considered the attack on him an evident precedent for legal improvements in Armenia, no significant changes occurred afterward. So he left.

The process of receiving asylum in The Netherlands took about two years. “It was complicated and tiring,” Narek says.

Narek says he doesn’t see Armenia changing enough for him to return and live there freely as a queer person. “The only way I see [this as possible] is being rich. So that you can go and live in your apartment on Cascade [center of Yerevan]. You can’t just go to 3rd Masiv [suburb of Yerevan] and rent an apartment. It won’t work.”

Narek finished the conversation by remembering a gay manager from Europe with whom he once worked at a very expensive hotel in Armenia. “While everyone knew he was gay, no one said or did anything to him.” Narek believes when it comes to being queer in Armenia, wealth is the only thing that might give you privacy and safety.

Gayane left Armenia with her son in 2014. She was laid off from her job when she was 42; she claims the reason was the high levels of corruption and nepotism in Armenia during those years. Gayane tried to open a vegetable shop in her hometown, Vanadzor, but it didn’t take off. Her attempts to find other jobs were also unsuccessful. “Someone, who was probably older than me, told me that I was too old to be hired,” she says.

“I thought I could never live anywhere else…But when you can’t find a job in your own country, when making a living is an issue, loving a country becomes secondary.”

Meanwhile, her son was approaching military age, and she wanted him to avoid the service. They went to Russia, first to Lipetsk, then Moscow. Though Gayane’s daughter stayed in Armenia.

Gayane remembers how hard it was in the beginning, unable to find a job and a place to sleep; for a week they even had to stay in a car. Eventually she was able to find not one but two jobs and make a living in Russia for herself and her son.

When her son turned 18, he decided to return to Armenia, since he didn’t want to live “on the run” from the country. He returned and enlisted in the army. A few months before his service was supposed to be over, the Second Nagorno Karabakh War broke out. Gayane came back to Armenia, hoping to be reunited with her son after his service was over. But he didn’t live to that, he died in the war.

Gayane says she feels deceived about a lot of things that revolved around the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict. During the war her daughter would call her and tell her that the “lands need to be returned.” Gayane couldn’t understand why her daughter would say this when her brother was fighting on the border. But she claimed her brother was behind her stance.

“Our nation values stones, khachkars and churches more than human life. That’s why we’re in this situation. When they start valuing the life of every child over khachkars, a lot will change, and we won’t have so many victims. I’m not ready to exchange even one child’s life with Karabakh. Not one piece of land or stone is worth a person’s life. And whoever is talking about lands or demanding lands now, they are our number one enemy. No land is taken without blood. And I believe we’ve had enough blood. Too much,” Gayane says.

She believes that the concept of motherland is not that of a country or stones or churches. It’s that of one’s family, children, friends and loved ones.

“When my son was here, he was my motherland,” she says.