16 June 2006

Using an Armenian passport (sorry a Special Residence Status document)

A Passport... or a Way to Heaven
By Carlos Jose Bourdjian

Dear all,

This is the story of my latest trip to Yerevan and the adventures it
includes, and because many of you have heard a lot of incorrect details from
here and there, I decided to write the whole correct version of the story.

A year ago, I received my "Armenian passport" for which I was very happy,
and decided to use it for the first time. This trip was postponed a few
times the year before, and after many delays, I made my decision for the
16th of October 2005 for my one week to Yerevan.

I used my new passport for issuing the ticket, and gave it to Armavia
Airlines person in charge in Aleppo (second largest city in Syria) airport
after delivering the luggage and handbag.

I wanted to be sure if I had to pay for the airport taxes directly or -
being a Syrian - I needed to buy the 1700 SP permit (which includes the
airport tax). He advised me to take the 2nd option and so did the person in
charge of the customs, and I did as I have been told.

I got the OUT stamp in my Armenian passport and flew to Yerevan. Without
mentioning how small the plane was and the difficulties I had inside (since
I know such things happen in these flights), I was happy in spite of all
these as I was going to have a week full of adventures, full of concerts and
the things I enjoy, without knowing that the first adventure was so close .

The plane arrived after one hour and 20 minutes and I was the first who
rushed to the airport to clear my stuff quickly because my friend, Ani
Toranian, arranged a driver, to pick me up. I arrived to passport control
section, the guy asked for my ticket and passport, I gave them both, he
asked again "Passport sir", I told him I already gave him my passport, he
said no, this is the visa I need the passport, I said Noooo and showed him
where the word PASSPORT was mentioned on the cover, then he showed me the
1st page where it was mentioned that this passport has a 10 year visa
validity, and he needs to see my Syrian passport, my answer was why would I
carry 2 passports with me? If I'll show you the Syrian one then I need to
apply for a visa, he said Noo baby, you show your Syrian passport and use
the other one in place of visa. He seemed astonished to hear that I had left
the Syrian airport with the Armenian so called passport-visa and did not
comprehend how the Syrian authorities had stamped OUT in it. I simply said
this is my story and I don't have the Syrian passport with me. He asked me
to wait aside till the big boss comes.

Minutes later an officer came and took me through the transit area to the
front part of the airport where the passengers check in. On the way he asked
if I can get my passport on the next flight, and since there is no next
flight till next Sunday - the date of my return - I proposed to bring the
other passport via the Syrian Airlines flight, which was on Friday,
meanwhile they gave me a permission to go out of the airport, of course
leaving my Armenian Passport with them, and whenever the other one arrives I
would produce it to get the entry stamp and everything would go on smoothly
if I do that arrangement. The guy said "I'm not the one who will approve
this after all. The big chief will see if he can do it".

At that moment I saw Varouj Mahserejian and his wife who came to pick up
their relatives from the airport, and because I had an Armenian cellphone
SIM card (Viva Cell) with me - Thanks to my friend Noubar for buying it for
me - I called Varouj and explained my problem, he was surprised but I
assured him that I'll be out of the airport within 30 minutes till the
bigger boss comes and clears this out.

The officer asked me to wait for the bigger boss in the transit area, where
there was the Duty Free and "The Armenian Surj" Café, I waited for an hour
till 6:30 a.m. then called Ani, who was shocked to hear this, she called the
driver to wait an hour more.

It was 9:30 a.m, the chief was not there yet, Ani called me several times
and all we could do was wait for the chief. I called Shushan Petrossian
[known Armenian singer - Azad-Hye], my dear friend (she was not feeling well
because of a backache), maybe she knew somebody in the airport who could
help. She began calling friends here and there, but the problem was that she
needed to know the name of this chief, which I didn't and nobody knew
because the security people were Russians and the Armenians, who were
inside, didn't know anything about the outside people.

The phone calls were still going between the three of us. Me, Ani and
Shushan. Eventually, the clock indicated 10:30 a.m. The big chief came, a
Russian, he told me that there was no way I could go out of the airport
without the passport. I suggested my solution, but he wasn't convinced, I
proposed to bring the passport with a courier service, but got the same
negative reply again.

Shushan told me to declare that I was her guest in Yerevan, and she couldn't
come because of her health problems. And as I was telling these details she
called again, I handled the phone to the chief to speak with her in Russian.
I saw he was smiling while talking and I said to myself "everything is over
and I'm out", but later Shushan told me that he was expressing how much he
admires her voice and a few compliments, but the rule was a rule, No
passport, No going out ...

I asked to know about the options I have, he said "we can send you to your
country via Tehran (Iran)", "You are not allowing me to go one step from
here without my passport, so how will the Iranians allow me?" was my

He stopped for a while then said with his weak English "you are right, so
you have to take the other choice, which is to wait here till your passport
arrives". I began to laugh, he did too, and told him this "Look, do you see
the squares in the ceiling? I was here for 4 hours and I know that there are
21 squares in the little part and 24 squares in the big one, and if I stay
longer I'll begin to count the floor squares, do you find this reasonable?",
He smiled and said "The Rule is a Rule".

I asked – as a last solution - if the Syrian Embassy could be responsible
for my sojourn and bring me out with their guarantee until my passport

"This should be in written form" was his reply.

I began my phone calls to Ani, who contacted the Syrian Embassy, they
responded quickly, agreed with this solution and promised to issue a letter.

Shushan also knew someone there, who tried to be of a help. Ani needed copy
of my passport so she contacted my mom in Aleppo, who went to our office to
fax it. She sent me an SMS, then called me, you know how emotional mothers
are in general and how they think in such cases. Everybody was working
outside... but me? ...what was I doing inside?

I had my 1st cup of coffee with a delicious cake in the "Armenian Surj"
café. There were 3 girls working in the Duty Free who noticed that something
was wrong with me, they approached, introduced themselves at lunch time and
invited me to share their sandwiches.

In the meantime my sister Sylvia called from the USA; she called the house I
was going to stay, and got my number through Ani. She was worried a lot, but
I told her I'll be out in a few hours.

1 hour later Ani called and informed me that it took them so long to finish
the process of issuing the requested letter but still needed to be legalized
and because the working hours were over I had to spend the night over there
in the airport. No way, I thought.

Sylvia called several times and got more worried. Everybody calling me was
asking where am I going to sleep? How is the situation inside? What are you
consuming for food?

The food was good; the toilets were very clean, of course there were no
showers and I managed to clean my teeth with chewing gums, besides, I was
clean and in a good condition, my hair was gelled and perfect.

There were foreign people in the transit area, people talking in Spanish. I
asked the duty free girls, they said they were from Argentina and
supervising the duty free staff training and development. The free shop was
not that big, alcohol drinks and Armenian cogniac were cheaper than
perfumes, the latters were very expensive. I told the girls and Guillermo
(one of the Argentineans) about this, especially when I showed them couple
of perfumes I bought from the Aleppo free shop; they were astonished with
the cheap prices I paid.

Arman, the bartender in the "Armenian Surj", told me to get some sleep, but
I couldn't find a place to rest, he said that the handles of the chairs at
the waiting room could be moved leaving enough space to sleep. I tried that
but I had back pains after 2 hours of sleeping. So I didn't sleep at all.

In the evening there was another trio of girls replacing the ones who were
there in daytime, so we introduced ourselves to each other, of course they
heard my story and were laughing and feeling shame at the same time.

We spent the whole night talking about things that had happened in the
airport before. I heard horrible stories like how people came and stayed in
the transit area for a week or two because of visa problems, and how the
girls encouraged them to hold on and face the terrible days. Then they began
to talk about their private lives, how they were studying in universities,
then financial problems made them look for work besides studying to earn
more money to help their families on one hand and finish their education on
the other hand. They told me about the robberies that happened in the duty
free especially at the perfume section and how innocent people were fired
because of this. I was feeling bad after hearing their stories, and
comparing to what I heard my case became very easy and simple to solve.

Noushig Mikayelian, Ani's daughter, called me. I didn't inform her that I
was coming to Yerevan and wanted to surprise her. She said: "who is
surprising who?" And I was laughing anxiously. She wanted to help and
offered to come and bring food, but it was impossible for her to enter that
area, besides, I had excellent food inside.

Avig, i.e. Avedis Berberian, a friend of mine, also called and felt ashamed
because he thought it was awful to keep an Armenian trapped in the airport
for a silly reason, so he, as an Armenian, felt horrible for me, but he
could do nothing so we laughed and made jokes to alleviate the situation.

There was a flight to Paris in the early morning, so instead of sitting and
doing nothing I helped the girls in the Duty free. I was watching the
customers especially in the perfume section, because it was very easy to
take a small bottle and pocket it, especially that they didn't have an alarm
system. Then I helped people to buy Armenian cognac (of course after
listening what the girls were saying, plus the explanations were giving
before), and little by little I began working there as an employee.

I felt tired in the early morning. I took a nap sitting on one of the
restaurant's tables. When I woke up there was a new set of girls. Nune and
Hasmig from last night were gone and left me a souvenir while I was
sleeping, it was a pack of half kg Armenian coffee, which I'm drinking now
while writing this story to you.

The new trio was Lilia, Sirush and Liana. Liana was the head of the duty
free and responsible for all the girls. She works hard. The bartender and
his assistant were replaced too. So I had to tell my story again and again.

Shushan called again feeling very sorry for what had happened and was very
upset since I couldn't sleep, I told her that's ok, within hours we'll go
and have lunch somewhere.

Ani called again asking for my Syrian ID card, which fortunately was with
me. The Embassy wanted a proof that I was Syrian, and thank God I had it, so
she came to take the ID, she couldn't enter in, I tried to send it with one
of the girls outside but it was difficult to do this, so she asked the help
of one of the security guys, and it took two hours for this mission
impossible to be accomplished, getting the ID 30 meters away. You can
imagine how time was flying. After getting the ID and printing the much
awaited letter, which will enable me to get out of my prison, Ani called
again saying no good news. The letter was refused to be legalized because
after contacting the airport, the Russians refused to take this action, and
I have to stay at the airport till Friday, the arrival of the next Syrian
Airlines flight.

I felt like a big basket of shit was emptied on me, pissed off and very mad.
Ani called again and informed that Vrej, my uncle, back in Aleppo, was
trying with the help of father Antranig Ayvazian, who had too many contacts,
to do something. On the other hand Noushig called another friend, a wife of
a big politician. She promised to talk with her husband, because he was out
of the country, and she did indeed. They all tried to help but when it came
to the last step for the Russians to let me out, they always refused and
asked only for the PASSPORT.

I noticed that my cell phone units were about to end, so I asked one of the
girls to buy me some units, but then there was another problem, the phone's
battery was almost empty and nobody had Sony-Erricson mobile. Everybody had
Nokia, only one girl had a Sony-Erricson, but why to bring the "Zariedka"
(the charger in Russian) with her? She charges her phone at home and uses it
here... Good point.

Ani called again saying that one of the Armavia Airlines employees is coming
to Yerevan via Beirut flight, late Wednesday early Thursday, and he will
bring the passport with him, this is the quickest solution because the
courier services like DHL and FedEx are using the same flights and no way to
get it earlier. So Beirut flight was the only early choice for me and as a
result, I had to stay till Thursday morning.

I asked for my luggage, at least my handbag, and was promised to have it,
but nothing arrived. Thank God again for the clean toilets.

My uncle's attempts reached to higher levels through another politician, who
was a friend of Father Antranig. So I was waiting for a sergeant in the
military, to come and pick me up, but this one also failed with the

Another day passed and there was nothing to do, I tried to find a book to
read, but all I found was one in Russian, nothing in Armenian in this area.
On Wednesday I had this call from Ani with a surprise for me. My mom
herself, decided to bring the passport by taking the Beirut flight, so she
had to go earlier from Aleppo to Beirut by bus, take a taxi to the airport
and straight to Yerevan. I was glad to hear this, because I knew how tired
my mom was lately due to her work and how much she needed a relaxing trip,
eventually this solution was great for both of us.

I was very tired. What I wanted most was a good sleep. Meanwhile I was
afraid to take a nap, because the last time I woke up I was freezing a hell
with pains in my back.

The girl at the bar came and asked if I like plav with soung (rice with
mushroom sauce) I could join them for lunch. I tried to refuse the offer
because they had only a small amount for themselves, but she insisted a lot,
and I shared the delicious meal.

At night, we had a couple of flights to Beirut and Moscow, we sold a lot of
Armenian cogniac because it was cheaper than the ordinary shops in downtown
Yerevan, so I bought a few bottles too, had a permission to keep them there
and take them with me on my way back home.

It was Thursday 1:00 past midnight, the Beirut flight was supposed to arrive
at 3:00 a.m and I had a few hours left. I watched the movie "Madagascar"
dubbed in Russian, of course not understanding a single word, but the girls
helped in translation. Then I had my last cup of tea and a soufflé cake with
Lilia, a very nice girl with a degree in Chemistry, but now working in the
Duty Free till she finds another job. She told me also that she has a Muslim
friend from Aleppo, who also studied in Yerevan, she liked him, but not to
marriage level. He asked her to come to Aleppo, find a job there, but there
was the language problem, and she was confused, and I was listening to her
in the middle of my troubles, but I was happy because only a few hours were
left to leave this nice, cozy and friendly prison.

It was 4:00 a.m and I was waiting for somebody to come and pick me up, but
no one. The flight arrived on time at 3:30, I was invited to my last cup of
coffee and enjoyed it. Both Duty Free and Armenian Surj employees were
worried for what will happen this time, will I be able to go out or no? If
yes, then where is my mom? I began to doubt that maybe she missed the plane
or something happened on the Syrian - Lebanese border.

It was 5:30 when finally an officer came with my passport in his hands. He
recognized me and asked to walk along with him back to the arrival
check-point on the other side of the airport. I said goodbye to everyone and
promised to bring them some pakhlava sweets on my way back. On our way to
the transit area, the officer took the IN stamp out of his pocket and sealed
on my passport with that day's date, which was 20 October 2005, then he
asked me to find my bags from gortsradz ireri graseniag, which is "Lost and
Found" section, and for the first time I saw my name written in Russian when
I signed the papers at the L&F office.

When I went out, Haygo, the same driver, was there waiting for me, he came
and hugged me, I didn't know him before, but that was a big Welcome for me.

I asked if he saw my mom, but he didn't notice anyone, I don't know what
made me take my cell phone and call her, although I knew that her phone does
not have an international roaming, but suddenly a Miracle....it was ringing
and I heard my mom's voice, and that was the only time that her phone rang,
cause during our trip it was not working properly.

My mom was waiting for me in the Departure section at the other side, so we
found each other, hugged and kissed for a bit long. Hayko took the bags to
the car and I began telling lots of stories on the way back.

A final note. After we arrived home and talked to my sister and the other
friends who were waiting for my arrival, we had a small breakfast, then at
7:30 a.m. I slept and didn't wake up till 4:30 p.m. when I heard somebody
singing some opera notes, I thought maybe I was dreaming, but then it turned
out Ani with her mother Dr. Armine Toranian were waiting in the living room,
she came in and with her vocalize etudes woke me up and said: "Yalla ge pave
bargik, yelek tambalner, surje badrasd e" (Come on, enough sleeping, get up,
coffee is ready) and she was laughing at me cause it was the first time for
her to see me with long beard.

I hope you enjoyed reading this story. I'll try to write you later the 2nd
part of it, which will include my adventures in Yerevan.

And a last note: Always carry your main Passport with you whatever other
passports you have .... :)

Carlos Jose Bourdjian
30 May 2006

Note from Azad-Hye:
Carlos Jose Bourdjian lives in Aleppo. He is a Syrian Armenian who thought
that he could travel to Armenia using only his Armenian so-called passport
(which is in fact dubbed as Special Residence Status). He did not know that
this document is a sort of residence visa, which is given for 10 years to
people of Armenian (and non-Armenian) descent living abroad for US$ 300 +
US$ 50 processing fees.

As a residence visa (or permit) this document allows the holder to stay
and work in Armenia and buy some properties, but it is never valid to cross
international borders.

If you are a frequent traveler to Armenia you can save visa expenses by
using this document. By using this document you can also avoid time
restrictions compared to a normal visa, which has a limited duration.


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