Museum Display of Never Seen Near East Relief Photos and Objects


For most Armenia’s–the period from 1915-1930 brings to mind painful images of inhumanity–catastrophe–deportation–starvation–and genocide. Yet this was also a period which generated stories of survival–heroism–and generosity.

One of those stories involves Near East Relief (NER)–now called the Near East Foundation–a private American philanthropic organization founded in New York City in 1915 by Cleveland Hoadley Dodge in response to Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s urgent cable to the US Secretary of State on September 3 stating that the "destruction of the Armenian race in Turkey is progressing rapidly" and urging that a committee be formed "to raise funds and provide means to save some of the Armenia’s." Within two weeks–a group of civic–business–and religious leaders had formed such a committee.

In preparation for the celebration of its 90th Anniversary in 2005–the Near East Foundation last year began exploring and cataloguing its archives from the period 1915-1930. As a result–in partnership with the Museum of the City of New York–an exhibition of never-before-displayed photographs and objects chronicling this history and the Foundation’s response to saving survivors of the genocide and deportation will open this fall.

The exhibition–titled Near East/New York: The Near East Foundation and American Philanthropy–will run from October 4 until December 7 at the Museum located on 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street. The exhibition will give New Yorkers and especially Armenia’s a first-time opportunity to view these photographs and objects about their history and in some cases about their own families’ histories.

By 1930–Near East Relief had raised more than $110 million to respond to the needs of these refugees. Countless Armenia’s today can trace their lives or those of their parents and grandparents back to NER orphanages and camps. Near East Relief provided food–clothing–shelter–and education for approximately one million victims of the genocide and deportations. Historians like Vartan Gregorian have credited Near East Foundation (NEF) with saving a generation of Armenia’s.

Now almost ninety years later–the Near East Foundation–still centered in New York City–continues the work begun in response to the needs of Armenian genocide survivors. It now works with people in over a dozen countries in the Middle East and Africa to help provide them with the capabilities and the resources they need to build the better future for themselves.

The exhibition Near East/New York will include a special opening on October 7: a social and private viewing of the exhibition. The event also launches the fundraising efforts of the Committee of Armenian Friends of the Near East Foundation. The group came together to pay tribute to the work of NEF in saving the Armenian genocide survivors and to demonstrate the gratitude of Armenia’s by supporting the current work of the Foundation.

"The Committee of Armenian Friends of NEF offers a perfect example of people completing the circle of giving," said NEF Board Member and Treasurer–Antranig Sarkissian who is the Chairperson of the Committee. "Those who once benefited from the generosity of others in their time of need give back by supporting those now in need." The Committee includes Armenian civic–religious–and business leaders who have been working for over a year to bring recognition to the many New York leaders who came to the rescue of the Armenia’s and to generate financial support for the continuation of NEF’s work in the Middle East and Africa.

Co-chairperson of the Committee Shant Mardirossian–a member of the NEF International Council–notes that "In one form or the other the Armenian community was impacted by the work of the Near East Relief. I urge everyone to visit the exhibition and support the current work of NEF."

Prepared by guest curator Neery Melkonian and designed in collaboration between Near East Foundation and the staff of the Museum of the City of New York–this groundbreaking exhibition will also provide a timely look at American philanthropy in the early twentieth century.

City Partners collaboration between the Museum and the Near East Foundation–the exhibition features more than 300 items from the Foundation’s archive–including over 50 rare photographs that record its early work in Armenia–Turkey–Persia–Lebanon–Syria–Palestine–Egypt–and the Caucasus–all areas where it operated orphanages–health clinics–and vocational training facilities. Near East/New York also showcases a number of historical documen’s such as the 1915 telegram sent by Henry Morgenthau–US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Among the historic images is one of thousands of children from the largest orphanage–nicknamed "Orphan City" and housing over 25,000 children–standing in formation so as to spell out the words "America We Thank You."

Among the innovative approaches employed in the exhibit is the production of a series of posters created by top American illustrators–including E. F. Betts–W. T. Benda–and Douglas Volk. Usually focusing on a single woman or child–the posters captured the desperate circumstances of the refugees and urged the generous support of Americans in response to this humanitarian tragedy.

Near East Relief also laid the foundation for modern approaches to fundraising and international development. It initiated "Bundle Days," which encouraged Americans to send their used clothing overseas (thousands of tons were shipped)–and the "Milk Campaign" that ten-year-old child actor Jackie Coogan volunteered to spearhead in 1924. Movie houses around the country were designated as "food stations" where cans of condensed milk were collected at screenings of Coogan’s films. Coogan himself visited the Near East–traveling on a "milk ship" out of New York.

On International Golden Rule Sunday–families across the nation were urged to eat a simple orphanage meal and to donate the equivalent cost of an average American Sunday dinner. Several U.S. presidents issued proclamations and wrote letters endorsing the work of Near East Relief. One such letter on display is from Calvin Coolidge–dated June 17–1924–thanking people for observing Golden Rule Sunday.

Founder Dodge’s volunteer group–first known as the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief–set an initial goal of raising $100,000. They quickly met that objective–primarily with donations from the early Board members–who included–in addition to Dodge–James L. Barton–Charles Crane–Stephen Wise–Samuel Dutton–Charles V. Vickrey–and other leading citizens. Other early leaders included Henry Morgenthau–Herbert Hoover–William Howard Taft–John Finley–Franklin Delano Roosevelt–and Theodore Roosevelt.

The needs of the refugees and the widespread American interest in their cause soon led the committee to expand its goals and its operations. By 1919–the committee had been chartered by Congress and designated as the primary channel for U.S. postwar aid to the region (the term Middle East was not used until after World War II).

From its headquarters–located at 1 Madison Avenue–the organization launched a national fundraising campaign that had "Madison Avenue written all over it." One famous slogan was "Hunger Knows No Armistice." Another was "Clear Your Plate–Remember the Starving Armenia’s." Unique in its scale to that date and scarcely rivaled since–the organization’s fundraising operation raised approximately $1.25 billion in today’s dollars in less than fifteen years.

That money was spent initially on establishing orphanages and on feeding and clothing refugees. By the time it was renamed the Near East Foundation in 1930–it had become America’s first private international development agency–providing not just relief but practical assistance to people in need–health care–education and cultural activities. The idea expressed in the saying–"give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime" became NEF’s watchword.

After 1930 the organization expanded its geographic purview to include much of the Middle East and parts of Africa. Today–the Near East Foundation maintains its early focus on self-help in dozens of programs. NEF works at the grassroots level of development–where training–technology–and community-based institutions touch the lives of people. It provides qualified specialists to assist with transfer of technical skills and training; leverages funding for projects which have strong local support; and pursues opportunities to extend its reach through cooperation with other agencies.

"As we look at how NEF works today," says NEF President Dr. Ryan LaHurd–"it is striking that it is the same approach employed in 1915: make partnerships with people in need to assist them in gaining the technology–the learning and the resources they need to build for themselves the better future which they envision but need help to reach. Our approach is built on valuing the dignity of all people."

In conjunction with the exhibition–the Museum of the City of New York and the Near East Foundation will invite Armenian New Yorkers whose families were helped by its programs between 1915 and 1930 to submit photographs and family reminiscences. This material will be posted on the Museum’s website ( as a special "Share Your Story" section of its feature on Near East/New York.

Programs offered during the run of Near East/New York include the following–all of which will be at the Museum’s 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street location:



Neery Melkonian–guest curator of the exhibition Near East/New York–discusses the objects on display–which she selected from over 7,000-items in the archives of the Near East Foundation.



Armenian Storytelling with Alidz Agbabian

Children’s author Alidz Agbabian presents "Walking–Talking Mountains and Rocks," stories of hope and survival–laughter and inspiration from the oral traditions of Armenia. One segment of her program is dedicated to the memory of her uncle–a survivor of the Armenian catastrophe–who came to the United States through Ellis Island.



International Development: Current Issues

A discussion of the challenges of the post-September 11 world–addressing such topics as post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq and American approaches to the fight against poverty in the Middle East and Africa.



Peter Balakian–prize-winning poet and author of Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (to be released by HarperCollins in late September 2003) discusses his complex personal journey–interpreting the myths–metaphors–and silences of his own family and traces his people’s haunted history and America’s responses to the 1915 genocide–including the work of Near East Relief. Book signing to follow.


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