BY VANNA T. KITSINIAN, ESQ.
The Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region has announced that it will bestow the Humanitarian Award to the Near East Foundation, the successor to the historic Near East Relief, at its Annual Banquet Gala taking place on November 2 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The honor is more than well deserved, as there is perhaps no other organization towards which Armenians everywhere can express greater gratitude.
The Near East Relief (NER). Its mission was clear. Its response ever so swift. Its accomplishments immeasurable. It’s an organization that stayed true to its noble calling for 15 unrelenting years. It’s difficult to think of an entity today that has been dedicated to the same cause for so long and carried out as much as the NER. In short, the NER saved a Nation. It supported our people’s will to live. It allowed us to persevere. For Armenians, it secured our survival, and better yet, our existence. For everyone else, it was the greatest humanitarian effort the world had ever seen.
Established in 1915 as a direct result of the Armenian Genocide, the Near East Relief (currently known as the Near East Foundation) is the United States’ oldest Congressionally-sanctioned non-governmental organization, which for the first time in American history, expressed the collective generosity and humanitarianism of the American people. It did so under the most challenging of circumstances, galvanizing the entire nation, and thereafter, the world, in bringing international attention to the plight of the starving Armenians during the First World War.
At the time, the U.S. Ambassador to Constantinople was Henry Morgenthau, who witnessed first-hand the atrocities being committed by the Ottomans against the minorities in the Near East, particularly the Armenians. On September 6, 1915, Morgenthau sent a cablegram to the Secretary of State in Washington DC with an urgent plea for assistance stating, “Destruction of [the] Armenian race in Turkey is progressing rapidly…” He suggested to a group of American philanthropists to form a committee to raise funds and provide means to save the remaining Armenians who had managed to escape. Within ten days of receiving this cablegram, and with the support and backing of President Woodrow Wilson, a committee led by James L. Barton and Cleveland Dodge was established. It was formed specifically to help Armenians and other Christian minorities who were being forcibly deported from their homes and/or killed in a systematic premeditated campaign of genocide launched under the cover of World War I. Initially, the committee was named “American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief,” but following the mandate of Congress, was renamed Near East Relief.
Endorsed by Congress, the NER received its support from all the people in the U.S. and all presidents throughout its history, including Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929). The scope of NER’s work was extensive and focused initially on child saving. It then went on to clothe the naked, feed the starving, shelter the refugees, and school more than 132,000 fatherless and hungry children. In the words of U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, “No private enterprise ever undertaken by Americans and in the name of America [has] accomplished more to arouse, in the minds and hearts of all peoples of the countries in which this organization has carried on its operations, a sincere regard and even affection for America.”
From 1915 through 1930, the NER mobilized the entire American nation, and indeed the world, into a well-organized and well-funded relief effort that successfully saved over 132,000 Armenian orphans and 1 million refugees half a world away. Despite its initial fundraising goal of $100,000 which was later raised to $30 million, the NER ultimately raised $117 million, the equivalent of $2.7 billion in today’s dollars. The NER went on to build over 400 orphanages, food and clothing distribution centers, medical clinics and hospitals, and vocational training schools throughout the Near East to house and care for the survivors. Notably, the NER was successful in inspiring more than 1,000 American volunteers to leave their comfortable lives to travel across ocean and land to dedicate themselves to the relief effort. Many lost their lives in their pursuit to help their fellow man. But their legacy, and humanitarian calling, lives on.
Born in America, and led by the spirit of American philanthropy, the NER initiated “Golden Rule Sunday,” where people throughout the country were asked to serve in their homes the simple menu served to the children in NER orphanages and then contribute as generously as possible to the humanitarian work of the NER. This campaign eventually became an international objective, with over 50 countries taking part in the relief effort, as well as business, church, agricultural, commercial, fraternal, labor, educational, youth, and women’s associations. Golden Rule Sunday secured over 133 national endorsements from prominent organizations around the globe, representing more than 73 million Americans who donated food, money, and clothing for the Armenian orphans and refugees. Even today, the philanthropic message of NER survives, as people of all faiths and denominations recall the then-common household phrase recited to them by their parents, “Clean your plate, think of the starving Armenians.”
All segments of American society were mobilized into action. While government officials called upon the American people to heed the call of the NER, Armenian orphans were adopted by famous American families, include Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Mrs. Oliver Harriman (widow of President Warren Harding), and Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt (American women’s suffrage leader). NER enlisted the star power of celebrities such as child actor Jackie Coogan (later known as Uncle Fester of The Addams Family), who toured across the U.S. and Europe on a “Children’s Crusade,” and with the help of The Scouts of Los Angeles and other children’s organizations, raised more than $1 million in clothing, food, and other contributions. A massive NER advertising campaign was initiated throughout the country. Integral to the campaign was NER’s iconic posters, created by leading artists of the day that dramatically depicted damsels in distress. Artistic, strategic, and calculated, the posters appealed to the nation’s core moral, national and Christian values. After all, the NER appeal was a story of love and of compassion.
Many of our parents and grandparents have passed down stories of what life in an NER orphanage was like. We have heard the names of guardian angels such as Maria Jacobson and Papa Jakob Kunzler – selfless individuals who dedicated their lives to the orphans. There was no shortage of NER orphanages that provided a second chance to our people, ranging from locations in Lebanon (Bird’s Nest in Byblos, Ghazir, Antoura, Tripoli, Junieh, Sidon), to Syria (Alexandretta, Hama, Homs, Aleppo), to Iraq (Mosul, Baghdad, Bakuba), to Palestine (Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem), to Egypt (Port Said and Cairo), to Greece, to Armenia (Alexandropol/Gyumri), and Turkey, to name a few. Our ancestors were recipients of the generosity and philanthropy of the NER. That says something. It means that had it not been for the love and compassion of Americans and the work of the NER, many of us today would not be here to lead the blessed lives we do. Furthermore, we would not have had the chance to give thanks to the organization that gave so much to us personally and collectively as a people.
It is precisely for this reason that earlier this year, and in anticipation of the Genocide Centennial, the ANCA WR launched the “America We Thank You: An Armenian Tribute to Near East Relief” committee, which has and will continue to organize commemorative events throughout 2015 to honor the legacy of the NER. The various initiatives of the committee, in collaboration with the Near East Relief Historical Society, will aim to express appreciation to the American people for their ultimate act of humanity. Needless to say, the legacy of NER is not merely a part of Armenian history, but also a significant part of American history.
NER’s acts of charity ought to remind America and the international community of the humanity and benevolence America demonstrated towards the Armenians at the turn of the last century. More significantly, honoring the legacy of the NER should serve as a catalyst for collective reawakening to again advocate for and practice acts of compassion towards the Armenians and other minorities being victimized throughout the world today.
America, we thank you! NER, we thank you!
* Accepting the honor on behalf of the Near East Foundation will be Shant Mardirossian, Chairman of the Near East Foundation based in New York. He will be accompanied by President of the Near East Foundation, Charlie Benjamin.