Almost 100 Years Ago Near East Relief Launched To Help Refugees In Syria & invented citizen philanthropy

Syria’s ongoing conflict, now in its fifth year, has torn apart countless families. Entire communities have been uprooted, scattering large populations within Syria and driving millions into surrounding countries. This UNHCR video shows this perspective from the POV of a child at a UNHCR refugee camp.

Like everyone affected in Syria, the Armenian Community has also suffered and its family and community members have been displaced & separated.

Many family members that are in Yerevan today left a couple of years ago when an Aleppo-Yerevan air link was still in place. In the last few years and after the closure of the Aleppo airport in 2013, Syrian families that chose to leave war stricken Aleppo, ventured through dangerous territory to reach either coastal towns for relative safety or moved to neighboring host countries like Lebanon.  Since then, a new policy, implemented in 2015, requires Syrians entering Lebanon to obtain visas, or enter on a 24-48 hr  basis with valid passports and non-refundable airline tickets in order to head to a third country of destination. This has made life even more difficult.

Besides the logistical difficulties, refugee families still face the everyday challenges of earning a living to make ends meet once they reach host countries.  Over four years of civil war in Syria means that one in every four people now in Lebanon is a refugee. Many live in poverty and sometimes face resentment by locals. 

As a result, many family members had to separate.  Head of families had to leave and work abroad.  In other cases, mothers took children to safer areas leaving fathers to watch over (now idle & destroyed) family businesses back home.

What did Near East Relief teach the Armenian Diaspora ?

Armenians understand very well that people who are forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in another country need help.  After the devastating Genocide of 1915, The Near East Relief Committee (partly at the urging of US Ambassador, Henry Morgenthau Sr.) organized to collect funds from the US Public and delivered humanitarian aid by the shiploads and set up refugee camps, orphanages, clinics, and vocational training centers.  All in all, the Near East Foundation from 1915-1930 mobilized the American people to raise over $116 million for direct relief. Nearly 1,000 U.S. citizens volunteered to travel overseas.  Near East Relief saved the lives of over a million refugees, including 132,000 orphans who were cared for and educated in Near East Relief orphanages, including ones in Aleppo Syria (see photo below).  Its work has recently been documented in an online exhibit.

Near East Relief Center in Aleppo Syria

Near East Relief Center in Aleppo Syria

Through its diligent response in the years following the Armenian Genocide, Near East Relief and its founders —including the American Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau—   established the tradition of “citizen philanthropy” in the U.S.

Near East Relief pioneered the idea that all Americans, regardless of age, income or background, could help people in need. From community groups to children - anyone could help by donating time or expertise. Before this, philanthropy was the domain of wealthy people who could afford to make large gifts.

In 2015, almost a century after “quite literarily keeping an entire nation alive” (quote by American Historian Howard Sachar), Armenians worldwide have paid tribute to the work of Near East Relief has done and its exemplary selfless individual like Sara Corning.

But paying tribute to the Near East Foundation a century later by the Diaspora while appropriate, is not quite enough when descendants of the orphans that were saved a century ago are turning into refugees again.  Like we said, more than 1000 individuals worked overseas for Near East Relief, and some even died while serving. To our knowledge, we are not aware of any widespread citizen philanthropy across the Armenian Diaspora to assist the vulnerable victims of the Syrian war in 2015.

The best tribute to the spirit of Near East Relief in 2015, would be to learn from what the organization’s founders, donors, volunteers and employees intended when they aimed to aid the “starving Armenians in the Bible Lands”.   Their intervention as the map below depicts, effectively spread across the world and set new moral standards of what civic responsibility means during times of human calamity.

Map of Near East Relief intervention circa 1918

Map of Near East Relief intervention circa 1918


While the Armenian Diaspora is preparing for a  few large fundraising campaigns in the coming months to join the international agencies in delivering aid to Syrians, we feel it is best that global citizens start warming up to the idea of giving and acting on values today by participating in the various ongoing fundraising initiatives. In this spirit, The Armenian Redwood Project will be launching its own #RootsForRefugees campaign in early June of this memorable year of 2015.

We always aim to partner in our projects whenever possible

We always aim to partner in our projects whenever possible