How America responded to a refugee crisis 100 years ago

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The images of the refugees on boats or at border fences fleeing danger for safety is a sad commentary on how the world watched ISIS take over and did nothing.  I believe if more outrage and humanitarian aid had been available earlier, ISIS would have seen that the Western world  cared about the innocent.  A century ago,  the response to genocide was different.  In April, the Los Angeles Public Library carried an exhibit on how Americans responded to the Armenian Genocide.  Americans were able to raise $117 million, or what would amount to $2 billion a day.  Here’s my story (April 18, 2015): 

The children were almost lost to the desert.

They had left their villages under death threats. They saw their fathers killed by swords, watched mothers, grandmothers and aunties die of starvation on the death marches to Syria.

But from thousands of miles away, Americans found them.

Through telegrams, news articles and film reels, the story of how children became orphans of the Armenian Genocide reached America’s shores in 1915. An organization called Near East Relief was founded and a national movement rose. Silent movie stars such as Irene Rich and Jackie Coogan held sandwich boards asking for donations and cans of milk. Churches and community groups raised money and sent clothing while President Calvin Coolidge called for Golden Rule Sunday, when Americans ate modest meals to remember “the starving Armenians.”

“Back then, there was a groundswell of a response,” said Ani Boyadjian, research and special collections manager at the Los Angeles Public Library. “They were hearing that people were being slaughtered.”

The American reaction to the needs of the orphans and those who survived the Armenian Genocide is the theme of a traveling exhibit now on display at the Los Angeles’ Central Library. Called “They Will Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief,” the exhibit includes 26 panels that show photographs of orphans as well as posters used at the time to raise funds. But at its heart, the whole exhibit is meant to show America’s generosity in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, Boyadjian said.

The display is there to say “America, we thank you,” she added.

“Many of us are direct descendents of those orphans and survivors helped by Near East Relief,” Boyadjian said. “Their response is an untold story of American philanthropy.”

Now called Near East Foundation, the nonsectarian, New York-based non-profit organization is also celebrating its centennial this year. It was founded after U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau sent telegrams about what was happening in the Ottoman Empire.

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“At that time communication had been revolutionized by the telegram,” said Molly Sullivan, director and curator of the Near East Relief Historical Society. “It was the first time that communication could move faster than the fastest runner, fastest ship and fastest horse. It meant that the perpetrators of the genocide used the same technology.”

With the help of President Woodrow Wilson, the small-scale relief operation went on to raise more than $117 million — today’s equivalent of about $2 billion — to aid Armenians in the aftermath of the genocide. That money helped save 132,000 orphans, according to the Near East Foundation.

Any orphan of any religion was welcomed, Sullivan said. And the organization still works today to help displaced people in the Middle East and Africa. With the ranks of the Islamic State swelling, thousands of Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans and Armenians whose families fled to Syria and Iraq for safety during the genocide are now being displaced and killed. Sullivan said the American response is different now, again, because of technology.

“Technology has made incredible changes in the last 100 years,” she said. “We have so much information about the news that it’s possible that people have become overwhelmed and they don’t know how to help. With certain aspects of the news, they’re very concerned but they are also fatigued.”

On Friday, Armenians worldwide will observe the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide. They will gather at memorials to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were killed by the Ottoman Turks as part of what scholars and historians say was a systematic cleansing of their identity. And they will march in cities to protest the ongoing denial by the Turkish government, which has said the deaths and deportations of Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks were part of wars and unrest in the then-collapsing Ottoman Empire.

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Many countries and states have recognized the events of 1914 to 1923 as genocide. Last Sunday, Pope Francis even defined the slaughter of Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century. But Armenians remain disappointed over President Obama’s silence. While a resolution was introduced by 40 congressional members including U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, to call on the president to pressure Turkey to fully acknowledge the genocide, the United States has so far resisted.

The pope said subsequent atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Pol Pot massacres and those in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur could have been avoided if the Ottoman Turks had been held accountable.

Jen Portillo and Marleni Segovia, local visitors to the exhibit, looked over the photographs of orphans and said they thought they were images of Holocaust victims of World War II.

“I knew nothing about the Armenian Genocide,” Portillo said. “We had the same wars, the same killings in El Salvador. It’s like so many cultures have gone through so much.”

“It shows we’re all human, that we all go through struggles,” Segovia added.

Boyadjian said many non-Armenians have been able to relate to the photographs of the children.

“Los Angeles is a city of refugees,” she said.

The exhibit, made possible by the American National Committee of America, is a personal one for Boyadjian. Her paternal grandparents were two of the orphans who were saved by the work of Near East Relief. Her grandmother’s entire family except a sister were killed. Her grandfather lost all of his family members. The two orphans were brought to Lebanon where they ended up in the same orphanage, and they married as soon as they came of age, she said.

“I can still feel their story on my skin,” she said.

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Boyadjian said she will be one of those attending a March for Justice event on Friday that begins in Little Armenia, in east Hollywood. More than 200,000 people of Armenian descent call Los Angeles County home. It is the largest Armenian diaspora outside of the Republic of Armenia.

Boyadjian said she knows people will be upset that streets will be closed, and others will say the genocide happened 100 years ago, that it’s time to move on. But she said she will march to say thank you.

“If it wasn’t for America’s response, my grandparents would not have survived,” she said. “I would not have been born.”

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