More than 1,000 students learn about the Near East Relief effort to save victims of Armenian Genocide
On Dec. 2, and in observance of Giving Tuesday, members of the Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region initiative, “America We Thank You: An Armenian Tribute to Near East Relief,” volunteered their day to educate students at nine different Armenian schools about the humanitarian efforts of the Near East Relief (NER). December 2 also marked the anniversary of “Golden Rule Sunday” and in honor of tradition, students substituted their regular lunch with an orphan meal served throughout the 1920s-1930s.
The campaign, called “America We Thank You: An Armenian Tribute to Near East Relief,” is a movement to recognize the outpouring of generosity by the American people in the immediate aftermath of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) and to highlight the efforts of Near East Relief in rescuing and providing assistance to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who were victims of the Genocide.
Students from Ari Guiragos Minassian Armenian School, Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Armenian School, Krouzian Zekarian Vasbouragan School, Mesrobian Armenian School, Rose & Alex Pilibos Armenian School, Sahag Mesrob Armenian Christian School, St. Gregory A. & M. Hovsepian School, TCA-Arshag Dickranian Armenian School, and Vahan & Anoush Chamlian Armenian School all learned about the important role Near East Relief played in the collective survival of the Armenian people during and after the Armenian Genocide. In the spirit of Giving Tuesday, they also received a lesson in contributing in their communities and importance of speaking out for truth and justice.
“Touring the Armenian schools to educate our own students about the role of the Near East Relief was only the beginning of our committee’s educational and outreach objectives,” stated America We Thank You co-chair Vanna Kitsinian, Esq. She continued, “We will continue such efforts in the remaining Armenian schools, and go beyond, thereafter also educating students in non-Armenian schools about what their ancestors did for our people. The efforts of thousands of missionaries and the aid provided by millions of Americans must serve as a reminder of the importance of practicing such acts of love, compassion and humanity for one’s fellow man. The legacy of Near East Relief should serve as a catalyst of how we must act today in the face of the world’s numerous injustices.”
After the presentation, a student from the class in each school was asked to lead a prayer that was administered for Golden Rule Sunday before families shared a simple meal together. Once students ate, they had an opportunity to write a message to President Barack Obama, thanking the American people and the government for helping the Armenian nation during 1915-1930 and urging official recognition of the Armenian Genocide ahead of the Centennial next year. Some of the nearly 1,000 hand-written cards also thanked the administration for releasing the Armenian Orphan Rug of the Ghazir orphanage and displaying it in the White House Visitors center. The Armenian Orphan Rug, woven by child survivors of the Genocide, was gifted to President Coolidge in 1925 in appreciation of U.S. humanitarian assistance. They also took this opportunity to urge the President to honor America’s moral stand against genocide and advancing the nation’s interest in improving Armenian-Turkish relations through a truthful and just international resolution of the Armenian Genocide.
The more than 300 students who participated from the Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian school, attentively listened to Asbarez Editor Ara Khachatourian, after which school principal Dr. Alina Dorian emphasized the importance of the NER relief activities and urged the students to look to the future as the leaders of the Armenian Nation, bearing in mind that there were those who played a role in the survival of the nation.
After the assembly, the students all gathered at Karapetian Hall to enjoy the orphan meal, which consisted of rice, chicken noodle soup, bread and a tangerine. The teacher at Alex Pilibos distributed the holiday cards to students, who wrote inspiration messages to President Obama urging him to honor US history, as well as his campaign promise and recognize the Armenian Genocide.
The Golden Rule presentations posed an interesting situation as most Armenian children grow up hearing about the Armenian Genocide, but generally, only have an abstract understanding of what really transpired. Through the images and stories about the orphans and the U.S. response to the Genocide, the America We Thank You presentation at KZV served to connect the students with their people’s past in an intimate way. Although the program was intended primarily for high school and middle school students, the entire K-8 student body participated, and they were surprisingly engaged and responsive given their youth. It appeared to awaken within them awareness that in the midst of tremendous evil, good deeds were performed, many of them by Americans. As a presenter, ANCA-WR Legislative Affairs Director Haig Baghdassarian, found it was very rewarding and moving to have been a participant in a program which will hopefully make a long-lasting impression upon the children.
Students, parents and administrators enthusiastically participated in the activities and shared their family stories of survival by the protective arms of the Near East Relief. During one of the presentations Dr. Seraydaryan, Principal at Arshag Dickranian Armenian School was moved to tears as he saw an image in the presentation of Karen Jeppe, a Danish missionary, who at the time was aiding orphans and widows of the Genocide until her death in 1935. Ms. Jeppe’s legacy of humanitarianism and drive to build the Armenian communities of Syria was continued with the founding of the Karen Jeppe Armenian College in Aleppo, Syria of which, Dr. Seraydarian is a graduate. ANCA-WR Government Affairs Director and presenter Tereza Yerimyan explained to students how Dr. Seraydarian’s connection was an example of how the efforts of the NER and their volunteers reach far beyond Armenian Genocide, effecting individuals they directly associate with today.
Parents at Mesrobian Armenian School were enthused at the timeliness of the anniversary of Golden Rule Sunday and it overlapping with Giving Tuesday. Principal David Gougasian was very supportive of the effort and engaged the students with AWTY Co-chair Hermineh Pakhanians, illustrating to the students that adults found this history as moving as the students. Two of the students’ mothers volunteered to prepare the orphan meal lunch for the children at the school and the school administration decided to serve it without charge. Such parents served as examples of donating their time and resources, encouraging a similar air of volunteerism in their students. In honor of the anniversary, schools were asked to substitute their lunch menu with food items that were served in the NER orphanages. Items like okra stew, rice pilaf and condensed milk were customary at the time.
“It was very encouraging to witness the response of the students when they learned about the important role the Near East Relief played in our collective history. The attention with which they followed the presentations and asked questions proves that we as a people will not forget the fact that America stood in solidarity with the Armenian people and other minorities in the Near East,” added Pakhanians.
This presentation was a special experience for Co-Chair Kitsinian, as she returned to her alma mater at Holy Martyrs Ferrahian school. Prior to the presentation, Principal John Kossakian introduced Kitsinian as a former student of the school and welcomed her to make her presentation. Placing herself in the shoes of the kids she was presenting to, she thought of how she would have felt learning about the significant role of the NER at their age. The most rewarding moment was seeing their participation in the orphan meal, which was one way for everyone to capture the spirit of what our ancestors lived through nearly 100 years ago.
America We Thank You committee member, Ayk Dikijian, Esq. presented to the Ari Guiragos Minassian School in Santa Ana, Calif. for grades 4 through 6. Principle Kohar Zaher welcomed Mr. Dikijian and introduced him to the students. The presentation began with questions to the students about their knowledge about the Armenian Genocide and whether they were aware of the Near East Relief effort. This created an interactive atmosphere and got the attention of the students. The children reacted to each slide, often pointing out various details about the slide they were able to see. The questions received from students throughout the presentation made it clear they were truly inspired and drawn to the material. The students cheered when they were told they would be writing to Barack Obama and began to diligently work on their messages, according to the guidelines provided. “The capacity of these younger students to absorb and understand the significance of the Near East Relief Effort during the Armenian Genocide was very impressive.” said Mr. Dikijian. Dikijian added, “It was a truly gratifying experience for me, knowing that the kids not only learned about a part of American and Armenian history, but seemed to have a blast doing it.”
America We Thank You committee member Missak Kelechian was moved by the passion of the students at Chamalian Armenian School. The compassion and the commitment to make a difference on the part of the American people was overwhelming through Near East Relief and to see that passion emulated in the eye of the youth at Chamalian was encouraging. Mr. Kelechian reminded students how the whole nation was acting in one dynamic rhythm: the rhythm of intolerance for crimes against humanity. Mr. Kelechian joined the students and shared and orphan meal with them, reliving the moments American volunteers came the idea to eat less and send the difference to the “starving Armenians.”
ANCA-WR Board Member Arpie Jivalagian, Esq. had a similar experience at St. Gregory Hovsepian Armenian School, where all the students were engaged and listened to the entire presentation from the beginning to the end asking questions and genuinely interested and wanting to learn more. Some students even came up to her after the presentation and asked more questions. Educating our youth on this important part of our history is not only our duty but extremely necessary. Children and students can better relate to our history by learning about how the orphans were saved by the very government that refuses to now acknowledge not only our history but American history. All the presenters felt blessed to have been a part of this mission.
Over a period of 15 years from 1915-1930, the NER mobilized the entire American nation, and indeed the world, into a well-organized and well-funded relief effort which successfully saved over 132,000 Armenian orphans and 1 million refugees half a world away. The NER raised $117,000,000 (despite its initial goal of $30,000,000), the equivalent of $2.7 billion in today’s dollars, built over 400 orphanages, food & clothing distribution centers, medical clinics and hospitals, and vocational training schools throughout the Near East. Moreover, 1,000 American volunteers left their comfortable lives to travel across ocean and land to dedicate them to the relief effort.
As part of its mass marketing campaign, 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 worldwide 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.” Arguably the Armenian Genocide sparked the modern humanitarian movement and the original concept of “citizen philanthropy.” The original orphan meal was a modest meal consisting of okra stew, bread, and rice pilav. This was the same meal that was prepared and served to the students on December 2, 2014.
The U.S. patronage of the NER reflects the deep bonds that have long existed between the American and Armenian people. The Armenian National Committee of America WR is proud to honor and recognize their work and their memory.
The Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region is the largest and most influential Armenian American grassroots advocacy organization in the Western United States. Working in coordination with a network of offices, chapters, and supporters throughout the Western United States and affiliated organizations around the country, the ANCA-WR advances the concerns of the Armenian American community on a broad range of issues.