In 1915 thousands of Armenians fled from the deportations and massacres in eastern Anatolia into Russian Armenia. The exodus continued by the thousands weekly into 1917. There was a much-publicized humanitarian effort in 1920 by Near East Relief, but before then, how did the refugees survive?
The answer is they were supported by the kindness and swift action of many people, including Americans, Canadians, British, Russians, and local Armenians. Seven of these “good Samaritans” were Fred MacCallum of Canada, George Gracey of Ireland, and Harrison Maynard, Mary White Maynard, Ernest Yarrow, Jane Tuckley Yarrow, and George Raynolds of the United States. They had worked in Ottoman Empire as missionaries for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) before 1916, and had a personal affinity for Armenians. When the call came for volunteers to provide relief for the refugees, they were among the first to respond.
By late 1915 the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR) was busy raising $100,000 ($2.5 million today), and a British committee was raising money through the Lord Mayor’s Fund. Part of the proceeds were directed for distribution by missionaries still in Ottoman Empire, part for a refugee camp in Port Said, Egypt, and the rest was for aid in Armenia.
As a Canadian and therefore a British subject, Rev. Frederick W. MacCallum, formerly of Erzurum, Marash and Constantinople (Istanbul), had been expelled by the Ottoman government when the Great War started. In 1914 he had gone to Switzerland with his family to wait out what was expected to be a short war. Of course, it was not. In late 1915 he was asked to go to Tiflis (Tbilisi) for ACASR to assess the refugee situation. He went gladly. He was joined by George F. Gracey, who had been home in Ireland after almost 20 years at the ABCFM mission in Urfa. In Tiflis they met with the British volunteers already there, and began to distribute an initial $87,000 and supplies to the estimated 234,000 Armenian and Assyrian refugees who were flooding into the area.
In July 1916 five other missionaries left New York for Tiflis to help. George C. Raynolds was a 77-year-old medical doctor and ordained minister who, with his wife, had established the mission in Van in 1872. He was in the United States raising money to build a college when the siege of Van started in 1915. His wife was able to escape with thousands of Armenians, but had been injured en route to Tiflis. She died days before her husband arrived to be at her side. Heart-broken, he return to the United States. Now, many months later, when he was asked to go back to Tiflis, he was happy to return. He was joined by his much younger colleagues from Van, Rev. Ernest A. Yarrow, 40, and Jane Yarrow, 33, and their four children, and from Bitlis, Rev. Harrison A. Maynard, 38, and his wife Mary White Maynard, 33, and their two young boys.
Their 10,500-km (6,500-mi) journey to Bergen, Norway, then to Stockholm, and south from Petrograd (St. Petersburg), took two and a half months. The last 300 kilometres was especially tiring on the 22-hour train ride from Tiflis to Erevan (Yerevan). But in Erevan, the group’s new base, the long, hard trip was a fleeting memory. They were met by many old friends from Van. “It was all a delightful surprise, and the familiar faces about the board, and all the words of cheer spoken, united to make me feel as if I were really ‘at home’ once more,” said Dr. Raynolds. “Joy and sorrow were mingled in every heart, as we looked into each other’s faces and thought of the great gaps which had been opened in every household.”
Erevan’s normal population of 14,000 had swelled with the huge influx of refugees, so the group was lucky to find a house to rent with a “commanding a view of Mt. Ararat.” It was all they needed to begin their work. American Consul F. Willoughby Smith bought $100,000 worth of material in Moscow, and shipped it to Erevan to be sewn into clothing. A party of five went south to Igdir to assess conditions there. They found 10,000 refugees in desperate need of food and clothing. “On the way back we called on the Catholicos in Etchmiadzin,” said Rev. MacCallum. “I suppose it is not often that four missionaries and a representative of the American government call on him together.” The Catholicos promised to do whatever he could to help the relief workers.
While their wives set up their homes, and George Raynolds established a medical clinic, the Revs. Maynard and Yarrow toured Alexandropol (Gyumri), Karakilisa (Vanadzor), and Dilijan. They found orphanages everywhere. “We found the orphans well-fed and in clean, comfortable houses,” said Rev. Maynard. “The Russian government pays fifteen rubles per month for the care, provision and housing of each orphan. This is really quite a generous provision. The funds and orphanages are administered by various Armenian societies, of which there are at least seven.” In Dilijan, large summer houses had been turned into orphanages. He saw a few children he had known in Bitlis. “Wherever I found acquaintances old enough to realize their condition, the first sight of me was sufficient to precipitate a flood of tears. But usually, I think, it has given them courage to know that there is someone around, of the old friends, to whom they may look for help.”
Dr. Raynolds was encouraged to run into old acquaintances, too. “Hohanes Puznuni, one of the three students whom we sent to Harpoot four years since, to take the theological course, has just returned, having almost miraculously escaped by the help of Dersim Kurds,” he said. Another was a teacher, Marderos Der Sahagian. The refugees were in need of “spiritual shepherding” and the children needed schooling. There was so much work to do.
By November 1916, they had done plenty. They had set up “industries” to employ as many people as possible, and create much-needed products. They had established “wool shops” to process crude wool into yarn, which was then knitted into socks. The tailoring shops used wool and purchased cloth to sew clothing. “We are getting about two hundred suits a day,” Mr. Yarrow reported, though with a thousand or so new refugees arriving every week, they soon increased their daily production to nearly 800. There were also departments for making shoes, bedding (sheets, blankets and mattresses), spinning cotton, and weaving cloth. “The need for supplementing the government grant, for which the people are very grateful, is pressing,” said Dr. Raynolds, “but they say they get at least as much benefit from having something to occupy their hands and thoughts.”
There were soup kitchens, milk distribution for babies, the medical clinic, and orphanages. The relief workers divided orphans into two types to be able to better manage their care. The children without parents—an estimated 17,000—were placed in orphanages. The children who had no fathers (about 3,500) were called “home orphans” and lived in 360 different villages and cities. In addition to giving mothers $2 per month for each child, the workers did their best to employ the women in the industries, so they could keep their family together.
Though ASCAR regularly wired money, in February 1917 the missionaries sent a telegram to New York requesting an additional $275,000. And as the number of refugees grew, so too did the need for more helping hands. In July, a group of eight left San Francisco to provide that help.
Fred MacCallum was in Erzurum when young Aurora Mardiganian wandered in to the mission house after a long, arduous escape from a Turkish harem. He arranged for her to safely travel north through Russia to Norway, and on to the United States where her brother lived. By October, when he himself had to go to ACASR headquarters in New York, the northern route was impassible due to the start of Russian Revolution. Instead Rev. MacCallum headed east to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Express. In Japan he met the group of eight who were on their way to Alexandropol. Travel was so dangerous at the moment, he advised them to wait until they heard from the American Consul in Tiflis. It it took until November before communications were restored and Consul Willoughby-Smith forwarded a cable to them that read: “Work greatly increased. Your presence imperative. Let whole party come at once. (Signed) Yarrow, Maynard, Gracey.” The group set off at once. The need was never-ending.
Earlier in May, when asked to comment on the relief work, recently retired American Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau had said “When the roll of saints and heroes in this war shall be made up—and it will be a long one, for many valorous deeds have been performed—the names of the American missionaries in Turkey will be at the head of the list.” The names of these seven ‘good Samaritans’ in Armenia can be added to it.
In her upcoming book, Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey 1908-1923, Wendy Elliott writes more about these and other relief workers, and the creation of the relief centre in Alexandropol in 1917-1918.
by Wendy Elliott