As part of a jihad launched by Muslim authorities in Ottoman Turkey to exterminate Christian minorities, up to 1.5 million Armenian Christians were destroyed, starting in 1915, through systematic killings, forced relocations into the desert, and starvation. Hundreds of thousands of others were forcibly expelled and became refugees. At the time, the U.S. government did little, but everyday Americans, missionaries, and philanthropists appalled by the atrocities quickly sprang to offer both immediate relief and long-term rebuilding aid to Armenians.
James Barton, the secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (one of the leading Christian missionary groups in the U.S.—see 1810 entry on our list of Religious achievements), had been a missionary in the Near East and was alarmed by initial reports out of Armenia. He quickly convened a meeting of New York businessmen and religious leaders. The host, mining mogul Cleveland Dodge, had a daughter in school in Constantinople and a son at the American University of Beirut and instantly understood the import of the genocide. Barton and Dodge formed the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief in 1915, which subsequently raised over $100 million in donations through public rallies, church collections, and contributions from charitable foundations and private individuals.
By the end of the 1920s, a total of $120 million in voluntary donations had been offered up by Americans. (Adjusted for inflation that is more than $1.6 billion in 2015 dollars.)
Missionaries in the region were used to distribute food, clothing, and other aid purchased with the donated funds. From 1915 to 1930, the committee saved over a million refugees and took responsibility for 130,000 orphans. Simultaneously, nearly 1,000 Americans volunteered to go to the region to build orphanages and assist refugees. Thousands more cared for dislocated Armenians when they made their way to the U.S.
The committee for Armenian relief still exists today, having evolved into the Near East Foundation, a charity which aids economic development in the Levant and Africa, in partnership with Syracuse University.
- History of the Near East Foundation, neareast.org/who-we-are