By Anthony Barsamian and Noubar Afeyan
Thirty-six years ago, President Reagan did what no president dared to do since. He used the term “genocide” to reference the horrific acts that took place between 1915 and 1923 — the systematic eradication of the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. This brutal event killed some 1.5 million Armenians and displaced another 500,000, leaving the total global Armenian population at one-third of its pre-genocide level.
Today the global Armenian population has rebounded, totaling 10 million, with 1.5 million residing in the United States Armenian diaspora. This incredible rejuvenation happened because of the heroic acts undertaken by individuals who acted as saviors in the face of adversity.
And no nation did more than America. The formation of the Near East Relief fund in 1918 occurred at the urging of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr., to prevent the complete destruction of the Armenian population. The US government responded, incorporating by an act of Congress in 1919 the Near East Relief (NER), which provided humanitarian relief to the far-flung nation of Armenia.
Between 1915 and 1930, NER administered $117 million assistance, equivalent to $1.25 billion today. Nearly 1,000 men and women served overseas during that time, and thousands more volunteered to help build scores of orphanages, vocational schools, and food distribution centers, saving the lives of over a million Armenian, Greek and Syrian refugees, including 132,000 orphans scattered across the region from Tbilisi to Constantinople. Near East Relief was an act of unprecedented philanthropy, which American historian Howard M. Sachar noted “quite literally kept an entire nation alive.”
Armenians were the first large scale refugee population of the 20th century and sadly, history repeats itself today as we see some 65 million displaced populations fleeing for their own safety and security. From Syria to Sudan this story plays out in front of our eyes daily. As such, we must acknowledge the horrors of the past to constantly remind ourselves what can happen in the future. Nobel prize winner and holocaust survivor the late Elie Wiesel said it best: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”