The Near East Foundation, the oldest international development agency in the United States, was founded in New York, after an urgent cable from halfway around the world reached the U.S. Secretary of State. The Museum of the City of New York is saluting the foundation's historic foray into American philanthropy. The Near East Foundation was created in 1915, as a result of a cable sent by the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau. He stated that "the destruction of the Armenian race in Turkey is progressing rapidly" and urged that a committee be formed to save Armenians.
The president of the Near East Foundation Ryan La Hurd says a group of civic, business and religious leaders took quick action. "Within two weeks after that telegram was sent, those people got together and formed the organization that became Near East Relief, and then the Near East Foundation," he says.
The organization changed names a few times, but its goal was always the same, to raise funds in the United States while operating orphanages, health clinics, and vocational training facilities in the Near East.
The Museum of the City of New York is documenting the early years of the agency's work in Armenia, Turkey, Persia, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and the Caucasus. Curator of Community Projects for the museum, Kathy Benson, says the organization is truly a New York effort. "The Near East Foundation was formed by New Yorkers and much of the wonderful fund-raising and public relations efforts that they did emanated from New York," she says.
The Near East Foundation worked quickly to react to one of the most pressing world issues at the time, the plight of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Mr. La Hurd says the organization launched a ground-breaking effort to galvanize public response to what was happening a world away and succeeded in raising millions of dollars. "If you talk to people of a certain age in the United States, they will very quickly respond to the phrase "starving Armenians" because their mother would have said to them, 'Don't leave food on your plate, don't forget there are starving Armenians.'"
The Turkish government has consistently denied any responsibility for the killing of Armenians in the early part of the last century
From 1915 to 1930 the Near East Foundation worked to feed, clothe, educate and basically save the lives of over one million refugees.
Photographs of orphaned children in the arms of Near East Foundation relief workers attest to the dire circumstances of the Armenian diaspora. Original identity documents from displaced people sit in glass cases at the museum, and from the New York side, there are samples of the advertising and fund-raising campaigns from the time. One poster features the "Milk Campaign" which even encouraged American children to give something.
Curator Neery Melkonian says she went through some 7,000 photographs and 1,000 documents from the foundation's nearly 100-year old archives. She was amazed, she says, at the extent of the agency's resilience. "To me what is on these walls not only speaks of a remarkable survival of a people whose very existence was at stake but also presents the survival of an agency [that] made that possible," she says.
Today the Near East Foundation continues its development work in the Middle East and Africa. The exhibit features a wall dedicated to its African projects.
While the items in the show are all from the collection of the Near East Foundation, the museum is inviting Armenians whose families were helped by the foundation's programs to share their stories. Photos and writings can be e-mailed to the museum at www.mcny.org for posting on its website.