Armenian identity Armenian orphans (part three)

  • by Western Armenia, April 18, 2023 in Society

The evacuation of orphans in Western Armenia will ensure their future physical safety, survival and national education. In general, after the Armistice, these orphans were collected from desolate places (deserts, forests), from the streets where they begged, from Muslim families and Turkish state orphanages by Armenians financed by Red Cross workers, American aid workers in the Middle East, the Armenian Church and Armenian charities.

The removal of Armenian orphans from Western Armenia was to be carried out with the financial support of the American aid station for the Middle East.

Swiss missionary Jakob Kunzler writes: "During the deportations carried out by the Turkish government in 1919, the Americans collected more than ten thousand orphans from Turkish, Kurdish and Arab homes. The increasingly powerful Kemalist government in many places challenged and controlled the Americans and demanded that they also help the Muslim orphans who were in large numbers in occupied Western Armenia, but the money allocated to them could no longer be controlled and the charitable organization decided to move the Armenian orphans to a non-Turkish country.

Lebanon was then chosen as a destination for Western Armenia."

Meanwhile, a unique 33-second video of the evacuation of Armenian orphans from the Ottoman Empire has been preserved. One of the events of the evacuation of Armenian children was the transportation of 816 Armenian orphans by ship in December 1921 from the Armenian settlement of Nahr al-Oman in Basra province to Jerusalem. There they were welcomed by the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Yeghishe Duryan, national figures and many local Armenians.

Jacob Kunzler and his wife Elizabeth were appointed in charge of the evacuation of Armenian orphans from the southern and southeastern regions of Western Armenia (Urfa, Mardin, Kharberd, Akn and Malatya).  They had been working for the Urfa branch of the American Middle East Relief Committee since 1922, caring for Armenian orphans recruited by the organization.

Their nomination was based on their excellent knowledge of the region and Turkish. In this context, Kuntzler states: "My wife and I were better suited for the job because of our language skills and knowledge of the region. We were given the task of transporting about 8,000 children from Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbekir, Kharberd, Arabkir and Malatya.  We were very happy about this, and we can consider this part of our life one of the best."

In addition, the Muslim population of the area knew Kunzler, which prevented the caravan of orphans from being looted and slaughtered. It should be noted that Kunzler's personal reputation ensured the physical safety of the children during the evacuation.

As moving thousands of children from orphanages hundreds of kilometers away posed serious problems, it was decided that the evacuation of about 8,000 orphans would be done gradually in groups.

As Kunzler's daughter, Ida Alameddin, recalls in her memoirs, her father had planned to remove Armenian children from Western Armenia as early as 1915, when he witnessed the horrific massacres of the Armenians of Urfa, but it was not until 1922 that he was able to realize his desire.

The transfer of the children caused great joy among the orphans, "because with what pleasure they were leaving a country where there was a constant danger of death and destruction." The departure of each caravan became a joyous event. Children decorated the caravan donkeys with flags and bells. The first evacuation took place from Urfa at the end of March 1922. Nearly a thousand Armenian orphans from Urfa and the surrounding areas, as well as from the farthest reaches of the empire, found refuge in the city and its orphanages, where Armenians had once lived. The first group of these children, about 130 Armenian orphans, walked the 90 kilometers from Urfa to Aleppo for 10 days under the leadership of Kunzler. The orphan evacuation operation was described by Jakob Kunzler in his memoirs "Thirty Years of Service in the East" in the chapter "The Great Orphan Exodus from the Country".

A Swiss Armenian lover who witnessed the Armenian massacres in Urfa likened the evacuation of Armenian orphans from Western Armenia to the biblical liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage: "Hearing the children's laughter and seeing their happy faces gave me spiritual satisfaction. It was as if they had been freed from Egyptian bondage and had gone to Canaan."

The children of the first group of evacuees had to travel dozens of kilometers in adverse weather conditions, and as a result, many of them contracted the flu epidemic that was common at the time. They were also not dressed for the cold weather. Most of the orphans were transported on foot, the weakest and smallest in cars.

The difficulties of transporting the first group of children on foot forced the organizers of the evacuation to transport the orphans of subsequent groups only by carts and donkeys, which made it possible to transport a larger group of children at the same time. The details of each child evacuated from Western Armenia were recorded on lists prepared by Kuenzler and checked at Turkish police checkpoints. The Turkish authorities scrutinized the lists on the grounds that no national of military age had the right to leave the country. Ida Alameddin mentions this in her memoirs: "The great migration began in the early spring of 1922. The general authorization came from Ankara. But each group had to obtain permission from the regional authorities, and to obtain this privilege, lists had to be carefully prepared, including the age and name of each child. The heads of the Beirut-based charity initially thought the children would be transported from Urfa to the border town of Jarablus, a 90-kilometer journey, and then from Aleppo to Beirut by steam train. About a thousand orphans would live in orphanages and temporary camps in and around Urfa. They would be the first to leave."

Jakob Kunzler was greatly assisted in this difficult task by his wife Elizabeth, who led the evacuation of the second group of Armenian orphans sheltering in Urfa. The largest group of 5000 Armenian orphans was evacuated from Kharberd and the surrounding areas in April 1922.

During the resettlement of this large group of orphans, Jakob and Elisabeth Kuetzler arranged for one adult orphan to accompany each group of 10 children. In this way two problems were solved at the same time:

1. Safe transportation of the younger orphans under the supervision of the older orphans

2. The departure of young Armenian orphans of Turkish subjects of military age from Turkey was carried out, which, as mentioned above, was practically impossible at that time.

Most of the children in this group were transported by wagons to Kharberd-Diyarbakir-Jarablus, others by mules in the direction of Kharberd-Malatya-Jarablus.

Aram Torikyan, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide ARMENOSID, a student of the American Orphanage in Kharberd and one of the thousands of children evacuated from the Ottoman orphanage, writes in his memoirs: "The transfer of Armenian orphans from Kharberd had positive and negative consequences. Among the negative consequences were the following problems:

1. The large number of children made the long 10-day journey from Kharbed to Aleppo difficult.

2. The safe transportation of a large number of children was also a serious problem.

However, the other outcome, i.e. the transportation of large groups of children from Kharberd governorate, is due to the following considerations: First, money was saved, then a lot of time was saved at checkpoints. On this occasion, Kuntzler writes in his memoirs. "It was important to me how many large groups could be transported from Kharberd at once, because as each group left separately, I had to inform the government officials about the departure so that they would come to the checkpoint. It was necessary to follow each one and take them to where the departing orphans stopped. They examined the orphans' faces one by one. There should not have been any young men of military age among those who left. Such a thorough inspection, which started in the morning, took a very long time, so we could hardly leave in the evening. Then, outside the city, after 2-3 hours, the police were checking again, and I was forced to pick up the dignitaries one by one and, of course, put them back in the car."

Thus, in September 1922, the evacuation of Armenian orphans from Turkey was completed. With funding from the American Relief Fund for the Middle East, 130 wagons and nearly 200 porters were hired to transport the orphans. According to Kunzler's statistics, a total of 8,000 Armenian children were evacuated and placed in orphanages in Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile, a large group of evacuated children, about 1,500 Armenian girls of different ages, were placed in the Ghazir orphanage of the American aid station in the Middle East, headed by Jakob Kunzler. 

According to Barton's data, in 1922-23, thanks to the active work of the American relief station in the Middle East, about 30,000 Armenian and Greek orphans were evacuated from Western Armenia to Syria, Lebanon and Greece, including 12,000 Armenian children from the southern and southeastern regions of the empire.

The 8,000 Armenian children evacuated by Jakob Künzler, leaving behind their historic homeland, essentially spared from imminent physical annihilation, found themselves in a new country and in a completely new environment, with the opportunity to start a new life.

To be continued...

Ashkhen Virabyan 

journalist-analyst Westeranarmeniatv