Learning From or Repeating History

Special for the Armenian Weekly

A Jan. 16 statement issued jointly by the World Food Programme, The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees read in part, “We must not let 2017 repeat the tragedies of 2016 for Syria.”

‘As a 15-year-old girl, Aurora was kidnapped from her village of Tchemesh-Gedzak during the Armenian genocide by Kurdish bandits, and later bought and sold as a sex slave.’

Nor repeat the tragedies of 1916 and 1917, I would add.

One hundred years ago, thousands of Armenian refugees who were lucky enough to survive the deportation were destitute in Syria. Similar to Turkey and Russia not allowing aid to get to the citizens of Aleppo in Dec. 2016, the Ottoman government did not allow international humanitarian aid into Aleppo in Dec. 1916. Only the Red Crescent and Red Cross societies, and the Christian missionaries who were already in the region, were able to provide any assistance

As I listen to the daily news about the war and the desperate situation of innocent civilians, and I research the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, I always come back to the same thought: Have we not learned anything from history? Are we to be forever condemned to repeat the past?

My interest in the humanitarian efforts of 1915-1922 in the Ottoman Empire began, curiously enough, with The Armenian Weekly. Kamo Mailyan and I wrote the article Remembering Susan Wealthy Orvis about an American missionary who almost single-handedly saved 3,000 Armenian and Greek orphans in 1922. A few weeks after publication, we were contacted by a relative of Ms. Orvis, who offered us access to a trunk full of her letters and original papers. After analyzing the contents, we knew there was an even more fascinating story begging to be told. There has been a lot written about the genocide and about the lives of survivors, but very little about the enormous international humanitarian effort that followed. I am trying to change that. For the past two years I’ve been researching the relief work in Talas and Cesarea (Kayseri), Turkey, that was provided by Ms. Orvis and her colleagues of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR), and its successor, Near East Relief.

Amidst the madness of the genocide, World War One, and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, this relatively small group of people—supported by thousands overseas—exhibited compassion, determination and a huge dollop of grace. In 1919 when the missionaries and relief workers were finally allowed back into the region, the district of Cesarea had a remaining population of approximately 930,000 scattered over 35,000 square miles. Of those, 30,000 Armenians needed assistance, as did 8,000 Greeks and 50,000 Turks. And there were 10,000 orphans left to fend for themselves (5,000 Armenian, 1,000 Greek, and 4,000 Turkish children). The story of how these children and adults were cared for, and how the 6,000 Armenian and Greek orphans were saved during the expulsions of Christians from Turkey in 1922 is the essence of the book I’m writing. The working title is Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad.

But as I continue to research and write, I have been struck by the terrible similarities of events then and now. As an example, there’s the sad tale of Aurora Mardiganian. Most Armenians know of it. As a 15-year-old girl, Aurora was kidnapped from her village of Tchemesh-Gedzak during the Armenian genocide by Kurdish bandits, and later bought and sold as a sex slave. Eventually she escaped and, after months of travel, found refuge with a Canadian missionary, Frederick MacCallum. Dr. MacCallum was an ABCFM colleague of Susan Wealthy Orvis, and was responsible for “buying” back, and thus freeing, many young girls like Aurora. He arranged safe passage for her to New York through ACASR.

But not many people know the story of a young Yazidi girl, Farida Khalaf. She was 16 years old when she was kidnapped by ISIS in 2013 in her village of Kocho, Iraq. Just like the Ottoman government of 1915 did against the Armenians, ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidi people today. And in a similar fashion, the men were separated from the women, girls and young boys, and were killed. Farida was taken away with other young women to work as slaves for ISIS. She was beaten and sexually abused, just as Aurora had been. And similar to Aurora, Farida managed to escape and receive help. The difference is that Farida is now receiving financial aid and psychological counselling from a German humanitarian organization. In sad contrast, the help Aurora received was more exploitation. So perhaps we have learned a little something after all.

Another example is boycotting. I was deeply saddened when I heard a radio interview in November with the mayor of Twin Falls, Idaho. He and his wife had received death threats for supporting the hiring practices of a local company that makes yogurt. The company is Chobani, and the founder and CEO is Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant of Kurdish descent. He arrived in the United States in the 1990’s. He worked hard making and selling cheese, and eventually bought an old yogurt factory in upstate New York. He became successful enough to expand to a second factory in Twin Falls, and now employs 2,000 workers. Of these employees, 300 are refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, and other countries. But some small-minded people see this as being anti-American, and have called for a boycott against Chobani yogurt. Or is it more against Mr. Ulukaya, who is Muslim?

This reminded me of the series of boycotts in the Ottoman Empire from 1908 to 1914, each one getting progressively more violent. First there was the boycott against Austrian goods to protest the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina shortly after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. Then there was the 1910 boycott of Greek merchants, mainly in Constantinople [Istanbul], due to an Ottoman-Greek conflict over Crete. After the Balkan Wars (1912-13) ended, another boycott began and extended into 1914. This time it was directed against non-Muslims in what was left of the Empire in retaliation for atrocities conducted against Ottomans, mostly by Christian Bulgarians. It didn’t matter than an international commission determined that atrocities were committed by all sides (the Bulgarians just being more open about admitting it than the other nations). It also didn’t matter that not all Ottoman soldiers were Muslim; Christians and Jews were loyal Ottomans, too. The boycott, which was secretly supported by the local branches of the governing Committee of Union and Progress Party (part of the Young Turks), went ahead anyway. And it became violent. Pamphlets of hate were distributed. Goods and shops were burned. Shoppers and merchants were injured. The next year was the beginning of a genocide. Could a boycott based on religion happen now in the United States? Could it lead to something more sinister? We have seen from history that it can.

I have been writing a blog to share these and other stories with readers. The good news is that studying history is not all doom and gloom. I have come across wonderful stories that help keep my faith in humanity. At Christmas I wrote about the WWI British and German soldiers who left their respective trenches to exchange cigarettes and chocolate and kind words before having to become enemies once again the following day. I also shared some letters a 21-year-old volunteer relief worker wrote to his mother with what can only be described as hair-raising adventures, that is, tales astounding enough to raise his mother’s eyebrows, if not her hair. I discovered information about a village in Cesarea where all the people banded together to stand up to the deportation orders. “If you take our Armenian neighbors,” said the Turks of the village, “you must take us, too.” No one was deported and no one was killed. I think I’ll save that story for the book.

Not paying attention to the past, and learning from it, has led us to live in what Winston Churchill called “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.” That is even more true today in the age of sound bites, as it was in 1948 when he wrote it. And as it was a hundred years ago. I believe it’s time to pay attention to the past. And to learn from it, not repeat it.


Wendy Elliott has an MEd and a special interest in history. She is the author of the young adult novel, ‘The Dark Triumph of Daniel Sarkisyan,’ and is currently writing ‘Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad’ about the missionaries and relief workers in Talas and Cesarea, Turkey 1908-22. She writes about that period in her blog: http://wendyelliott.ca/blog-gg/


Wendy Elliott

Wendy Elliott

Wendy Elliott has an MEd and a special interest in history. She is the author of “Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey 1908-1923” and the young adult novel, "The Dark Triumph of Daniel Sarkisyan." Visit https://wendyelliott.ca for more information about her books or to follow her blog.


  1. We should recall the famous quote by George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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