May 26, 2015 – Yerevan, Armenia. On May 26, the President of the Republic of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, awarded NEF the President’s Prize in recognition of its “help to thousands of refuges and orphans who survived the Armenian Genocide and for saving their lives during and after World War I by means of funds donated by the American people.” NEF President, Charles Benjamin, accepted the award with the following remarks.
Mr. President, Mr. Boghossian, Your Excellencies, Esteemed Trustees of the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund,
It is truly an honor to accept the President’s Prize on behalf of the Near East Foundation. The story of NEF has been largely unknown to recent generations, though that has begun to change over the past year as the efforts of many have drawn the world’s attention to the Armenian Genocide and to America’s response 100 years ago.
In 1915, a small group of concerned Americans launched an unprecedented campaign in direct response to Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s reports of genocidal acts in Ottoman Turkey. Between 1915 and 1930, these extraordinary Americans united the nation to raise $117 million (more than $2 billion today) through grassroots campaigns across the country. This group founded the Near East Foundation, initially known as the American Committee for Syrian and Armenian Relief and later as Near East Relief, to organize and lead these fundraising and relief efforts. Their efforts saved more than one million Armenian lives, including the lives of 132,000 orphans, whom they cared for in NEF orphanages, schools and vocational training centers.
Against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide, the creation of NEF marked the first great outpouring of American humanitarian assistance abroad; there were chapters in every major American city and every state. The fund, clothing and food drives conducted in response to the Armenian Genocide marked the birth of “citizen philanthropy” – the idea that average people could make a meaningful difference in the lives of people in need in far-away places.
Nearly one thousand relief workers volunteered and risked their lives to help an ancient civilization they knew little about. Thirty of them made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives. Thousands more volunteered around the United States raising millions in aid and supplies. Everyone from the President down to schoolchildren was engaged. It is unimaginable to think of how many Americans responded to this “Call to Duty”. I can think of no other humanitarian effort since then that mobilized the American public for such a sustained period – nearly 15 years. This experience had an indelible impact on American and international philanthropy.
This year, NEF proudly celebrates 100 years of groundbreaking international humanitarianism in the Middle East and Africa. Our friend and a member of our President’s Council, Vartan Gregorian, once said, “The Near East Foundation stands on the shoulders of history”. I can think of no better statement that epitomizes the essence of this organization and guides us in our work today.
Many of the individuals on NEF’s board of directors are proud descendants of the original founders and workers of NEF and of Genocide survivors saved by NEF. Our work during the past century has continued uninterrupted and has impacted the lives of millions of people across 40 countries. This work that began helping Armenian orphans to rebuild their lives and their communities was later acknowledged as a model for the Marshall Plan, Truman’s Point Four Program, which became the US Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Peace Corps.
Today, NEF works in nine countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. We continue to work to build the economic independence of displaced and conflict-affected people in Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, northern Mali and the Palestinian Territories. And we continue to serve Armenia by helping people in rural areas and survivors of gender-based violence achieve economic security through microenterprise development.
On September 16, 2015 – 100 years to the day since the Near East Foundation was established – I invite you to join us as we celebrate the altruism of those who responded to Genocide, to the birth of an enduring tradition of citizen philanthropy, and to the resilience of those who survived Genocide.
Nearly 100 years have passed since the Near East Foundation was founded, but in some respects, it is as if time has stood still. We watch with horror as another human tragedy unfolds in the Middle East.
As part of our own Centennial, NEF has launched an initiative to help Syrian refugees and members of their host communities rebuild their economic security and resilience through the creation of small businesses and income generating activities. This initiative is intended to reflect and celebrate the spirit and lessons of our early service, helping Armenian orphans rebuild their lives. And it has been seeded by the Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation – the family that organized and sustained America’s response to the Armenian genocide and that has been committed to this organization and this cause ever since. I also invite you to join us in taking action in response to this humanitarian crisis of our day.
With all humility, we are deeply honored by this recognition, Mr. President. The history and work of the Near East Foundation is a reflection of the strong and enduring bond between the American and Armenian people. We feel strongly that Americans should know about this chapter in our national history – a history we share, about the Genocidal events behind it, and about the strong ties that have long existed between the American and Armenian peoples.