An American Relief Worker

June 8, 2020
Bt Stavros Stavridis

My name is Ebenezer Robertson an American relief worker working for the Near East Relief (NER) organization. I was born to American parents (Robert and Elizabeth Robertson) in Constantinople in May 1900. Both my parents were born into well-off families in Boston towards the end of 1865. They were imbued with the Christian zeal to help less fortunate people and to convert them to Christianity. Coming to Ottoman Turkey posed a challenge for them working in a Muslim society. They stuck to their primary task of engaging with non-Muslims without proselytizing the Turks.

My parents came to the Ottoman Empire in early 1894 and were sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in Boston to conduct missionary work amongst the Armenians and Greeks in Asia Minor. The ABCFM was active in the Ottoman Empire for almost a century.

My mother was a school teacher teaching English to Armenian, Greek and Turkish children in an American school in Constantinople. Father traveled across Asia Minor visiting our missionary schools and hospitals to ensure that they discharged their duties efficiently and sent his reports back to Boston. Mother retired from teaching at the end of the Great War and father continued with his relief work until December 1919. Both of them returned to the US in early 1920.

I grew up in the multiethnic district of Pera hearing a babble of foreign languages: Greek, Armenian, Turkish, German, Italian and Danish. It was an exciting time growing up and playing with children of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. Most of my friends were Greeks, Armenians, and Turks. These three groups got on well together until the outbreak of the Balkan and First World Wars. Then, things changed with massacres taking place, first the Armenians and later the Greeks. It was painful seeing once Turkish friends and neighbors learning to hate their Armenian and Greek compatriots with a passion. I blame extreme nationalism and religious fanaticism as the main culprits that drowned Asia Minor in blood.

Every summer, our family would vacation in the USA. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with my parents families. I would go swimming with my cousins to a lake outside of Boston. We had plenty of fun. Other times, we went on family picnics to the countryside where I played games with my cousins. These were cherished moments in my life. At the end of summer, we went by train to New York to catch the boat for Constantinople. Our sea journeys were usually comfortable and pleasant with the occasional sea storm. The ABCFM always paid our return fares.

When war broke out in Europe in early August 1914, we were vacationing in the USA. Since Turkey remained neutral, my parents decided to return to Constantinople due to their work commitments. We arrived in early September and ready for another school year. When Turkey entered the war in October of that year, things changed for the Europeans. Many packed their bags and left. For us Americans, we weren't molested by the Turks. However, when we severed our diplomatic relations with Turkey in April 1917. It was time for us to leave. We went to Salonika for the remainder of the war where my parents remain inactive for some 18 months. Life in Salonika was not easy for us.

My parents returned to Constantinople in early 1919 with father working as a relief worker with the American Committee for Relief in the Near East (ACRNE). He was given the take of helping thousands of Armenian, Russian and Greek refugees that overran Constantinople. These individuals had to be fed, clothed and be provided with medical care. He discharged his duties like a good Christian towards the refugees. I got involved with relief work as well. Mother stayed home taking care of our household. Finally, my parents returned to America.

I stayed behind to carry out relief work for the ACRNE (later renamed Near East Relief) in the Caucasus and Constantinople. I enjoyed every moment helping these unfortunate refugees who many had no country to go to. They depended on American aid for their survival. Our NER personnel were scattered far and wide in Asia Minor doing their best to assist people without distinction of race and religion.

All of sudden, Smyrna became the center of press attention with the defeat of the Greek army and its occupation by the Kemalists. The city was thronged with thousands of refugees seeking to escape to safety which many perishing in the terrible fire which started in the Armenian quarter. The fire spread to other parts of Smyrna leaving a once cosmopolitan city reduced to an ash heap.

The refugees were arriving by the boatload to Piraeus, Salonika and the Greek islands. This was the worst humanitarian disaster in the annals of history. Greece was overrun by this mass of humanity that needed to be fed, clothed, housed and provided with medical care. The NER would take up the challenge to assist the refugees. Not an easy task but donations from the American public alleviated some of the distress of these poor wretched souls.

I was assigned to work in two refugee camps in the Athens area. The first one was based at the foot of the acropolis near the Parthenon. Imagine the seat of democracy reduced to a sea of tents housing some 5,000 refugees mainly women, children, and elderly folks. These people had very few personal possessions just the clothes on their backs. Unfortunately, some of the elderly and women died due to insufficient medicines from typhoid, malnutrition, and tuberculosis. Some orphan children needed help. After eight months, I was moved to a place called Kokkinia to continue my relief work. 

In September 1923, I returned to America and campaigned strongly to raise funds for the orphans. I spoke to various community groups in Boston, New York, and Chicago about the plight of these children. The generosity shown by people was touching and raised over twenty thousand dollars for our orphanage in Athens. I returned to Athens in early 1924 and had discussions with the Greek government regarding the orphans. An abandoned building near the center of Athens became our orphanage with American money. The building didn't need much renovation. At last, the children had a permanent place to sleep, eat and play rather than living in tents or being moved around from place to place. They seemed happier, playful, healthy and also receiving an education. They never received an education in the refugee camps. The President of the Hellenic Republic conferred the medal of Phoenix for my humanitarian work with the refugees. I returned to America in late 1923 to take up a senior position with the NER.

I returned to Athens in December 1925 to see how our orphanage operated. I was amazed at the progress we had achieved with the orphans. In 1930, I was appointed as the Director of NER.


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