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Historical Fiction: The Jean White Story

My name is Jean White, the Secretary of the Young Women's Christian Association (YCWA). I returned to the United States from Athens on November 30, 1922, travelling from New York to Washington DC to report to the national headquarters of my recent work in Smyrna and Athens.

I was very keen to return as quickly as possible to help out the refugees in Greece but my family in Boston insisted that I remain in the USA. I understood their concerns for my personal safety but my humanitarian nature had other ideas.

I traveled to Boston where my parents and siblings waited for me at Lechmere railway station. It was great to see them all. A family reunion after a four-year absence in the Near East.

Our parent's house was located in the beautiful West Roxbury neighborhood with its many wooded parks and recreational areas, a beautiful area situated not that far from the center of Boston. Yes! It felt great to be amongst family and friends once again, but I kept my future plans to myself as I didn't wish to upset my parents with the approaching holiday season.

We had an enjoyable Christmas get-together with the family singing Christmas carols and reminiscing about our childhood years growing up in West Roxbury. With Christmas 1922 gone, it was time to tell my folks that I would be heading back to the Near East in the early part of 1923.

One day sitting in our lounge room, my sister, Dorothy asked me to recount my overseas experience. As I began telling my story, my eyes welled with tears remembering the horrors of Smyrna which I witnessed. I learned that the Greek archbishop, Chrysostomos had been murdered most brutally by the Turkish mob. The city of Smyrna was torched to the ground by the Turks. The burning of many beautiful buildings in the Greek and Armenian quarters was something that I shall never forget.

I recall our American destroyers, the USS Litchfield, Simpson, and Edsall, were active in the Near East with many sailors placed on land duty to protect our YCWA building for periods of 24 hours a day. Our building ended up being burned in the end. This took place just before the Greek troop evacuation from Smyrna and the flooding of refugees streaming into the city.

Turks were telling me that the Greeks and Armenians also burned their towns to give their enemy no supplies or plunder as they retreated in Asia Minor, but I was horrified seeing innocent people crying out to be saved from Turkish reprisals. I tried seeing both sides of the story but in my heart, I believe the Turks were the culprits.

We had 1000 Greek and Armenian girls under our care before the engulfing fire of Smyrna. Flames consumed our fine building, which was the envy of many organizations in the town. We managed to save all of them by telling our naval commander that they were U.S. citizens. Our government's official policy was to only take our nationals. Otherwise, these poor females would have ended up in Turkish harems or even being raped and killed. The USS Litchfield took us to Piraeus with our human cargo of distressed women who had no idea of what the future held for them. My two colleagues, Elizabeth and Mrytle Nolan, who traveled with me from Smyrna, had accounted for our 1000 women in Athens. They conducted bread and soup kitchens in cooperation with our Consulate to feed these poor souls.

Elizabeth told me that the Greek press reported that some 300 Greek girls from our group had been abducted by the Turks and taken to the mountains. She refuted these claims by inviting journalists to interview some of the girls. The next day, the Athenian press retracted their story by issuing a public apology to the YWCA. It was great setting the record straight.

Our organization estimated there were some 500,000 Greek and Armenian refugees in Greece and the islands. These individuals needed our help, and it would be an immense international undertaking to clothe, feed, and accommodate them. For Piraeus, we guessed there were around 60,000 Greek and Armenian women and children pitifully living in damp conditions and experiencing bitterly cold weather. I learned that on some islands, the refugees ate grass as there was very little else to eat. Mothers were malnourished feeding their babies warm water with pneumonia and other diseases rampant in the refugee camps. These were harrowing stories that simply couldn't be ignored.

Our relief organizations – the American Red Cross, Near East Relief, and women's hospitals did sterling work trying to save the refugees from hunger and disease. The generosity of our people would play an important role in the survival of the refugees.

Our Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) secured 18 small boats and assisted in bringing thousands of Asia Minor refugees to the nearby Greek islands. Some of the boys who may have served in the Greek army were between 15-17 years old. They grew up to adolescence filled with the atmosphere of war that had been waged over the past 10 years.

I made an appointment to see Congressman Waters during my brief stay in DC to discuss with him the possibility of easing the Immigration rules to allow an increase in the Greek and Armenian quota. He listened to my case sympathetically but stated "we can't admit penniless refugees who can't support themselves and who could bring in disease as well."

I wasn't particularly enthused with his response. As much as I wanted to change our nation's immigration policy, there was very little I could do.

Before departing DC, I wrote a quick letter to Waters telling him to rethink our immigration policy. I stated that U.S. citizens of Greek origin could sponsor their relatives to come to live in America from Asia Minor. I thought it offered some solace for those wishing to start a new life. He responded positively to my suggestion, which warmed my heart.

Finally, 1923 arrived with high hopes to do the YCWA’s work in the Near East. Our national headquarters decided to send me to Smyrna to rebuild our association and to help young Turkish and Jewish girls there.

I hugged and kissed my family as I prepared to board the train for another humanitarian stint on the other side of the globe.

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