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Historical Fiction: The Nora Melville Matthews Story

My name is Nora Melville Matthews and was born in Elkhart, Indiana on March 27, 1897. I was a member of the Mennonite Church from a young age, which had a major influence on the rest of my life. My mother, Rhonda Melville (nee Ryan), and my father Donald Melville were devout members of our church and actively involved in our local community.

When I was 10 years old (1910), I remember attending a talk at our church to listen to Rosa Lambert and her guest Bishop Moushegh Seropian speaking about the Armenian massacres in Adana in 1909. These presentations planted the seed of my interest in the affairs of the Near East.

During the Great War, I took a great interest in the plight of the Armenian and Greeks who were massacred by the Ottoman Turks and wanted to do something to help them. My heart cried every time I read a news article about the massacres of Christians in Asia Minor. I felt deep within my soul that I would assist these people at some future point.

I enrolled at Goschen College during the period 1918- 21. During my time at college, I read news stories that the major European powers were seeking to punish the Ottoman government for its crimes against humanity. The one issue concerning me was to find a solution protecting the Christians from future deportations and massacres. The Near East was full of refugees that needed assistance.

Our church formed the Mennonite Central Commission during World War I to send relief workers to the Near East. Lacking the necessary financial resources to undertake such work, our commission decided it was better to work with the Near East Relief (NER). The NER was able to send relief workers to Russia, Turkey, and Syria to help refugees and orphans.

I decided to join NER and left New York City on August 20, 1921, on the French ocean liner S.S Patria, which took four weeks, then changing ships in different ports in Italy, Greece, Palestine, and finally arriving in Beirut on September 20, 1921. I didn't sleep too well crossing the ocean. I was scared that the ships would sink and would never see my family again.

In Beirut, I was assigned to serve as secretary to Raymond Bender, the treasurer of our Beirut office. It took me a couple of weeks to settle into my new surroundings. My biggest problem was the local inhabitants spoke mainly French and some Arabic. Very few of them spoke English. I didn't understand these languages. So, I forced myself to learn some basic French to better communicate with the locals.

Besides my secretarial duties typing letters, filing correspondence, and assisting our treasurer with the financial accounts, I managed to visit some of the local orphanages in Beirut. Many of the orphans were a pitiful sight, very skinny, emaciated, and wearing raggedy clothes. It looked like these poor children hadn't been fed for ages.

All these children fled with their parents from Mustapha Kemal in Cilicia. Many parents didn't survive their journey, leaving the children orphaned. I kept a diary recording my impressions of what was happening in Beirut. I noted that Mustapha Kemal forced the Greeks and Armenians to leave Turkey in their thousands from Cilicia. These individuals weren't given time to sell their land and goods – they just left everything behind. They lost ownership of their houses without compensation from the Kemalists. Their properties were considered abandoned under Turkish law, with the title transferring to the government.

I blame the French for this massive influx of orphans and refugees into Syria and Beirut. They signed a treaty with the Kemalists which altered the military situation in the Near East. The French promises of protecting the Christians was empty rhetoric. The Christians felt betrayed and knew what was going to happen to them despite Turkish assurances of protection. Many Greeks and Armenians remembered the deportations and massacres of earlier years. It should be remembered that Cilicia had been placed under French control at the end of World War I.

Beirut was full of orphans and some refugees who needed succor. Many orphans who arrived from Syria were placed in one of twenty orphanages in our area. We fed them, provided clothing, medical care, and vocational education. It was important to teach them the skills to make them self-reliant. The boys were taught carpentry whereas the girls were taught sewing and cooking. They would get up at 6 AM every morning to get the tables, chairs, plates, and cutlery ready for breakfast. This daily routine was an excellent way to teach them discipline. 

In early 1922, I became involved with the famous Danish missionary, Maria Jacobsen with her orphanage called The Bird's Nest. At this orphanage, we received 600 Armenian and Greek orphans from Marash and Aintab. I further assisted Jacobsen in establishing an orphanage at Zouk Michail in July 1922 to receive 208 Armenian children from Cilicia.

I wrote a series of letters in 1922 expressing my concern about 7,000 orphans stranded in Mardin, Diarbekir, Ourfa, and Harput to friends and family in the United States. I mentioned the ongoing transport difficulties in trying to bring the children to Beirut. The Turks were reluctant at the start to release the children to us. However, we continually begged them, and they finally consented in the end.

We were afraid that the children would end up in Turkish households/or harems, being forced to give their identity and converted to Islam.

I took as many photographs as possible and included them along with my letters in my book. I could show people a visual record of what I had seen during my time in Beirut. These are a record of human misery unequaled in human history. The things I have seen are etched in my memory forever.

I returned to the United States at the end of 1923. My two years in Beirut were fruitful and satisfying, helping Greek and Armenian orphans. In 1924, I was awarded the NER service medal by the national director of our organization for my services in Beirut. I married John Matthews on August 25, 1924, and had no children. I taught at a local Sunday school where we moved to Indianapolis, establishing the first Mennonite Church in the city.

I conclude but saying I am living a fully satisfying life helping Greek and Armenian orphans to rebuild their lives from the trauma they suffered at the hands of the Turks. I hope these children grow up into good citizens.

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