In 1915 – 1923, as a result of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire, about 500.000 Armenian children were killed (burned, poisoned, strangled), starved to death, or died from illnesses. Many of them were orphaned and forcibly Islamized.
Armenian unions, religious organizations, foreign charitable foundations (Near East Relief, the Foundation of the Mayor of London, Danish Women’s Union, Russian Red Cross, the Union of Russian Cities), as well as international organizations (Red Cross, League of Nations) vigorously pursued to save the surviving children from imminent death and evacuate them from the territory of the empire.
The evacuation of Armenian orphans who were under the threat of death was supposed to ensure their physical security and solve the issues of their general and national education.
Essentially, the mentioned organizations evacuated those orphans who had been gathered in uninhabited places such as deserts or forests, as well as those who were panhandling in the streets from Muslim families and Turkish state orphanages.
Armenian children who were in the war zone were also evacuated. Their evacuation was carried out by Russian and British military personnel. In the years of the Genocide, the first large-scale evacuation of Armenian children was carried out during the heroic self-defense of Musa Dagh.
In the spring of 1915, the Young Turk government began to implement their plan of the deportation and extermination of the Armenian population of Western Armenia and other areas of the Ottoman Empire.
On July 30, an order was issued to evict the residents of six Armenian villages (over 6.000 people) in the Suiezia region located on the Mediterranean coast (vilayet of Aleppo, the province of Antioch).
The minority of the population obeyed the order, while the rest – about 5.000 Armenians – climbed the mountain Musa Dag and organized a self-defense that would last 53 days. The French warships “Guichen” and “Jeanne d’Arc”, in the end, came to their rescue. Over the course of two days, they evacuated 4.058 people to Port Said.
Several children who were born on these French ships were symbolically named “Guichen”, “Svobodnaya”, etc. Overall, 1.553 children were evacuated from Musa Dagh to Port Said.
In the meantime, the evacuation of Armenian children was also being carried out in Khnus, Van, Baghesh, and other areas.
With the spread of the Kemalist nationalist movement in Asia Minor in 1921-1922, a threatening situation developed for the Armenian children in the orphanages of the Ottoman Empire.
The situation became especially aggravated after the Kemalists organized Armenian pogroms in Cilicia, as a result of which thousands of Cilician Armenians from Ayntap, Marash, Ajna, Mersin, and other areas were forced to leave their native lands.
In 1921, during the last mass resettlement of Cilician Armenians, about 7.500 Armenian orphans were evacuated from Cilicia to Aleppo, Beirut, Damascus, and Alexandria. Most of them ended up under the tutelage of the National Guardianship and the Armenian General Benevolent Union.
One of the episodes of the evacuation of Armenian children was the moving of 816 Armenian orphans from the camp of Armenian refugees in the village of Nahr-Oman of the Basra Vilayet to Jerusalem in December 1921. They were received by the Jerusalem Armenian Patriarch Archbishop Yeghishe Duryan, national figures, and many local Armenians.
As a result of the Armenian pogroms carried out by the Young Turks and Kemalists in 1915-1923, thousands of orphaned Armenian children faced the threat of death throughout the Ottoman Empire.
On February 7, 1922, in Aleppo, a meeting was held between the representatives of the Near East Relief Foundation and the Armenian delegation authorized by Catholicos Sahak II of Cilicia. The meeting was chaired by the locum tenens Sahak II, priest Harutyun Yesayan.
The council decided to transfer the orphans from the shelters of the southern and southeastern regions of Turkey to Syria and Lebanon. Armenian orphans from the northern and northeastern regions were to be sent to Greece and the Caucasus.
Christian (Armenian and Greek) orphans from the central regions of Turkey – Caesarea, Konia, Sebastia, as well as from the northern regions (Trebizond, Samsun) – were sent by land to Constantinople and then by sea to Greece by the decision of the Near East Relief. There, the orphans were distributed between 13 shelters.
From Thrace, the orphans were sent to Romania and Bulgaria, and from Izmir and Brusy to Greece along the Maris River.
Jacob Künzler and his wife Elizabeth – employees of the Urfa branch of the Near East Relief – were entrusted with the evacuation of Armenian orphans from the southern and southeastern regions of Turkey (Urfa, Mardin, Kharberd, Akny, and Malatia regions) and with the care of the Armenian orphans gathered by the Near East Relief.
The choice of the Künzler spouses was dictated by their familiarity with the area and their brilliant command of Turkish. In April 1922, the spouses organized the unprecedented evacuation of about 5.000 orphaned Armenian children.
According to a report compiled by J. Künzler, about 8.000 Armenian children were evacuated from the southern and southeastern regions of Turkey and distributed to orphanages in Syria and Lebanon.
In September 1922, during the Smyrna massacre, about 5.000 Greek and Armenian orphans were evacuated from the city thanks to the efforts of Sarah Corning, an employee of the Near East Relief. The children were transported to Greece by American warships.
As a result of the evacuation activities, thousands of Armenian orphans were saved from the Genocide.
According to the data of G. Barton, in 1922-1923, as a result of the activities of the Near East Relief, about 30.000 Armenian and Greek orphans – of them 12.000 Armenian children from the southern and southeastern regions of the empire – were evacuated from Turkey to Syria, Lebanon, and Greece.