Between 1918 and 1922 a core group of 10 American and Canadian missionaries and relief workers saved 10,000 orphans in Talas, Turkey. It was after the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides, just after World War I, during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. They were part of a massive humanitarian effort the likes of which the world had never seen. When I discovered this remarkable story, I asked myself: Why had I never heard it? And why do many of the details—before, during and after the events—sound so familiar?
The second question was easy to answer: To paraphrase George Santayana, those who do not understand the past are condemned to repeat it (Reason in Common Sense, 1905). The current events in Syria, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere are eerily similar to what happened a hundred years ago: conflict between Christians and Muslims, a lack of trust in government leadership, a series of regional wars, a troubled global economy, massive refugee migration, and the urgent need for humanitarian relief. The people have changed, of course, Bashir al-Assad instead of Talat, for example, but places like Aleppo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Der Zor, have not. We repeat and repeat ourselves, seemingly without learning anything.
The book I’m writing, Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, is about the gentility, courage, pluck and determination that shone through the “madness” inflicted on Ottoman citizens following the Young Turk revolution of 1908. In the space of 14 years, there were 2 coups d’état, 4 regional wars, 3 genocides, a world war, and a war of independence. As I write the book, I’m also writing this blog to explore the idea that history matters. If we pay attention to the issues that affected us a hundred years ago, perhaps we can deal more effectively with those same issues today. That’s the theory, anyway.
When I’ve learned something new—a fact or a different perspective—I consider myself lucky. When it makes me think and spurs me to discuss it with someone, that’s even better. I hope that’s what my blog will do for you.
In a speech in the House of Commons in 1948 Winston Churchill worried that, without an understanding of our past, we would live in “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.” As I write this, it seems that many attitudes have been shaped by short views and headlines. We have the power to change that.
Stella Loughridge, Principal of the Girls’ Boarding School and missionary for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and its sister organization Woman’s Board of Missions of the Interior, is on the left; Susan Wealthy Orvis, teacher-missionary, is beside her. If you can identify the others, please contact me. (See Amerikan Bord Heyeti on my home page for the photo credit).