Syra: The Island Orphanage

In 1923, Greece agreed to accept more than 16,000 Near East Relief orphans after the evacuation from Turkey. Many of those orphans built a new home (literally) on the beautiful island of Syra.

Sailing to Safety

After the burning of Smyrna in September 1922, Near East Relief was faced with the task of moving more than 20,000 orphans out of Turkey. The Greek government generously offered to accept the majority of these child refugees. On average, the orphans traveled between three and six weeks to reach Greece.

With the help of the Greek government, Near East Relief had ferried more than 16,000 children across the Aegean Sea by the end of 1923. About 9,000 of the children were Armenian. The others were ethnic Greeks who had been orphaned and displaced during the genocide of the Anatolian Greek population.

An Island Home

Although Greece had offered to accept the orphans, there were not enough existing orphanages in Greece to accommodate them. Most of the children spent the summer living in temporary quarters, which included beachfront resorts and hotels that donated space for the cause. Near East Relief had assured the Greek government that the children would not become a burden

The Greek government granted Near East Relief the use of a large parcel of land on the island of Syra (Syros) in the Cyclades. The land was specifically chosen because of its excellent agricultural potential.

Near East Relief set about building an ambitious orphanage school with dormitories, classrooms, workshops, and play spaces. Near East Relief hired adult refugees to help build the new facilities, but the bulk of the labor was performed by the future inhabitants.

Near East Relief orphans lived in tents while helping to build their new homes. The orphans and refugees also dug 14 donkey-powered wells to provide water for the orphanage.

Building and Learning

Once it was complete, the orphanage at Syra housed between 2,200 and 3,000 children at a time. The group was evenly made up of Armenian and Greek children. As one of the largest orphanages in the Near East Relief system, Syra offered more vocational training programs than any other facility. Despite the somewhat rushed nature of the creation of the orphanage in the midst of a refugee crisis, education was paramount. Near East Relief workers conducted a careful survey of local trades in nearby Hermopolis and Piraeus before choosing to offer programs suited to local needs.

Popular trades for boys included electronics, furniture making, smithing, and plumbing. Girls learned homemaking skills and had the option to study nursing or teaching. By 1924, Syra operated a busy hospital with an attached nursing program. Primary school subjects were taught in Greek.

 

Supplies From America

The boys worked with imported equipment and supplies. Near East Relief sent seeds from America to help revitalize Greek agriculture. The boys grew a variety of hearty vegetables with a long shelf life, including cabbages, radishes, potatoes.

The working farm helped the orphanage to be self-sufficient while training its residents for a future in agriculture. The boys also worked with imported livestock, including American chickens and cows. They learned to breed animals to produce the strongest offspring. Through careful animal husbandry, the young farmers bred animals that would produce more milk, meat, and eggs than their sires.

All of the boys worked at least a half a day. The rest of the day was devoted to general education. The oldest boys worked full days. In addition to vocational training, the boys learned about healthy living and good citizenship in an effort to prepare them for independence at age 16.

The busy students took advantage of scheduled playtime. Near East Relief worker Fred Midgley and his wife Carrie fondly recalled watching the younger boys play games in the boys’ play yard, which was visible from their bedroom window. Both boys and girls enjoyed visits to the beach, as well as overnight camping trips at nearby Camp Vari.

By the late 1920s “the American School,” as the Greeks called it, had developedan excellent reputation in Greece. Local farmers asked to send their own sons to study at Syra. It was also Near East Relief’s last orphanage. As Near East Relief’s work drew to a close in 1929, Syra continued to focus on education while the other orphanages prioritized outplacement. By 1930, 7,000 Greek and Armenian children had lived and studies at Syra.