Strangers in a Strange Land: Near East Relief in Athens

After a sudden and life-threatening flight from Turkey, Near East Relief orphans found a new home in an ancient city.

FROM ANATOLIA TO ATHENS

When child star Jackie Coogan arrived in Piraeus harbor in 1925, he was met by an astonishing sight: thousands of children greeted Jackie at the dock with deafening cheers. Boys in traditional Greek costumes held a huge welcome banner. Girls presented him with handmade gifts, including a small woven rug. The boys and girls welcomed the Hollywood star to Athens with heartfelt hospitality.

But these children were not your average fans. They were Near East Relief orphans — the real-life beneficiaries of Jackie’s humanitarian mission across the United States. When they welcomed Jackie to their city, they were welcoming him to home that was still very new to them. 

Near East Relief’s arrival in Greece was, in a word, sudden. The burning of the multicultural city of Smyrna in September 1922 marked a turning point for Near East Relief’s work in the region. Within weeks of the disaster, Near East Relief leaders determined that Turkey was no longer safe for the orphans or relief workers. What followed was a hastily organized exodus to Armenia, Syria, and above all, Greece.

The Greek government welcomed 17,000 Anatolian Greek and Armenian orphans, in addition to more than 1 million refugees. By March 1923, refugees made up 40% of the population of Athens. More than 1,500 Near East Relief orphans found a new home in the ancient city.

At a time when the doors of all other nations were closed and barred, Greece not only admitted to her shores thousands of orphans...but she gave every possible assistance by requisitioning, rent free, the necessary public buildings and private houses for the accommodation of these exiled, homeless children.

Near East Relief Report to Congress for 1922

A HOME OF OLYMPIC PROPORTIONS

When it came to finding housing for the children of Near East Relief in Athens, the local government went above and beyond the call of duty. The government presented Near East Relief with the beautiful Zappeion Exhibition Hall, a stunning building in the heart of Athens. The Zappeion was built in the late 1800s for the revival of the Olympic Games.

The palatial Neoclassical structure made a surprisingly smooth transition from exhibition hall to orphanage. The Zappeion opened with 900 boys, many of whom were from the Samsoun region of Turkey. The boys exercised and played at the nearby Temple of Jupiter. The hall soon housed more than 2000 children in its spacious rooms.

The Zappeion also served as a convenient headquarters for Near East Relief’s work in all of Greece. In addition to the exhibition hall, the Greek government granted Near East Relief the use of the Old Royal Palace nearby. This glamorous address was home to 470 girls from the Marsovan area.

Within a few months, Near East Relief had opened orphanages in Cephalonia, Corfu, Corinth, Edipsos, Loutraki, and Oropos to accommodate the children who had been evacuated from Anatolia. Some of the orphans spoke Greek, but most knew only Turkish or Armenian. All of the children received instruction in Greek language and customs to prepare them for a life as productive members of Greek society.

PIONEERS IN DEAF EDUCATION

Among the first Near East Relief orphans to arrive in Athens were 10 deaf children. Around the same time, a well-educated young Anatolian Greek woman named Helen Palatidou came to Athens as a refugee from Turkey. Palatidou was deeply interested in working with deaf children. Near East Relief sent her to the United States to study at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts. When Palatidou returned to Athens in 1923, she was the founding teacher at Near East Relief’s new School for the Deaf — the first school of its kind in all of Greece.

The school was meant to serve all deaf children from the community, not just Near East Relief orphans. As more potential teachers expressed an interest in the work, Near East Relief developed a scholarship program to educate Greek teachers at the Clarke School; they returned to Athens to teach with Near East Relief. The Near East Foundation transferred the school in Athens to the Greek Ministry of Welfare in 1932.

SAVING LIVES WITH MODERN MEDICINE

The journey to Greece took a tremendous health toll on the orphans and refugees. Near East Relief workers faced renewed outbreaks of trachoma, favus, and tuberculosis. They also grappled with new diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

In an effort to combat the threat of epidemics, Near East Relief partnered with American Women’s Hospitals. AWH took over all medical care for orphans and refugees in Greece, with Dr. Mabel Elliott at the helm. Dr. Elliott organized three hospitals in Athens: one at each large orphanage, and another in a dedicated hospital building. Her colleagues created massive quarantine hospitals for the thousands of refugees that arrived in Greece every day. These simple tent hospitals saved countless lives and helped curtail the spread of disease in refugee host communities.

Dr. Sara E. Folks succeeded Dr. Elliott in 1923. Dr. Folks continued the partnership between AWH and Near East Relief. The AWH medical team provided essential medical care to millions of people during the population exchange between Turkey and Greece.

Photo of AWH nurse from Certain Samaritans by Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy.

REUNITING FAMILIES

Two Near East Relief workers in Athens had a very special job. Miss Myrtle Nolan and Miss Louise MacLachlan managed a project lovingly known as the Lost & Found Bureau. They weren’t concerned with reuniting people with lost belongings. It was their job to reunite refugees with family members.

The mass migrations of 1922 had torn families apart. Many refugees began their search for lost children and other family members as soon as they set foot on Greek soil. Additionally, extended family members in other countries were desperate for news of relatives that had been swept up in the refugee crisis. Every day, refugees poured into the Near East Relief office to look at the lists of new arrivals, hoping to find a lost child, parent, or sibling.

In its first month of operation, the Lost & Found Bureau received 12,000 requests for help finding a loved one. Nolan and MacLachlan posted these inquiries in 500 refugee settlements throughout Greece. By March 1923, they had put 2,000 refugees in touch with family members. By December 1923, Near East Relief had helped to reunite 25,000 people.

A NEW ERA IN ATHENS

By 1929, Near East Relief was only operating two orphanages in Greece; one in Athens, and the other in Syra. The organization transitioned to the Near East Foundation in 1930.

NEF drew on many of the lessons learned from Near East Relief’s work with orphans. Greece served as an incubator for agricultural and public health projects that NEF would go on to replicate in numerous countries.

One of NEF’s key projects in Athens was a direct result of Near East Relief’s work with orphans in that city. NEF created Youth Welfare Centers to help the young orphanage graduates to adapt to their new lives. The Centers soon grew to include children and young adults who came to the city from the country to work. At the Centers, boys and girls learned skills that would help them to find better employment. They also enjoyed social activities and educational programs.

The Athens model was so successful that NEF replicated the Youth Welfare Center in four other Greek cities with large youth populations. The Greek government assumed the oversight of the Centers in 1934, with NEF worker Nausica Parapantakis (left) becoming Director of the Working Girls Centers for the Greek Ministry of Welfare.

Left: Nausica Parapantakis speaks with Youth Welfare Center attendee Constantina Rigopolou, age 12. Constantina came to Athens to work as a maid at the age of nine, when she was sent from her home in the provinces.