Nellie Miller was born in Elkhart, IN in 1897. A devout Mennonite, Nellie was very active in the Prairie Street Mennonite Church. She attended Goshen College in Goshen, IN. It was there that she first heard of the humanitarian crisis in the Near East.
Nellie joined the Mennonite Relief Commission and accepted a two-year position as secretary to the treasurer of the Near East Relief headquarters in Beirut, Syria (now Lebanon). Just before her departure to Beirut in 1921, Nellie became engaged to Cleo Mann. Although it was fairly commonplace for young Mennonite men to travel as missionaries, Nellie was one of only two Mennonite women to travel to the Near East through the Mennonite Relief Commission between 1919 and 1923.
"Miss Nellie" and the Birds' Nest
Nellie’s letters from the field to Cleo and to her family document daily activities in Beirut, including the increasingly desperate refugee situation. Nellie visited the refugee camps and orphanages as part of her work.
She created a collection of photographs, taken by herself and by others. Nellie’s letters and pictures describe the life of a relief worker in Beirut with honesty, empathy, and humor.
Nellie was a frequent and beloved visitor at the Birds’ Nest Orphanage in Sidon, Syria. Danish relief worker Maria Jacobsen and her 400 young charges lived in a beautiful Druze palace near the sea. The affectionate “Miss Nellie” was a favorite with the children.
The Birds’ Nest housed some of the youngest children in the orphanage system. Nellie’s photos capture the essence of childhood in this busy household. She recorded playtime accomplishments, moments of peace, and the children’s affection for one another and for “Mama” Jacobsen.
Sharing Nellie's Story
Nellie’s time in Beirut was a formative experience. Nellie seriously considered extending her time with Near East Relief, but she ultimately chose to return home as scheduled in 1923. Nellie and Cleo were married in August 1924. Nellie saved her letters from the field for her entire life.
Nellie Miller Mann died in Goshen, IN in 1997 at the age of 99. David Mann published his mother’s writings and photographs in the book Letters From Syria, 1921-1923: A Response to the Armenian Tragedy, Including Stories, Travel and Reports in 2013.
David Mann generously donated Nellie’s collection to the Near East Foundation (NEF) a few years ago. These images quickly became an essential part of our archival collection. We are thrilled to share these emotional photographs with you in digital form.