Near East Relief worker Nellie Miller Mann loved to visit the little “birdies” at the Birds’ Nest Orphanage. David W. Mann published his mother’s writings and photographs from her time with Near East Relief in the book Letters From Syria, 1921-1923: A Response to the Armenian Tragedy, Including Stories, Travel and Reports in 2013.
This Dispatch series is excerpted from Nellie’s letters. The text is reproduced with the kind permission of David W. Mann.
SUNDAY, MAY 20, 1923
In the time of the barley harvest, when the fields were golden with ripened grain and the soft breezes were yet cooled by the glistening snow on Sannin, the sweet lady, Miss Yacobsen, called to take me home to her Birdsnest (sic), away on top of a hill overlooking the ancient city of Sidon by the sea.
What a beautiful Birdsnest it was, once the home of a very wealthy pasha, the interior walls of which were most elaborately decorated by an Italian (so-called) artist. How we happened to have this lovely home for our littlest orphanlings is that the pasha died and the heir of the property finding himself in desperate financial straits was compelled by these circumstances to lease the property at a very low price.
The magnificence of the entire place bespeaks unlimited extravagance on the part of our pasha friend. But it takes little reflection to judge that never has there been such joy within the walls of this beautiful palace.
If any of you mothers have felt a thrill of joy on coming home from a short shopping tour, when the children come running out to meet you, you can in a slight degree realize what happens when Miss Yacobsen comes home to her 400 little ones, most of whom are nine years old and under. She has about seventy-five in the kindergarten, of whom about thirty are under four years, one a tiny baby of only four months old.
Left: Nellie and children on the veranda of the Birds’ Nest, c. 1923.
The baby’s name, although she is as dark as an Indian, is Lily. Miss Yacobsen has grave fears that she will not be able to bring the baby through the heat of the summer, but if it should pass out of this world, it will not be from lack of love. I have never heard a name spoken with as much feeling and devoted love as Lily’s name on the lips of the orphan girl who cares for her every minute of the day, except when Miss Yacobsen herself ceases from her work to feed or bathe her baby. Ever since the baby’s arrival, Miss Yacobsen has called it her blessed privilege to be aroused from her sleep three or four times a night to care for her.
She told me a day or two ago, “It seems the oftener I have to get up at night to care for Lily, the more the child grows into my love.” When Mr. Bosworth first saw the tiny child covered with sores, he said he could not see one lovable or redeeming feature in the child. But Miss Yacobsen, with her mother-love has wrought a transformation over the child. She is still thin and weak, but her sores are almost healed. If she can only exist through the summer heat there is great hopes for her developing into a lovely child.
I have seen many children transformed under Miss Yacobsen’s love. I shall never forget the first time I went up to Zouk at the time the Harpoot orphans were coming down from the north and Miss Yacobsen was just starting her nursery; she was sitting in the center of the room with nine little babies standing around her knees while she fed them with a large spoon from a large bowl of lebon (curded milk) and bread.
Most of these babies were mere lumps of humanity with no expression and no vitality. One little boy especially, Ibarahim, was the dullest and most languid of them all. He couldn’t laugh, not even smile. However, one could not live around Miss Yacobsen very long without learning to laugh. She undertook to teach him to laugh. She would laugh heartily, telling Ibrahim to do as she did. The effect was the weirdest expulsion of sound you ever heard.
One day Miss Yacobsen brought him to town and they were in my room washing for dinner. They were chattering away in Armenian together, when suddenly I was startled by a wild shout. Turning around I said, “What in the world does that mean?” Miss Yacobsen laughed, “He is imitating my laugh.” The transformation of that child is marvelous. After six months he is lively, responsive and is rather looked up to by all the other babies as a leader. He sings all the little kindergarten songs, repeats the verses and the prayers as if his very life depended on it.
Left: Maria Jacobsen and a healthy, happy Lily, 1926 (three years after Nellie wrote this letter). Jacobsen ultimately adopted Lily, who joined two other adopted sisters.
Vartan is another little boy who has undergone a remarkable change. He was the smallest orphan at Antilyas. All the other boys were big and able to take care of themselves (at least six or seven) but poor Vartan! he had no one his own age to play with; he was sick and peevish.
The mairiks or house mothers petted him and fed him all sorts of things that were not good for him and every time I went out to Antilyas Vartan was growing more cross and irritable, until one day when I was at Antilyas I asked Mrs. Knudsen, “Where is Vartan?” “Oh,” she said, “He became so sick and so cross, we couldn’t keep him any more so we sent him to Miss Yacobsen where he could be taken care of with the other little ones.”
When I arrived in the afternoon at the Birdsnest, some of the babies came running to me to be taken up. Some of them I had never been acquainted with before. I noticed this one little black-eyed boy, trotting about apparently very happy and contented. “Who is that little boy, I ought to know him?” It was Vartan – not screaming and biting and kicking; but playing and laughing with all the other babies. When he came to Miss Yacobsen he was so weak with heart trouble that he was turning black and blue in the face and at the ends of his fingers and his feet. What he needed was mother love, wholesome food and other little children to play with.
Sunday evening (for it was Sunday) I spent the whole time playing with the babies, getting acquainted and learning their names. After supper I was so overcome with sleep on account of the sudden change from seaside to the mountain air that I went directly to bed.
Right: Maria Jacobsen with children at the fountain, c. 1923.