Near East Foundation Holds Centennial Gala Celebration

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NEW YORK, N.Y.—The Near East Foundation (NEF) is the oldest non-sectarian international development organization in the United States. And it celebrated its 100 years of existence in grand style on Oct. 28, at the elegant Cipriani in New York, before a sold-out crowd of nearly 400.

NEF country directors receiving a standing ovation from the audience

It was a century ago that the NEF started as a temporary committee, the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, known later as the Near East Relief. This organization was created to assist the millions of refugees who had survived the Ottoman Empire’s atrocities during and after World War I. One such refugee was 8-year-old Aintabtsi Mari Libarian, who had lost her parents in 1915 and was left an orphan with her 6 siblings, ages 2-15.

As the Libarian children wandered in the Syrian desert, without food, water, and shelter, they survived by eating grass, and selling their parent’s jewelry for food. With Turkish soldiers hunting for pretty girls, they marched from village to village, facing disease, frostbite, and starvation.

Meanwhile in New York City, thousands of miles away from the Armenian Genocide, in the offices of Cleveland H. Dodge, a group of concerned American business, religious, and civic leaders, at the urging of U.S. Ambassador to Constantinople Henry Morgenthau and President Woodrow Wilson, sprang into action.


A Celebration of Citizen Philanthropy


On Oct. 28, at Cipriani’s, the descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors honored the families of the noble philanthropists who organized to save, protect, and educate thousands like Mari Libarian and her siblings. Mari found refuge and protection in an American orphanage in Kilis, later settling in Aleppo, Syria, and eventually immigrating to Queens, N.Y., to be with her children and grandchildren.

NEF Chairman Shant Mardirossian presenting the Centennial Founders Award to William Rueckert, president of the Cleveland H. Dodge

And one of those proud grandchildren of Mari Libarian was Shant Mardirossian, who is currently the tireless chairman of the Near East Foundation’s Board of Directors, and the Centennial Gala’s co-chair, who welcomed the large crowd, and related the heartwarming story of his family’s profound link to this heroic organization.

Echoing the words of Armenian writer and Near East Relief orphan Antranig Zarougian, Mardirossian referred to a generation of survivors, as “people without a childhood.” He then paid tribute to other organizations that had also helped, including the Armenian General Benevolent Union, Armenian Relief Society (then the Armenian Red Cross), the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation, the Armenian Missionary Association of America, the Cilician See in Antelias, Lebanon, and the Etchmiadzin Mother See in Armenia.

A highlight of the special evening was the presentation of symbolic medals of gratitude to the family members of the Near East Relief heroes by descendants of those rescued by this noble organization.

Honorees included Jessie Maeck, great-granddaughter of President Woodrow Wilson; Alan Hoover, great-grandson of NER member President Herbert Hoover; Robert Morgenthau, great-grandson, and Pam Steiner, great-granddaughter, of U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau; Ron Miller, grandson of 20-year NEF director E.C. Miller; and, John Kerr, grandson of Stanley and Elsa Kerr, and great grandnephew of Marion Kerr. John Kerr was accompanied by his cousins, Dorothy and Margie Jessup.

Presenting the medals in memory of their family members who were rescued by the NER were NEF Board member Carol Aslanian and her daughter Leslie Aslanian Williams; NEF Board member Haig Mardikian and his son John Mardikian; NEF legal counsel Arman Kuyumjian and his father Dr. Jirair Kuyumjian; Leslie and Steven Malott; and this journalist, Florence Avakian.

The special Centennial Founders Award was presented to the Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation, and accepted by William R. Rueckert. In September 1915, Cleveland Dodge created a committee to help the Armenian people who were being massacred. The group became the Near East Relief, and as its treasurer, Dodge covered all of the committee’s operating expenses so that every dollar raised would go directly to relief. This led to the first movement of citizen philanthropy, aiding the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian people. Since then, the Near East Foundation has always had a Dodge family member on its Board of Directors, including the current vice chairman, Johnson Garrett.


Service to Millions

The evening also included a trailer from the soon to be released documentary entitled, “They Shall Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief,” and a short video presentation that related the century of service the NEF has rendered in nearly 50 countries. Dedicated NEF President Dr. Charles Benjamin explained that in 1930, the organization changed its emphasis from relief towards long-term social and economic development. Today, he noted, the NEF works with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in Armenia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Mali, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, Senegal, and Sudan.

Dr. Charlie Benjamin, NEF president, with NEF Board member Linda Jacobs and Andrew Hapke after having accepted the Citizen Philanthropy Award

He explained that the brutal four-year conflict in Syria has resulted in 4 million men, women, and children fleeing Syria’s borders, with 1.1 million in Lebanon and 600,000 in Jordan. “To survive, these refugees resort to harmful strategies such as begging, survival sex and child labor,” he stated. Currently NEF is helping 5,000 Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Jordanian families rebuild their economic security and restore their livelihoods.

“Through the generosity of the Dodge Foundation and other donor agencies, we are now halfway toward our goal of raising $4 million to fund this relief effort,” Benjamin revealed. NEF is also working with the Armenian Assembly to “extend refugee resettlement programs for Syrian Armenians fleeing the Syrian war and those who are taking refuge in Armenia.”

Servicing this gallant effort, Benjamin paid tribute to the work of 20-year NEF President Chuck Roberts; former NEF President Alex Papachristou; Arpine Baghdoyan, who works against domestic violence in Armenia; Anis Tarabey, who helps refugees in Jordan and Lebanon; Yacoube Deme, who daily with his staff confronted Al Qaeda and Touareg jihadists; Mahmoud Bchini, who created youth councils in Morocco; Salah Abu Eisheh, who with a team brought Palestinians and Israelis together in an NEF olive oil project; and Musa Gismalla, who brought together communities in Darfur to increase economic productivity. (Musa was prohibited to travel to the U.S. by the Sudanese government).


‘100 Lives’ and NEF Join in New Venture

As an expression of deep gratitude to the people of the Middle East who offered food and shelter to the refugees of the Armenian Genocide a century ago, a $7 million Scholarship Fund to benefit 100 at-risk children from the Arab Middle East was announced. It was proudly presented by Armine Afeyan, daughter of 100 Lives co-founder Noubar Afeyan. NEF will facilitate this scholarship as part of its larger mission to deliver education, community organization, and economic development throughout the Middle East and Africa.

Armine Afeyan announcing the ‘100 Lives–Near East Foundation Scholarship Initiative.’

NEF Centennial Gala co-chair Linda K. Jacobs, who has been a 30-year devoted worker for the NEF, emphasized the “unique nature of the NEF and what it does for people.” She and Andrew Hapke accepted the Citizen Philanthropy Award for the late Violet Jabara Jacobs, a first generation Lebanese-American, who gifted the NEF with a very generous donation, “a turning point for the NEF.”

Closing the inspirational evening, United Nations (U.N.) Senior Advisor Gillian Sorensen extolled the vision of the NEF founders. “They set a high bar at the U.N. for one of thousands of NGO’s in the world body. We were all refugees once,” she noted, and was critical that the U.S. is taking in so few of the suffering Syrian refugees. Reflecting the feelings of so many gala attendees, she declared, “The NEF for 100 years has led by example. I look forward to the next hundred years,” she said to a standing ovation.

Gillian Sorensen, United Nations senior advisor and keynote speaker for the evening

A bottle of olive oil made together by Palestinians and Israelis through the NEF flagship “Olive Oil Without Borders Project” was given to all attendees of the NEF Centennial Gala.

Dignitaries attending the gala included Armenia’s ambassador to the U.S., Tigran Sargsyan; Mali’s ambassador to the U.S., Tiena Coulibaly; Armenia’s ambassador to the U.N., Zohrab Mnatsakanian; Mali’s ambassador to the U.N., Sekou Kasse; Egypt’s ambassador and consul general, Ahmed Farouk Mohamed Tawfik; Jordan’s first secretary to the U.S., Sonia Sughayar; the executive director of Armenia’s Genocide Museum, Hayk Demoyan; former U.S. Ambassador to Zambia, Egypt, India and the Philippines; and James Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state under President Obama.

Distinguished clergy present included Primate of the Armenian Diocese (Eastern) Archbishop Khajag Barsamian; Prelate of the Armenian Prelacy (Eastern) Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan; the executive director of the Diocesan Krikor and Clara Zohrab Center and St. Nersess Seminary, Prof. Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan; and retired pastor of the White Plains St. Gregory the Enlightener Armenian Church, Rev. Fr. Karekin Kasparian.

Source: Armenian Weekly
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