The decision of creating AGBU
Throughout the long and troubled history of the Armenian nation there never was a darker period than the years which spanned the last decade of the nineteenth and first two decades of the twentieth centuries; in this period of great disaster the birth of the Armenian General Benevolent Union was providential. Ten years before its founding there had occurred the massacres of 1895-96 in cities and villages in Turkey where Armenians lived and ten years later the nation was visited by an even more appalling catastrophe - the deportation and massacre of almost the entire Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire, two million souls, of whom only an estimated 500,000 survived.
As the disasters followed one another with increasing ferocity, a number of Armenian leaders came to the conclusion that there should be created a strong non-political, non-revolutionary philanthropic organization capable of extending instant aid in times of disaster.
The idea was not entirely new, but the act of creating a powerful organization under the very nose of a hostile and suspicious government seemed for a long time next to impossible. Finally, there evolved the idea of establishing a society on the free soil of a foreign country, with sufficient capital and resources for emergency relief, and to put through a long-range program of philanthropy, with a strong emphasis on education.
The decision to go ahead with the creation of the Armenian General Benevolent Union was a remarkable act of faith and courage by the small group of highly respected individuals, who, forsaking the peace and tranquillity of their aristocratic existence, ventured into the arena of national service in one of the worst periods of Armenian history. Unquestionably the decisive factor in the favorable public response which greeted the establishment of the Benevolent Union was the personality of the founder, Boghos Nubar, and of the men who collaborated with him in that vitally important undertaking.
Descendants of the bold rulers of Karabakh, the Nubars had settled in the land of the Nile during the early part of the nineteenth century and in a short while had gained prominence in the political life of the country. Boghos Nubar’s father, the celebrated Nubar Pasha, served as the Premier of Egypt for three terms and for a period acted as regent. Endowed with eloquence and a magnetic personality, the son, Boghos Nubar, possessed all the polish and intellectual alertness necessary to become a statesman worthy of his father. Nevertheless, he chose to study agriculture and engineering in Switzerland and France . Some years later he invented an automatic plough capable of breaking the hardest soil, which won the first gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and brought him the highest French order of merit, the Grand Cross of the Legion d’Honneur, and the gold medal of the Milan Exposition of 1906, as well as the coveted “Olivier de Serres” medal, awarded by the Agricultural Society of France to the foremost agricultural inventor. Nubar was president or director of about twenty banks, corporations, and, with a Belgian partner, the builder of the modern city of Heliopolis , a suburb of Cairo .
In the midst of his varied preoccupations Boghos Nubar had developed a deep concern for the tragic fate of his countrymen, especially after the massacres of 1895, and could not turn a deaf ear when his friends urged him to lead in the formation of a great Armenian philanthropic organization. However, before lending his tremendous prestige to the project, with a thoroughness peculiar to great men of affairs, he spent months of intensive preparatory work with several colleagues and a celebrated lawyer, Salazar Adda, drafting and redrafting the by-laws of the organization.
Easter 1906, creation day
Finally, in April 1906, Easter day, the founders met at the Nubar mansion in Cairo to perform the final act that was to give substance to a great dream. The minutes of the first meeting stated:
“Today, 15 April 1906, the first day of Holy Easter, the undersigned, gathered in Cairo at the mansion of Boghos Nubar Pasha, organized a society under the name of Armenian General Benevolent Union, as per the conditions and provisions of the above By-Laws bearing the present date and our signatures.
The executive meeting of the association was composed of the ten members who are listed in Article 10 of the By-Laws and, effective today, the association is hereby declared as launched.”
The officers were: Boghos Nubar, president; Yacoub Artin and Yervant Agathon, vice-presidents; Megrdich Antranigian, treasurer; and Dr. Nazaret Dagavarian, secretary. Members were: Krikor Yeghiaian, Garabed Sheridjian, Arakel Nubar, Megrdich Margosoff, and Hovhannes Hagopian.
Article 1 of the By-Laws of the newly formed Union stated its purpose:
To assist in the intellectual, moral and economic progress of the Armenian people in the homeland and to encourage projects or publications which strive toward that goal.
The news of the founding of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, associated with the magic name of Nubar, was received with great enthusiasm, especially by the leadership of the Mother Church as well as of the Protestant and Catholic Armenian Churches . The gratifying public response and the rapid growth of the Benevolent Union amazed even Boghos Nubar. “When I founded it in 1906 with the cooperation of several excellent friends, many of whom have since departed from this world,” he wrote, some twenty years later, “I did not even dare to have the illusion that some day it would become what it now is - the greatest national instrument in the realm of philanthropy and assistance.”
The first few years of the Armenian General Benevolent Union were devoted primarily to the development of organizational machinery. At the same time a beginning was made in the extension of grants and subsidies to a number of schools and orphanages. Food and seed for planting were provided for Armenian peasants stricken with famine. Relief funds were dispatched to Russian Armenia for the victims of the Armeno-Tartar clashes.
AGBU and the massacres of Armenians
The AGBU was only two years old when an unexpected development in Turkey quite suddenly opened the doors of the Ottoman Empire to the humanitarian activities of the Union . The revolution of the so-called Young Turks, in 1908, overthrew the Sultan’s autocratic regime and replaced it with a constitutional government.
Almost immediately there began an unprecedented revival and renaissance among the Armenian people in Turkey . There was a tremendous surge for learning: publications proliferated overnight; cultural societies vied with one another; an ever-growing number of young students went to study in the universities of Europe and America to gain new knowledge with which to serve their country; progressive steps were taken by Armenian businessmen to introduce sorely needed modern industrial techniques and products.
The revolution of 1908 opened wide vistas of service and growth before the fledgling AGBU. The welcome freedom gave it an opportunity to organize chapters in practically all the principal cities and towns of Turkey . Dr. Nazaret Dagavarian, one of the founding fathers and the first secretary of the Central Board of the AGBU, returned to Turkey in 1908, and more than any other person was instrumental in the phenomenal growth of the AGBU in Turkey . He traveled the length and breadth of the country establishing chapters which by the end of 1914 numbered 63 with a membership of 4865. But the young organization was not to enjoy very long the blessings of peaceful development.
First came the massacre of Armenians in the Adana vilayet ( Cilicia ) in 1909, organized by reactionary elements with the undeniable complicity of the Young Turks. More than 30,000 persons lost their lives and many more thousands were rendered homeless.
The Adana massacre was the first major challenge to the young Benevolent Union, and the Union unhesitatingly met the test by rushing aid to the people of the stricken cities and villages. Although it had existed for nearly three years, on that day many a victim heard for the first time with amazement that an organization known as Parekordsagan (Benevolent Union) had provided tents, food, clothing, and medicine for them. To care for children left without parents during the massacre, the AGBU soon established its first orphanage, the Kelekian at Deort Yol, through the generosity of Dikran Khan Kelekian, philanthropist and lifelong member of the AGBU Central Board of Directors.
Despite the stunning blow dealt by the Cilicia massacre, the Union forged ahead with its long-range program, establishing some 34 rural schools in various localities, and in order to provide them with qualified teachers, established a normal school in the city of Van . A secondary school was established in Moufarghin - modest institutions to be sure, but of great promise for the future.
The April 24 massacres
In the midst of the chaos of World War I, suddenly and without warning the Turkish government sent sealed orders to every city and hamlet in which Armenians lived. On the designated day, April 24, 1915, all the prominent Armenians, clergymen, intellectuals and businessmen, were gathered in the middle of the night. They were bound, tortured, and eventually murdered. Men of military age - from seventeen to fifty - were transferred to so-called road-building units, disarmed, and massacred by their Turkish comrades. Deprived of their young men and their leaders, the people, mostly old men, women, and children had no recourse but to comply when the government issued orders for them to leave their ancestral homes to be deported to distant regions.
Seemingly overnight, the AGBU lost its most important stronghold with more than 80 chapters and a rapidly growing membership. Gone were all the schools and orphanages with all their pupils and teachers; the work of a whole decade had been swept away. The 1915 report of the Central Board of Directors stated this heart-breaking fact in one restrained sentence: ”Today the only school maintained by the Union is the Siswan School for refugees at Port Said .”
As soon as the Armistice was signed, the AGBU plunged into the task of gathering and sheltering the young orphans of the storm. “Orphan seekers” went everywhere in search of children who had miraculously survived the genocide.
Foremost among the orphan seekers was Roupen Harrian, whose mission, funded by the AGBU, took him to obscure corners of the Arabian desert in search of Armenian boys and girls and women abducted to Mohammedan harems.
The AGBU shifted the emphasis from its long-range projects to those of emergency relief. One after another orphanages, hospital-dispensaries and shelters for young women were established. A warehouse was established at Cairo to serve as a central depot for clothing. Orphanages were established at Damascus , Port Said , Aleppo , Mosul , and twin orphanages at Deort Yol. Shelters were maintained at Port Said , Damascus , Adana , Aleppo , Kilis, and Beirut . Hospital dispensaries were set up at Damascus , Mersin , Deort Yol, and Alexandretta .
Many of these institutions were of a temporary nature, and were closed or transferred to other locations as the mass movement of refugees and an extremely unstable political situation dictated. In 1919 the orphanage and hospital at Damascus were moved to Hadjin, which was then under French occupation. However, a few months later, Turkish soldiers and guerrillas attacked Hadjin and a number of other Armenian cities in Cilicia . The French garrison suddenly withdrew, leaving to their fate the Armenian residents and the orphans who had just returned from exile. After many months of stubborn resistance, the defenders were finally overwhelmed and massacred, including the 207 orphans of the AGBU institution.
Similarly, the Port Said orphanage had been moved soon after the armistice to Mersin . But it was hastily transferred to Beirut when, in 1922, a resurgent Turkey under the Kemalist banner overran Cilicia . The twin orphanages at Deort Yol were likewise hastily deserted as were all the AGBU refugee shelters and hospitals in Cilicia
. In 1922, with the defeat in Western Anatolia of the Greek Army at the hands of the Turks, the Greek and Armenian residents of the beautiful city of Smyrna, who had miraculously escaped the fate of their brethren in the interior of Turkey during World War I, were put to the sword, save those who managed to board foreign transports which carried them across the Aegean to Greece. Thus almost overnight another Armenian refugee community of some 30,000 souls came into being. An AGBU dispensary was hastily organized under twenty-two tents in Athens with other dispensaries opened at Salonika, Piraeus , and Mytilene. AGBU shelters were established at Athens and Salonika for young women who had lost their relatives.
AGBU continues with its other activities
Despite its preoccupation with the care of refugees, the AGBU did not forget its vital mission in the field of education. As refugees were gathered in various camps, efforts were made to organize, often under tents or in the open, schools for refugee children. And gradually, as various refugee communities became somewhat settled, the old plan of granting subsidies to denominational schoolsArmenian Apostolic, Armenian Protestant, and Armenian Catholic, was resumed.
During this period of the late twenties and early thirties the Armenian General Benevolent Union of America launched a large fund raising campaign to establish a model town in Armenia for the settlement of the repatriates. The village was named Nubarashen in honor of the founder of the AGBU. More than $333,000 was raised primarily in America , despite the economic depression. Visibly moved by this gesture, Boghos Nubar donated $100,000 to the fund, bringing the total nearer to the half-million dollar mark. To insure the success of the project, the Armenian government contributed a sum equal to the total fund.
Nubarashen was but one of the AGBU projects in Armenia . The Union established a village, Nor Yevtokia, built the Marie Agopian Maternity Hospital , the Marie Nubar Eye Hospital, Aved Sarkis Antirabic Institute, and three village schools. It conducted a successful campaign for the sufferers in the Shirak earthquake, and transferred to the University of Yerevan a number of bequests.
In 1922, because President Boghos Nubar had been obliged to move to Paris as the head of the Armenian National Delegation to the Versailles Conference and especially in view of the utter inadequacy of the Egyptian laws relative to philanthropic corporations and charitable bequests, it was deemed advisable to transfer the Central Board of Directors, the highest body of the Union, from Cairo to Paris.
Owing to his frail health and advancing years, Boghos Nubar resigned in 1928 and was immediately named Honorary President for Life. It having been decided not to elect a President during the founder’s lifetime, Gabriel Noradoungian, one-time Minister of Foreign Affairs in Turkey , took over the active direction of the affairs of the Union .
Boghos Nubar died on June 25, 1930, a sad day for the Armenian people. “In his person,” wrote Le Temps, of Paris , “the Armenian nation has lost one of its foremost and highly respected defenders. His death has brought to an end an era of great disasters, heroic struggles, and unfulfilled hopes.”
“The Birth of AGBU” was excerpted from the book The Armenian General Benevolent Union written by the late Bedros Norehad.
Mr. Norehad was a devoted AGBU staff member for 20 years and the editor of Hoosharar from 1964 to 1974.