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macleans: A Nova Scotia nurse rescued 5,000 children in Turkey


HIDDEN AWAY in the archives of Nova Scotia’s Yarmouth County Museum is a collection of photographs featuring Armenian faces. One, taken early in the 1920s, shows children arranged on a hillside, their bodies spelling out “II Corinthians: I, 8-11.” The thread connecting the Nova Scotian port, Armenia and the Biblical passage is Sara Corning, born in Cheggogin, eight kilometres north of Yarmouth. Her role in the heroic effort to rescue 5,000 Armenian, as well as some Greek, orphans from slaughter in the Turkish city of Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1922 won her special recognition from the king of Greece. But with the exception of the museum staff and a few family members, Corning’s exploits are largely unknown.

Born in 1872, Corning trained as a nurse in the United States. She joined the U.S. Red Cross during the First World War and subsequently signed on with the Near East Relief, a U.S. charitable foundation established to assist the displaced populations of the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Middle East. In 1921, Corning arrived in a small village at the foot of Mount Ararat in Turkey to take charge of an orphanage. Years of civil strife and ethnic turmoil — in which the Turks had driven the Armenians from their homeland — had left hundreds of thousands without homes and starving. Nearly a million had died since 1915 as the Turks took revenge on the Armenians for allegedly helping the Russians during the First World War.

Corning set about her work with quiet, firm resolve, according to a distant cousin, Mary Anne Saunders, now in her 70s. Saunders, who lives in Yarmouth, recalls that as a young girl she found Corning formidable. “Her compassion,” she says, “was offset by a no-nonsense approach” — a balance that allowed Corning to tend those in desperate need, all the while in the shadow of danger.

Armenia wasn’t the only country with which the Turks had a long-standing conflict. Historic tensions between Turkey and Greece increased in 1919 when the Greeks captured Smyrna, declaring that because the port city had a significant Greek population, it should be annexed. In the summer of 1922, the Turks went on the offensive and turned the tide against their invaders.

By early September, they were poised to retake the town, and its large Greek population — along with Armenian refugees who had been fleeing the Turks — was incapable of defending itself. Corning boarded an American destroyer in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and headed for Smyrna. Once ashore, she and two others opened a clinic to tend to the sick and wounded. Turkish soldiers, now in control of the city, closed it down and told the relief workers to move on. Their second clinic met a similar fate. This time the Turkish soldiers advised the team to leave, or risk their lives. “After that, the city was looted, then they began to burn it down,” Corning wrote years later in her high-school alumni newsletter. “Many refugees [jumped into the water and] drowned rather than be burned.”

In the midst of the mayhem, Corning made her way to an orphanage run by an American nurse, and was amazed to find everyone safe — though she knew that could change at any moment. Guiding small groups of children (most were under 12 years old, and almost all were female) through the turmoil and the slaughter in the burning city, Corning delivered them to the harbour, where American sailors rowed them out to waiting destroyers. No record remains of the time required to evacuate the orphans, but when the operation was complete, more than 5,000 children had been rescued.

Corning travelled with the children to Greece, where she established an orphanage for those whom war, famine and disease had not only deprived of parents, but of a country. It was there that Corning arranged the children to spell out the Biblical reference that reads, in part, “For we would not have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life.”

Summoning Corning to Athens in June 1923, King George II of Greece awarded her the Silver Cross Medal of the Order of the Saviour, an honour comparable to the Order of Canada. Corning worked at the orphanage until 1924, when she returned to Turkey to work in a residential training school. Upon retirement, she returned to Cheggogin, where she lived in the home in which she had been raised, until her death in 1969 at age 97. The epitaph on her headstone: “She lived to serve others.”

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