Traditional Humanitarianism, Missions, & Armenian Refugees: 1915–1925

APR 04, 2013 | 6:30 PM TO 8:30 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue




April 04, 2013: 6:30 PM-8:30 PM







War and the dissolution of empires generated large-scale human displacements in the first half of the 20th century. In the Middle East, World War I, and the end of the Ottoman Empire were followed by the forced removal of hundreds of thousands Armenians – many of whom were survivors of the genocide inflicted by the emergent Turkish state. This presentation aims to situate women’s role in humanitarian work during the refugee crisis in Armenia in the wake of World War I. Norwegian nurse and missionary Bodil Biørn (1871-1960) and her vocation in the Armenian republic in the early 1920s will be used as a case study to shed light on what role a female actor could play in this early period of international philanthropy.

For many Armenians the main concern was the nation’s right to exist and to create conditions that could sustain the survivors of the catastrophe. Through their work, Biørn and other missionaries became part of the process of securing the survival of the Armenian nation. On the local level this mission work became an important part of Armenian nation building, and these missionaries also formed part of a transnational missionary network. This system was crucial in the transformation of mission goals to concerns and actions in international relief and development. With their long-term experience from thinking, organizing, and acting on local levels and on a global scale, it is argued here that missionaries became forerunners of what we now call modern humanitarian aid.

Inger Marie Okkenhaug is professor of history at Volda University College, Norway, where she teaches modern international history. In addition to a number of published chapters and articles, she is the author of The Quality of Heroic Living, of High Endeavour and Adventure: Anglican Mission, Women and Education in Palestine, 1888-1948 (2002) and co-editor of Interpreting Welfare and Relief in the Middle East (2008) and Protestant Mission and Local Encounters in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (2011).