Ellen Fleischmann: Report of Sidon Seminary, 1917-1918

This document is a report written by the principal of the Sidon (Female) Seminary, an American Protestant missionary school for girls located in the coastal city of Sidon, Lebanon, south of Beirut. The school was founded in 1862 by the Syria Mission, which was an American Protestant mission that had been established in Beirut in 1823. The Mission, initially a project of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, one of the major players in the overseas Protestant mission movement, established the Syrian Protestant College (later American University of Beirut). The Sidon school was part of a network of tens of primary and secondary schools inaugurated by the Mission in the nineteenth century, and was one of three girls’ schools that included a boarding department. These three schools, located in Beirut and Tripoli, as well as Sidon, were considered some of the Mission’s premier institutions, since they trained future Mission teachers and “helpers” in the Mission work, and provided secondary female education—something of a rarity during the early twentieth century in Greater Syria.

The report, which chronicles the fourth year of the war (and what came before for the school), highlights that the school had been turned into a center for war relief. In April 1916, the Ottoman government closed down both the Sidon girls’ school and the other Sidon mission school for boys, as the institutions did not have a firman, a state-issued authorization (required by the government since 1869, but only loosely enforced). After a friendly hint from a city official that if the schools reopened the government would look the other way, both schools quietly reopened, but by the 1917-1918 school year, conditions in the country had become so dire that the school did not receive boarding students. The report describes relief activities at the school: “As we had no boarding pupils, we had space in the building that could be utilized for other purposes.  One of the big dormitories became known as the “Wool Room”.  A large quantity of wool was bought with relief funds and part of it was washed in our garden and placed in our flat roof for drying and when ready was stored in the upper dormitories…”

“Our head teacher and another woman took turns presiding over the carding, spinning and crocheting of the wool into caps, trousers, jackets and sweaters…all the workers were paid either in food eaten in the building or in loaves of Arab bread taken home.  Over 800 garments were made and distributed among the children of the Soup Kitchens…and other people young and old…As the loaves of bread sold in the market became smaller and thinner and more & more adulterated with corn, barley and millet flour, the honest nutritious loaves of the Soup Kitchen, although never of pure wheat only, were greatly appreciated.”

“The school dining room was…given up to Mrs. Doolittle’s [a missionary wife] Soup Kitcheners who sometimes numbered nearly a hundred, most of them children.  Later on…the Wool Room became a dormitory for several destitute or half starved people on Mrs. Doolittle’s Sidon list.  Soap was hard to obtain except at exhorbitant [sic] prices and filth, vermin and emaciation proclaimed the famine sufferers at every turn.  People from near and from far, came to Sidon…and the streets were filled with beggars of all descriptions, while the men who should have been in the shops working to support their families, were either hiding from conscription or had gone to the war or had already succumbed to the conditions that have left so many widows in the land.”

This report—and the others from the war period—provides first hand accounts of the misery and suffering endured by the people in Greater Syria during the war. The reports reveal fascinating, contradictory responses of the missionaries to the misery of the war, and (inferentially), how the young girls in their charge experienced the war. The writer’s tone in this report exemplifies these contradictions. In places she is self-gratulatory about the righteousness of the Mission’s work; compassionate toward the sufferers; and judgmental about the moral shortcomings of people who experienced innumerable horrors. A story about a man who invaded the school in order to steal money is recounted with humor, although the incident (after it is revealed that the man, who dies in custody, was ill and semi-starved), creates fear, not pity, on the part of the missionaries.

Sources such as these are primary accounts of the war, but at a certain remove. They provide an interesting, on the ground, local yet also foreign lens through which the war was viewed and experienced. The Americans were non-combatants, and, although civilians, were somewhat insulated from the effects of the war. It is not clear from the reports how they received income during this time, but the missionaries were able to pay the “exorbitant prices for rice, sugar, kerosene, matches and other things” that few but the very rich could afford by 1915, thus highlighting their privileged position in a world where many were starving around them. Although technically the missionaries were citizens of the enemy of the Ottoman Empire (once the United States entered the war), the government treated them somewhat leniently and allowed them to go about their business. We can see how foreign institutions dealt with local politics, and managed to negotiate a kind of modus vivendi. The documents give us a sense of the Mission’s complicated relationship to the local community in Sidon.


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