Black and white photographs from the 1920s reveal the beauty of a carpet made by Armenian orphans at a refugee camp workshop in Lebanon and presented to President Calvin Coolidge as a gift. But unless President Barack Obama changes his mind, as a petition on Whitehouse.gov asks him to, the American people won't see the carpet or learn the history of the children who made it.
The orphans who tied the millions of knots that transformed wool thread into Edenic images of animals and plants were survivors of a World War One-era genocide that had taken the lives of their families. The room-sized carpet was a gesture of gratitude to the people of the United States for their humanitarian assistance to thousands of children and adults who had suffered terribly during the war.
Much of that help had come from Near East Relief, an organization chartered by the US Congress, that at one time was feeding and caring for 100,000s of orphans in the Middle East, Greece and Armenia. Help from Americans had kept these orphans alive and had provided them with education, health care and vocational training.
The carpet itself is in storage at the White House and was reported to have been slated to be shown at the Smithsonian sometime in December. However it seems to have been caught up in the contemporary politics of the Middle East. The government of Turkey -- contrary to a broad consensus of historians -- denies that the mass killings and deportations that had made the child carpet makers orphans was a genocide. Every year Ankara uses intense diplomatic pressure to prevent the US recognition of that genocide. The fear of offending Turkey may be why the White House pulled the rug out, as it were, from under the proposed exhibit at the museum.
More than just evidence of genocide, the carpet is a symbol of the immense generosity that the American people once demonstrated to the children of the Middle East. It is a superb work of art and a poignant reminder of a time when the relationship between America and the Middle East was much different from today and built around education, humanitarian relief and cooperation. Today, as millions more children are suffering because of the war in Syria, we have the right to remember that history and an obligation rekindle our tradition of compassion.