Nafina Shekerlemedjian Chilinguirian with her daughters Gladys and Alice
Shortly after arriving in Aleppo Nafina came down with typhus, and lay near death at a local hospital. Her daughters watched, helpless, but Nafina seemed to possess a preternatural will to live. She recovered and continued raising her daughters, working as a seamstress to support them. She enrolled the girls in an Armenian school run by the clergy of the Forty Martyrs Church. “These Armenian priests,” says Balakian, “were heroic in starting orphanages for the surviving children. In some way you could say they were instrumental in helping to save a generation of Armenians.”
Nafina had no family left in the Middle East, and conditions in Syria were worsening. Everywhere she turned she saw only death and destruction: entire families and clans murdered, historical villages erased from the map. Typhus and malaria were claiming the lives of remaining Armenian women and children. But how could her family escape Aleppo?
Nafina heard that Jesse B. Jackson, the U.S. consul, a humane and ethical man, had been helping Armenians. He had cabled the U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau on several occasions in order to keep him abreast of the mass-killings and atrocities. He urged for the United States to intervene and provide relief, financial and otherwise, for the survivors: “I am trying to keep those in the outside towns alive, also, but it is a terrible task, as many persons have been beaten to death, and some hung or shot [by Turkish gendarmes] for having distributed relief funds,” Balakian quotes Jackson in his book, “Black Dog of Fate.”
Directly or indirectly, Jackson was responsible for saving countless Armenian lives. Nafina implored him to help her: he took a liking to the young woman and lent his support.
In a letter dated September 11, 1916, that he penned to Nafina’s brother-in-law Frank Basmajian in Boston, Jackson wrote:
Your sister, Nafina Shekerlemedjian, is in Aleppo, and being in need, has asked me to write you
and request that you send her some money. This may be done best through the American Embassy in Constantinople and this Consulate, by telegraph.
(Signed) J.B. Jackson, Consul”
Thanks to Jackson’s intervention Nafina was able to connect with her deceased husband’s relatives, the Basmajians, in the United States. Soon money arrived from her half-brother Thomas Shekerlemedjian in New Jersey, allowing Nafina to persevere through the dire circumstances of post-Genocide Middle East. Nafina planned her escape to America, despite the fact that in the spring of 1920, passports became hard to come by. In a letter to Thomas, Nafina wrote: “My task in very difficult, until late night I walk around to try and get my passport. Wherever ever you go, they ask you for money. Before it was very easy to get a passport, but now I suffer the utmost difficulties, and until now I don’t know if I will be able to rise and go because after the closing of the borders, there is fear on all sides. Only the road to Beirut is open, and even that is doubtful.”