'That's what we need to do': Australians honoured for their efforts to assist Armenian refugees


The unsung efforts of the Australians who helped Armenians after the First World War have been celebrated in a special ceremony. The grandsons of a couple who ran an orphanage in Lebanon have met - for the first time- with the relatives of those who sought refuge there.

Brothers John and David Knudsen never met their grandfather John Henry Knudsen. But family mementos tell a story of bravery, sacrifice and compassion.

Sprawled on a dining room table at David’s house in Sydney’s north are black and white photographs, medals and a small silver identifying tag his grandfather wore when he fought in WWI.

But it’s what John Henry did after the fighting was over that he is most remembered for. The New Zealand-born soldier and his Australian wife Lydia, a nurse, traveled to the Middle East to help the Armenian refugees who fled or were marched out of Turkey, following the mass killings that many refer to as Genocide and the Turkish government disputes.

They joined the Near East Relief, overseeing aid to multitudes of Armenian refugees. When the Australasian Orphanage opened in late 1922 in Antelias, John and Lydia were appointed its directors, becoming parents to some 1,700 Armenian orphans.

“Those kids would have been dead,” John Henry’s grandson, John Knudsen told SBS.

“They would have been in the desert, forgotten, gone - a whole generation of human beings.”

Lydia gave birth to John Alexander Knudsen in April 1923. He was delivered by an American nurse, at an orphanage funded by Australians, in a (then) Syrian city under a French protectorate. The orphanage closed in 1929 and John and Lydia settled in Australia where their son went on to have two children, John and David.

The Australasian Orphanage in Lebanon
The Australasian Orphanage in Lebanon

The Knudsen’s humanitarian efforts have been recognised in a special ceremony in Sydney, bringing together the descendants of those who lived and worked at the orphanage and who were involved in Australia’s aid response.

Nora Grigorian’s grandfather Mihran Terzian was eight-years-old when he sought refuge with the Knudsens.

“It’s an incredible full circle for me personally, very personally,” Ms Grigorian told SBS.

“The way my grandfather was rescued and saved, their lives were secured by Australians. It makes me very proud to be Australian as well as Armenian.”

Author and historian Vicken Babkenian has documented the Australian response to the Armenians after the war in his book, Armenia, Australia and the Great War.

“It’s very important that we remember their sacrifices because war has many facets to it, many dimensions,” Mr Bakenian told SBS.

“We generally just focus our interests on the military aspects of military heroism, but we forget about the humanitarian heroes.”

John and David Knudsen look at old photos of their grandparents.
John and David Knudsen look at old photos of their grandparents.

John and David say their grandparents would be humbled by the recognition of their work and that Australia should be doing more to welcome refugees today.

“There’s got to be something more that we can do like they tried to do,” John told SBS.

“They tried to make a difference, they did make a difference and that’s what we need to do.”

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch