YARMOUTH, N.S. – Had Sara Corning been in the room, she would have been humbled by what was being said about her. She never went about her life’s work seeking fame. She simply did it to serve and help others.
But what the Yarmouth native accomplished and the thousands of people – mostly children – she helped is not to be forgotten.
During a special evening at the Yarmouth County Museum and Archives on Aug. 3, people reflected on what Sara Corning means to them, and to the world, and spoke about the steps that continue to be taken to ensure her humanitarian contributions are recognized and remembered.
So in a sense, Sara Corning was in the room after all.
Corning, born in Cheggogin, Yarmouth County, in 1872, was a nurse and eventually worked with the American Red Cross. She joined the Near East Relief effort to aid refugees in 1919 and is credited with helping to save and care for thousands of Greek, Armenian and Assyrian orphans and refugees from the aftermath of World War One and the Siege of Smyrna in 1922. She continued her work with orphans in Greece and Turkey until 1930.
She returned to Chegoggin in her retirement, where she lived until her death in 1969 at the age of 97. Her headstone is inscribed with the words “She Lived to Serve Others.”
Raffi Sarkissian visited Corning’s gravesite while in Yarmouth last week. It was an emotional experience. Sarkissian is the founder and former chair of the Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education in Toronto. The educator and genocide education advocate is also a descendant of survivors of the Armenian genocide, the very people that Sara Corning helped. He was invited to speak about what Corning means to him and to the Armenian population. Gratitude spilled from nearly every sentence he spoke.
He said Corning was the obvious namesake for their centre in Toronto. The centre’s mission is to disseminate human rights and genocide-related research to elementary and secondary school students in Ontario.
“The Corning Centre's conviction is that human rights education is effective in ensuring that Canadian students become engaged in civic life, advocate for their own rights and those of others, and remain aware of the consequences of discrimination,” reads the mission statement on the centre’s website.
“No one is paid to do any of the work we do. Professional teachers that give their time, researchers, historians, accountants, lawyers, all pitch in their time and effort to run this organization . . . We wanted the name to represent that selflessness,” he said. “Sara was undoubtedly that person for us. That person that became mother to so many orphans.”
FAMILIES TORN APART
Sarkissian feels that he literally owes his life and his family’s history to Corning and others like her.
“My grandparents and great-grandparents where those people who were directly possibly affected by people like Sara, if not Sara herself, because one of my grandfathers was actually in a Greek orphanage,” he said.
“Our family trees are just a few branches,” said Sarkissian. “It is thanks to that generation of humanitarians that the Armenian people today continue to exist.”
Both of his grandfathers – as children – were survivors of the Armenian genocide. During that time families were removed from their homes and exiled. Many people died along the deportation route due to starvation and sickness. Others were killed away from foreigners’ eyes, he said. Families were usually separated to destroy the family unity and to make it easier to control the Armenia population. Many children ended up in orphanages
And yet to this day, he said, there denial among many that the genocide occurred.
With the survivors nearly all gone – given that this was nearly 100 years ago – he said it is important to the Armenian community that immortalization occur in other ways.
Which is why the centre for genocide education continues its work and why Sarkissian is so pleased to see Sara Corning being honoured and remembered by others.
This past November Sara Corning was also posthumously awarded the Outstanding Canadian Award by the Armenian Community Centre of Toronto.One such group is the Sara Corning Society in Nova Scotia, which has many past and present members in Yarmouth. The Society has worked diligently to ensure Corning’s life and humanitarian work is remembered and honoured. A street – Sara Corning Way – has been named after her in Yarmouth, and there are other methods of remembrance taking place in Yarmouth and Nova Scotia, with others planned. The Society shared publicly during the event at the museum that it has commissioned an artist to create a life-size bronze statue of Corning that will be erected in the Town of Yarmouth. The goal is for the statue to be unveiled in the fall of 2019 said society members David and Jennifer Chown.
READ: SARA CORNING: AN OUTSTANDING CANADIAN: Yarmouth Vanguard November 2017
Past recipients of this award have included former prime minister Jean Chretien, author Margaret Atwood, astronaut Roberta Bondar and filmmaker Atom Egoyan. At the Aug. 3 event at the museum – where work also takes place to honour Corning – the award was presented to the Yarmouth County Museum and Archives, and the local historical society, for display in Corning’s hometown.
“If alive, Sara Corning would not want to be recognized this way,” Sarkissian said, a reference back to her humble roots. “She lived her life in such in a humbled way that many people who lived with her and knew her didn’t know the extent to which she affected the international community.”
But Corning, he said, is an important part of the humanitarian roots of this country.
And that is a legacy and a part of the world’s history that must be shared, he said.