Grace H. Knapp, another missionary at Van, wrote about her friend: “Mrs. Ussher literally laid down her life—not for her friends in the earthly sense of that word—but for members of the race that shortly before had threatened her, and all those that she loved, with a merciless death.
In 1915, the buildings belonging to the missionaries in Van, Turkey, turned into fortresses, refugee centers, and hospitals. “Reports come to us of the burning of village after village, with outrages upon the women and children, and the shooting of the men,” Elizabeth Ussher wrote in her diary.
“Our own family are all together in the middle bedroom, which is barricaded by a wall of large oil cans filled with earth. … The sitting-room windows are protected by bags of flour piled up on the wide window sills, and a triple hanging of heavy blankets across the windows, to keep the stray bullets out.”
Soon, thousands of refugees arrived at the mission, generating an intense response in the fervent attempts to keep them alive.
Elizabeth was born on in Turkey (then Ottoman Empire) in 1873, in the town of Kayseri, the ancient Caesarea of Cappadocia which had been birthplace of the famous 4th-century theologian Macrina the Younger. Her parents, John Otis Barrows and Clarissa Storrs Freeman, were American missionaries, who raised their children to show love and concern to those around them.
Due to one of their son’s ill health, in 1880 the Barrows turned a furlough into a permanent leave, settling first in New Hampshire, then in Connecticut where John served as pastor. Elizabeth attended Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts, then the Women’s College (now Glouchester College) in Baltimore, Maryland. A few doors opened to her, including the possibility to serve as secretary for the Women’s Christian Association. She seemed like a perfect candidate, since she had a positive influence on young girls.
But she had her heart set on returning to the land of her birth, and serve as missionary like her parents. Her parents tried to dissuade her, out of concern for her safety. When all their efforts proved fruitless, her father took her to the station, watched her leave, and returned home with a longing heart.
On 18 October 1899, Elizabeth left Boston by ship, headed for Istanbul with other missionaries. From there, she took a boat to Trabzon, then traveled inland to Erzurum, where she was to be greeted by a group headed by the missionary doctor Clarence Ussher.
She immediately encountered some problems, since a telegram sent by the England branch of the Armenian Relief Society had given the Ottoman government the impression that she and another missionary were involved in Armenian revolutionary activities. In the end, Clarence was able to clear the women’s names and bring them to the mission at Van, where Elizabeth was to be stationed.