“We Were Once Them” – Catastrophe & Crisis: Refugees In Thessaloniki (Part Six)

They were there when I got off the bus in the center of Thessaloniki. In Dikastirion Square, just below the ruins of the Roman Agora, they lay sprawled under trees and sitting on benches while chatting quietly Still others stood looking sullen and bored, staring off into the near distance at no one in particular. Each time I passed through the park I saw small groups of them, chatting quietly while trying to avoid the glare of a Mediterranean sun. One time I saw a large family, happily playing among themselves. The laughter of children was a pleasant counterpoint to the usual scene of young and middle-aged men with nothing to do but wait. I surmised from their thin, angular features and the darkness haunting their eyes that these men were Syrian refugees. I had first encountered refugees from the war in Syria five years earlier on the streets of Istanbul where women and children were desperately begging for money. They had little more than the clothes on their backs.

By the looks of the men in Dikastiron Square, the refugees that made it to Greece had improved their lot, at least superficially. Nevertheless, they looked lost due to the simple fact that they were. The war in their former homeland had buried their hopes and dreams beneath piles of rubble. In acts of adventurous desperation, they had traveled overland across Anatolia and Thrace, or set sail across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas until they washed up onto the shores of Thessaloniki seeking asylum. Little did they know that some of the Greeks who walked past them, relatively prosperous and seemingly at home, were also the descendants of refugees. In the 1920’s, Thessaloniki had been one of the major centers of settlement for Greeks who had also come from Asia Minor. War and population exchanges had led them to seek refuge among their fellow ethnic kin. The Syrians were not so lucky.

Up in smoke - Refugees fleeing Smyrna while the city burns

Up in smoke – Refugees fleeing Smyrna while the city burns (Credit: Benaki Museum)

The Near East – When Almost All Was Lost
“We were once them”. Those four words were the most memorable I heard spoken during my time in Thessaloniki. They came from Giorgios, the charismatic Thessalonian who guided me and many others on two consecutive evenings as part of Free Tours throughout his hometown. When Giorgios spoke those words, it was just below the old City Walls of Thessaloniki in Ano Poli (Upper Town). He was talking of the common humanity which Greeks and the rest of the world shared. He said we should take this into account when assessing the refugee crisis and other international incidents that arise out of human conflict. While his point was well taken, I had heard it said many times before. What elevated his talk from the ordinary to the extraordinary was when he invoked the “Catastrophe”, one of the seminal disasters in modern Greek history, to talk about refugees. The “Catastrophe” was a series of events that led to ethnic Greeks being expunged from Asia Minor where they had lived for centuries. It flowed out of the First World War’s aftermath when Greek nationalism reached its peak.

The idea of Greater Greece was in full flower following the war. Nationalists hoped to gain large portions of territory in Asia Minor with large Greek communities. They could not contain their avarice during the peace process and overreached. They sought territory that stretched far inland to Turkish dominated parts of Anatolia. This caused a backlash from Turkish nationalists coalescing around the leadership of an army officer by the name of Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk). He had been born in Thessaloniki where his own mother and sister were uprooted when Greece took over the city in 1912. Ataturk knew first-hand the threat Turks faced from Greek nationalists. The Greek Army landed in 1919 on the coast of Asia Minor. They would fatefully begin to move further inland out onto the parched Anatolian Plateau. Slowly, inexorably they were drawn into a compromising position over the next couple of years. Their supply lines eventually were stretched to the breaking point. The Greeks were then struck by a devastating Turkish counterattack in 1922. Soon they were fighting for their lives.

The entry of the Turkish Army into Izmir (Smyrna)

The entry of the Turkish Army into Izmir (Smyrna) (Credit: Aydin Baskanligni)

The Turks pushed the Greek Army back toward the coast and soon out of Asia Minor. The large Greek population in the city of Smyrna (present day Izmir, Turkey) was helpless to defend themselves. A massive fire broke out in the city on September 13th. Over the next nine days it burned the entire Greek and Armenian quarters to the ground. The Greek presence in Smyrna, which stretched over 2,500 years, came to an end in just a few days. The upshot of the Greek defeat was not only an end to the idea of Greater Greece, but also an exchange of populations between Greeks and Turks. 1,200,000 Greeks moved to a Greece they had never known. Likewise, 300,000 Turks were forced to relocate to Anatolia (modern Turkey) where they tried to start a new life. For Greeks, the loss of Smyrna, as well as many other Greek communities both large and small in Asia Minor, was a catastrophe which is still lamented to this day. The memory of that loss has been passed down to younger Greeks such as Giorgios. Memories of the “Catastrophe” are still ever present in Thessaloniki because so many refugees washed up on its shores from 1922 – 1924.

Burned out - Smyrna after the Great Fire

Burned out – Smyrna after the Great Fire

Netherworlds Apart – Waiting On Hope
The Greeks from Asia Minor who sought refuge in Thessaloniki were victims of the Catastrophe. Nevertheless, they did have one advantage over the Syrian refugees I saw in the park, ethnic Greeks were coming to a land inhabited by their own people. As such, they spoke the same language. This made finding a new livelihood much easier. Whereas the Syrians have little to do but wait in the park. It is better than being in war torn Syria, but the situation is far from ideal. Looking at them, I had a stinging suspicion that five years from now they might be doing the same exact thing. Finding work in a nation still trying to recover from a financial crisis, assimilating into an alien culture and making new acquaintances outside their own ethnic group is extremely difficult. Where their lives are headed, no one can say, most of all them. For now, they are stuck in a netherworld that begins and ends at Dikastirion Square in Thessaloniki.

Click here for: Reversal of Fortunes – Ataturk’s Birthplace in Thessaloniki: The World That No Longer Exists (Part Seven)

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