‘We have not forgotten’: Families of Greek refugees who fled Turkey in 1922 tell their stories

Greece was the entry point for hundreds of thousands of migrants at the peak of Europe’s refugee crisis five years ago.

And, nearly 100 years ago, it was at the centre of another large influx.

At the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922, Greece absorbed an estimated 1.2 million Anatolian Greeks who had been forced to leave Turkey.

They constructed an identity based on their origins, which is handed down from generation to generation still to this day.

Although almost 100 years have passed since what Greeks call “the great catastrophe”, many descendants of the Greeks who fled from Asia Minor — another name for Anatolia — continue to gather in associations, with one established in almost every neighbourhood in Athens.

Asia Minor overlayed on a map of moden-day Turkey.Euronews

The organisations put on events, as well as dance, cooking and Turkish language courses.

Recent frictions between Greece and Turkey in eastern Mediterranean waters evoke painful memories for many Anatolian Greeks.

“History is not a screenplay where you can easily identify good and bad characters,” Giannis Koutoulias, president of the Association of Asia Minor Culture of Egaleo and Nea Kydonies, told Euronews.

“Of course, listening to some of Erdogan’s quotes is painful, like when (at a 2019 conference in Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast) he said: ‘I will throw the Greeks into the sea’, quoting a verse from a Turkish song,” he added.

Elena Kaniadakis
Giannis Koutoulias, president of the Association of Asia Minor Culture of Egaleo and Nea Kydonies.Elena Kaniadakis

Koutoulias, an archaeologist at Athens’ famous Acropolis Museum, defines himself as a “Mikroasiatis” — a term used for the Greeks that lived in Asia Minor.

His great-grandfather escaped Asia Minor before 1922 when he sensed that the situation there might escalate.

“My family told me that for the first few years, every afternoon, my great-grandfather closed himself off and went silent. He thought of when, at that moment of the day, he would sit at the tables in the port to comment on the day with his friends, whom he has never seen again,” recalls the archaeologist.

“He used to think about the time of day, while he was in Asia Minor, when he would sit at a small table in the harbour and chat with his friends, whom he never saw again,” the archaeologist recalls.

Koutoulias’ grandfather was one of the 1.2 million Greeks who were forced to leave Turkey — where their ancestors had lived for generations — and emigrate to Greece in 1922.

The Treaty of Lausanne meant Greece and Turkey agreed to expel any citizens the countries considered no longer welcome.

Greece, which at that time had a population of roughly five million, took back more than one million “Turkish seeds”, as they were sometimes referred to in a derogatory way.

The newly founded Republic of Turkey did the same with 356,000 Turks who were living in Greece.

‘We must avoid trivialising the history of Greek identity’

“For years we have been collecting the testimonies of refugees and their descendants and we have organised trips to Asia Minor,” Koutoulias said of his association.

“During one of these trips, a woman visiting her grandfather’s house, which had remained intact, was handed the key by the current Turkish owner,” said Koutoulias.

Georgios Archontakis, president of the Union of Smyrneans, told Euronews “we must avoid trivialising the history of Greek identity, just because we think it would make it easier to deal with our present”.

“The Greeks who arrived from Asia Minor were educated and wealthy people,” he said.

In Izmir before the expulsion, there were already two educational institutions for women, which had not yet been opened in Greece,” Archontakis added.

“With their arrival, the Mikroasiates revolutionised Greek culture, including food, music and trade,” he said. “All of this cannot be forgotten”.

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