A library of Congress photo shows a group of Greek refugees— in Syria, of all places. It was 1922 or 23. I first saw the pic on a blog I read regularly, published by Damian Mac Con Uladh a year or so ago on a post about the mistreatment of Syrians in Athens. The photo has stayed with me since then.
The native Greeks of Asia Minor were left helpless on the docks of Smyrna and if it weren’t for the efforts of a few brave men— including an American minister named Asa Jennings, hundreds of thousands more would have perished. By the way, Jennings’ story is told in Lou Ureneck’s book “The Great Fire.”
But the story of these destitute Greeks who fled the other way— to Syria and beyond, is largely forgotten— especially by so many of those screaming “send them back” and “sink their boats” to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees arriving on Greek shores today.
There was great upheaval taking place in Asia Minor, when millions of Greeks were being uprooted from their homes resulting from a war that was not their own doing. Villages were pillaged, women were raped. Lives destroyed— much like today in Syria.
The refugee movement was massive both before and after the “official” exchange of populations in 1922. Waves of Greeks started leaving their centuries-old homes in Pontus, fearing for their lives and those of their children. Some found a haven in Greece, but not all. Word was that the mainland Greeks didn’t want these “Tourkosporoi” (Turkseeds) in Greece.
As the violence progressed in the years between 1914 and 1922 when all hell broke loose, mass waves of Anatolian Greeks left their villages in Turkey for a safer life. Many ventured west to an unwelcoming Greece, where they continued to be treated as strangers, foreigners and even “agents of Kemal.”
Others went east and south into Syria, where numerous aid organizations had set up shop to care for millions of refugees in movement at the time— Greek, Armenian and Assyrian Christians fleeing the onslaught of the Turks.
The particular photo from the United States Library of Congress shows a crowd of Greek refugees in Aleppo, Syria. Who knows how they got there— did they walk? Where where they from? What horrors did they see in front of their eyes to force them to flee their homes and their land?
Have a closer look as I zoom in. It might be a relative, a grandmother, an uncle?
An even closer look shows children— young boys. You have to ask yourself what happened to the girls? Where are the mothers?
Official accounts and numerous reports say there were 17,000 Greek refugees in Aleppo, Syria alone and thousands more were in other Syrian cities.
Today, as Syrians face their own war and their homes and towns are being reduced to rubble— they too are fleeing. Tens of thousands are using Greece as a route to a safer Europe. And while numerous individual Greeks, church institutions and local agencies are helping these people along the way, loud voices from within Greece and abroad continue to cry out— “send them back” and even more shocking “sink their boats,” as images of arriving families circulate on social media newsfeed.
The most shocking comments come from diaspora Greeks— children and grandchildren of immigrants and refugees who themselves are a product of some form of migration, either forced or voluntary. Click on the profiles of some of these vile and inhuman statements by numerous commentators and they proudly profess their “Christian values” by featuring images of Greek Orthodox icons and the Virgin Mary on their Facebook profiles, while others have the faces of their young children in their profile pictures.
As Greeks, have we forgotten that ours is a nation of refugees and immigration? Have we forgotten that “migration” is in our blood and DNA? That numerous times, only in the last century, Greeks too, were forced to flee— from bullets, guns, economic deprivation— all searching for a better and safer life— just like today’s Syrians?
As Greek Orthodox Christians (for those who profess to be)— isn’t helping the neighbor and compassion for others a basic tenet of the Christian faith? One must ask if Jesus would have said “send them back.”
As heirs of a great classical path that gave us such ideals as philotimo, philoxenia— words we love to pass around while we profess our “Greek pride” and share numerous viral images of how great we Greeks are… How we have words and ideals that no other culture has… Yet when it comes to destitute migrants who need a bottle of water or some baby formula for their infants… we say “throw them in the ocean” and “send them back”?
Another look at the photo of the destitute Greeks in Aleppo, Syria is a great way to gain some historical perspective. I wonder if anyone said to them… “send them back” and “let them burn,” as some probably escaped the fires of Smyrna.
Look closer— maybe it’s a relative. Maybe it’s a grandfather, or a great-grandfather.
As the graffiti on the Athens wall says— our grandfathers were refugees and our parents immigrants— and we are racists.
As I boarded the ferryboat Diagoras last week en route from Patmos back to Athens, the boat was filled with Syrian refugees who had boarded in Kos, the previous stop. There were hundreds and never to miss an opportunity, I chatted with as many as I could.
I met a young English teacher and her two brothers who fled their town which had been overcome by ISIS forces. The last message she received from her sister who didn’t get out in time was that the ISIS soldiers had raped her repeatedly. She hasn’t heard from her in weeks. The two brothers— both in school, didn’t say much. Stunned, is a good way to describe their demeanor.
Then there was a young boy— he didn’t speak English but his dad did and we did exchange some words as he gazed out into the sea.
I told him I lived in Chicago— and he fired back “Michael Jordan.”
The father told me that the people of Kos had treated them with dignity, offering water and food. Of course, he explained, there were some who spit on us as we walked from the beach to the main town to get our registration papers, but racists exist everywhere and I just hope they don’t ever end up the way we have.”
I also chatted with young couple who fled a month ago— the day after their engagement celebration. “We just want a normal life,” the twenty-something would-be bride told me.
The most spirited conversation came on the upper deck with three generations of one family sitting around a toddler who was playing on top of the table.
“George Bush did this and we are paying for it,” the matriarch of the family said to me, when I told her I was from the United States. You good people, very good people,” she continued. “But you elect bad, evil President who came to my neighborhood and started war. No one asked him to come. He should start war in his own country if he wants to sell guns.”
They were’t jihadists with secret goals of converting “Christian” Europe. They weren’t fanatical muslims. They were just average people who wanted safety, stability, food and peace.
I go back one more time to the photo of the refugees in Aleppo in 1922— the Greek refugees who probably just wanted safety, stability, food and peace.