It is assumed that Greek life in Turkey is on its last breathe after centuries of slavery, genocide, cultural repression and a population exchange. However, as Greek City Times has already reported before, it is not dead, but rather it is beginning to flourish again.
In 2013, when the Greek Primary School on the Turkish-controlled island of Tenedos opened up after half a century of closure, it had only four students. Today, 53 Greek children attend all levels of education. Meanwhile on the Turkish-controlled island of Imvros, 600 Greeks live on the island again, as reported by Ethnos.
The establishment of a Greek school in Imvros seven years ago seemed even to the most optimistic, as an extremely bold and uncertain venture. Many saw it as a utopia, a step into the void, doomed from the start to failure. The Primary School in Agios Theodoros, the hometown of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, opened in 2013, almost half a century after its closure. It only had four students at the desks, and in the second year it reduced down to two.
In 2019, the first bell rang for 53 Greek students of all levels in the three Greek schools now operating on the island. Today in Imvros, there are over 500 Greeks.
The arrival of families who decided to leave Greece and build a new life in the place of their ancestors continues, while the first children born there begin to go to school.
The remarkable recovery of the Greek community in Imvros is the result of many years of efforts by people who believed in utopia and put it into practice. Imvrian associations in Greece, prominent Imvrians of the diaspora and expatriate organisations in Istanbul, with the contribution of the Ecumenical Patriarch, sometimes in cooperation with the local authorities, achieved what seemed impossible a few years ago.
Ioakeim Kampouropoulos, now director of the High School in the village of Agridia on Imvros worked in Athens and in 2015 he was asked to take over the school.
“I nodded my head and said I would help, even though deep down I didn’t think it had much chance of succeeding,” he told The Sunday Nation.
It is indicative that when the Primary School was opened, only one Greek teenager lived on the island. Today, 37 students attend it.
He remembers the rough and uphill road he had to take with his associates in the first steps, faced not so much with the practical problems, which are many, but mainly with the suspicion of both Turkish society and the Greek community.
“On the one hand, the Greeks were telling us, ‘Why are you doing this?’ We don’t need schools, but nursing homes.’ On the other hand, we had to build relationships of trust with the locals, proving that we are not anyone’s long arm,” he explains and adds that today trust has been restored. Most have realised that a tolerant multicultural society is to their advantage, they are looking forward to growth through tourism and attracting new wealth to the island.
Kambouropoulos had left Imvros in 1981, at a very difficult time in Greek-Turkish relations, at the age of just 8, and settled in Istanbul to go to school. Greek education on the island had been banned since 1964 and since then the 7 Greek schools of all levels closed, with a total of 700 students in a then thriving community of almost 8,000 Greeks. Three decades of persecution followed, through a plan of Turkification, which was systematically implemented with a series of laws and decisions (forced expropriation of property, settlement, installation of an open prison, ban on Greek education, etc.), resulting in a dramatic decline in the Greek population, leaving the villages desolate.
After the year 2000, there were a number of positive developments, which gradually changed the climate and paved the way for the reversal of the course.
An important role was played by the report of the Swiss MP Andreas Gross, who recorded in detail the violations of the fundamental rights of the Greek community in Imvros and Tenedos. Its adoption by the Legal Committee of the Council of Europe in 2008, forced the Turkish leadership to enter into a dialogue with the representatives of the Greek Imvrians and grant them a series of freedoms. Greek education was allowed again in the following years.
“Nothing is done with the push of a button. What we see today is the result of many years of effort, with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the two major unions of Imvria in Macedonia-Thrace and Athens,” the president of the Imvrian Union of Macedonia-Thrace, told Ethnos. He added: “All these years we did not hold memorial services, nor did we play the game of good and evil. We kept the flame of returning to our homeland unquenchable and we worked methodically, with continuous interventions, with meetings with Erdoğan, with the Governor and the Mayor of Imvros, with the decision-making centers in Greece and Turkey.”
The Greeks who settle in Imvros are not only retirees who choose to live there for the rest of their lives, but also people of productive age, who want to set up a new life in their place of origin. The economic crisis in Greece was also an important incentive for some.
Dimitris Georgiou lived with his six-member family in Thessaloniki, where he worked in construction and saw its revenue shrink dramatically during the crisis. Although he had never visited Imvros, his mother’s hometown, he decided to move to the island permanently in December 2015. It was more difficult for his wife, who had a steady job as an assistant microbiologist, but also for their four children, who left behind friends. Today the family maintains a café on the island. The eldest daughter has graduated and has returned as a student to Thessaloniki, the eldest son is in the last grade of high school, while the two youngest children are going to primary and secondary school.
“After four years, I can say that the choice was justified. I don’t want to leave. We try to hook up professionally and financially, the place is experiencing tourist development and the Greek community has made leaps. We recently had new births. The future is here,” says Georgiou.
Dozens of Greek homes have been repaired in recent years in the previously dilapidated villages of Imvros, in order to house the returning families. Grandparents’ olive trees and other agricultural crops provide some income for some of them. Others have opened restaurants and leisure shops (taverns, cafes, patisseries) or other businesses (car washes, etc.) while some are employed for the needs of Greek schools.
Obstacles to the repatriation process remain, and the Imvrian Associations continue to work to remove them. The main concern is the right of inheritance and the condition to have Turkish citizenship in order to use it.
“If he doesn’t have it, he must either acquire Turkish citizenship or liquidate his property within a year,” explained Pavlos Stamatidis.
Another “thorn” is the tricks often used by the Turkish authorities to circumvent their obligation by law to return the property that has been expropriated, if within 25 years they have not been used for the reasons for which the expropriation took place.
“They find ways to rent property to individuals for 50 years. We are fighting with many such cases,” he stressed.
It appears that although Hellenism was nearly extinguished in the genocide, Turkification processes, pogroms and pressures, it is coming back to life in Imvros.
A new documentary to be released exposes the genocide that took place in the early 20th century.