This is a re-posting of an article from the May 7, 2014, issue of The Daily Illini. To view the original article, please see http://www.dailyillini.com/lifeandculture/aroundcampus/article_cd4c646a-d566-11e3-ad9c-0017a43b2370.html. Featured in the article is Dr. Sebnem Ozkan, Outreach Coordinator at the European Union Center, who is a colleague of REEEC.
Her name was Eleni, and she was just a toddler when she and her siblings fled Turkey barefoot with everything they could carry during the forced migration of the early 1920s.
With her brother at her side, disguised as a girl so the Turks wouldn’t take him, they set off toward boats that were sent to help evacuate her coastline town, Smyrna, and headed to their new life in Greece.
“My grandfather — her husband — was also from there, and he was about 11 when this was happening,” said Hellen McDonald, clinical assistant professor in Social Work. “Her mother dressed him up as a monk so the Turks would not keep him.”
They arrived at Pirea, the main port of Greece and began their new life in a country that saw them as dirty and not Greek. Returning home, where they were also viewed as outsiders, wasn’t an option.
She married at 16 and moved to a makeshift home that the community built for all of the migrants.
“The community built these huge apartment complexes for them and that’s where a lot of the refugees — they don’t like to be called refugees — a lot of the individuals that came from Smyrna settled in,” McDonald said.
She lived in a town called Peristeri until her death in 1999. In English, Peristeri means dove, the symbol for peace.
The Greek-Turkish exchange, German-Polish exchange, Partition of India and Cyprus Crisis are all events of forced migration in the 20th century, when millions of people were forced to leave their homelands, largely never returning.
The documentary “Twice a Stranger” combines video testimonies, rare film archives and photos from survivors to bring their stories to light. The film will be shown by Modern Greek Studies at 6 p.m. on May 8 in the Lucy Ellis Lounge of the Foreign Languages Building.
Dr. Stefanos Katsikas, director of Modern Greek Studies, will begin the screening with a short introduction to provide background on the historical events being highlighted.
“Twice a Stranger” premiered at an exhibition in the Benaki Museum in Athens and was highly successful, Katsikas said. He had to receive permission from the museum to show the documentary, making this the first time it will be screened in the Midwest.
A conflict between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in 1919 led to a war over control of the region around Smyrna. The Greek army was granted a mandate after World War I to exercise control of the region for five years followed by a referendum which would determine the future status of the area, Katsikas said.
Greek authorities took advantage of a strong presence of ethnic Greeks in the area. The outcome of the referendum would be in Greece’s favor and the region would become Greek territory. This was not seen favorably by Turks who wanted this region to be part of the Ottoman Empire or any succeeding Turkish nation state.
Greece lost the war, and its troops withdrew, which sparked a negotiation between the two sides over the territorial status of Greece and Turkey, ending the signing of the Lausanne Peace Treaty. Part of this treaty was a protocol which provided for the compulsory exchange of populations so that all Muslims living in Greece moved to Turkey and all Greek-Orthodox people in Turkey would head to Greece. It was believed that a population exchange would guarantee peace and security between the two states.
A conflict between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in 1919 led to a war over occupying territory in Turkey. While Greece was granted a mandate after World War I to occupy the region, Greek authorities in Smyrna were working on a five-year referendum that would determine the fate of the same area.
Greece lost the war and its troops were forced to leave, which sparked a negotiation: the two states would exchange populations so that all Muslims living in Greece moved to Turkey and all Greek-Orthodox people in Turkey would head to Greece.
“In order to be a Greek, you need to speak a Greek language and be Greek-Orthodox. In Turkey, the established view was to be a Turk, you had to speak Turkish but also be a Muslim,” Katsikas said. “This resulted in one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the beginning of the 20th century – 1.5 million Greek-Orthodox and half a million Muslims leaving their homelands.”
Katsikas said one of the problems with this was many Muslims couldn’t speak Turkish and many of the Greek-Orthodox couldn’t speak Greek, causing them to be viewed as outcasts.
Today, McDonald’s extended family still lives in the suburbs of Athens. Eleni and her husband were able to move out after buying land and building a new home.
“My grandfather was able to put aside money – he did all sorts of jobs that weren’t originally accepted. They were considered dirty and like not real Greeks,” McDonald said. “They really struggled with assimilating, but through the years, I think they proved them wrong.”
McDonald remembers her grandmother as quiet and not very talkative, but she was strong in her values.
“Now that I’m in social work, I have a better understanding of why,” she said. “It might have been too traumatic to talk about it.”
On the other side of the conflict stood Esma, a Turkish woman who was forced to flee Greece with her five children. The hardships they encountered took the life of one of her twins. Sebnem Ozkan, outreach coordinator at the European Union Center, said her great-grandmother remembered packing all of their belongings and taking the trip to Turkey.
“She always remembered Greece as a nice place,” Ozkan said. “She always talked about her neighbors there, both Turks and Greeks, and she would tell stories about how everybody got along really well, there wasn’t really tension or any fighting … it was the politics and the government who were really messing up things.”
Esma and her family migrated to Sakarya, Turkey, where they ran an olive business to support themselves. Economic hardship after migrating was common because not all belongings could be taken with them, Ozkan said.
The migration didn’t happen in a single day. Political tensions had been brewing and the people knew they would have to leave, but they kept a separate identity, Ozkan said, although that identity has been withering away with each generation.
Like Eleni, Esma and her family also had trouble assimilating and were not welcomed. Even though they spoke Turkish, a difference in customs made them look suspicious. She never returned home but also never expressed the desire to.
“She was still sharp,” Ozkan said. “If somebody told her there were people from this town in Greece from Vodena where she was from, she would insist to go and find them. She was still very committed to her birthplace and she just kept talking about it until she died.”
Esma lived to be more than 100 years old despite facing so many challenges in life, including losing her husband in the war.
“It is quite a lot to deal with, but she never complained,” Ozkan said. “She just thought, ‘This is life,’ and you do the best you can do under the circumstances and you just move forward, stay positive, and I think that was one of the reasons why she lived such a long life.”
Partition of India
As the British left India, the question of whom to transfer power to was imminent. South Asian Muslims worried that if power transferred to the Congress party, there would be a Hindu majoritarian rule, leaving Muslims no say in politics.
“Around 1946, I think the British decided enough is enough,” said Tariq Ali, assistant history professor. “They wanted to cut their losses and run, which meant they needed a quick solution.”
The quickest solution was partition: dividing the country into one Muslim state and one Hindu state.
“This was a solution that no one really liked,” Ali said. “But it’s the solution the British were willing to give.”
Ali said hardly anyone foresaw the enormous violence that would ensue after 20 million people were forced to move. An English lawyer then drew abstract lines on a map and India and Pakistan were born. When Pakistan gained independence in 1957, the new borders had still not been announced. People celebrated without knowing what country they were in, Ali said.
“What happens is we have Hindus and Sikh militias and Muslim militias going on killing rampages against the other religion,” Ali said. “The death toll was horrific.”
A large number of people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have family across borders today and still have memories of the homes they left behind, Ali said.
Nishant Makhijani, senior in Engineering, remembers his grandparents sharing stories from when they were forced to leave Pakistan during the partition.
Once they heard the news, they packed up their belongings and precious metals, mostly gold jewelry, and left.
When they arrived in India, they stayed in refugee camps until his grandfather’s brother found a job as a police inspector in a small town five hours outside of Mumbai.
“They didn’t know that they were leaving Pakistan for good,” Makhijani said. “They didn’t know that they were never going to see their houses again.”
During World War II, Germany had the intention of wiping Poland off the map, said history professor Peter Fritzsche.
What was left of Poland was turned into a military region occupied by Germany. Germany pursued three policies: to move in German settlers, to get rid of all the Jews and to move Polish people out.
“There was an ethnic cleansing,” Fritzsche said. “There would not be any German communities left in Eastern Europe, and so whoever didn’t flee in 1945 was basically kicked out in 1945 to 1947.”
Roughly one third of Germans were on the road without a home, but resentment and bitterness remained moderate, Fritzsche said.
“People made new lives,” he said. “Most Germans realized they started World War II, and they didn’t necessarily say they deserved their fate, but they understood their fate.”
While there were some groups that wished to return home, it was not possible, and as more generations were born, that desire vanished. Today, Europe is more homogenous than it was 100 years ago, Fritzsche said.