• The writer’s grandfather, a refugee who fled Turkey in 1923, with two of his grandsons in Greece in 1964. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Peter Papathanasiou’s grandparents were Orthodox Christian refugees expelled from Anatolia in Turkey. Their treacherous trek to Greece, reminiscent of the current flow of refugees from war-ravaged regions, made his new life in Australia possible.
Peter Papathanasiou

24 May 2017 - 5:05 PM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2020 - 2:49 PM

With a massive refugee crisis currently unfolding across the globe, it’s worth remembering that it’s been nearly 100 years since a similar catastrophe in Greece and Turkey changed the two countries forever.

It also changed my family forever since my grandparents were two of these refugees.

The events of 1923 were referred to as a ‘population exchange’. It’s a phrase that sounds so organised, so controlled. The reality was that it was anything but ordered. It was chaos.

As with most refugee movements, the events of 1923 stemmed from conflict and war. Taken together, the genocide of Christian Ottoman Greeks from in Anatolia during World War I and its aftermath (1914-22) –  Greece’s defeat in the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922) – meant that hundreds of thousands of Greeks had already fled Turkey before 1923.

In Lausanne on 30 January 1923, a formal agreement was drawn up for the simultaneous transfer of around two million people: 1.5 million Orthodox Christians from Turkey to Greece, and 500,000 Muslims from Greece to Turkey. It was seen as the two countries separating themselves of the other in the hope of less future conflict. In 1974, another conflict between Greece and Turkey meant I was baptised twice.

For my grandparents, who were Orthodox Christians living in Anatolia with their four young children in 1923, the exchange meant a trek of several hundred miles across treacherous terrain to reach the Turkish coast, before a perilous sea crossing to Greece. It was a story that my adoptive mother recounted to me, of her parents’ courage.

With forged papers, my grandfather Vasilios made the journey first. He kissed his children goodbye, whispering to each to be good for their mother. She handed him a jar of soil, which he rested inside his leather bag alongside a golden bottle of olive oil.

Sparking a cigarette in his gloved hands, he turned away into the icy February morning. He needed to hurry. The vast, writhing chain of human misery was already snaking its way west.

Joining the line, Vasilios quickly realised there was no fuel for talking; vital reserves of energy were best reserved for walking, and this was a 500-mile-long funeral procession.

He kissed his children goodbye, whispering to each to be good for their mother. She handed him a jar of soil, which he rested inside his leather bag alongside a golden bottle of olive oil.

Horses, their heads bowed with despair, carried crying babies in baskets on either side of their saddles. Old women dressed in black walked with a cane in one hand and a caged chicken in the other. Vasilios knew many would be dead soon.

The refugees only stopped when the light disappeared completely. They bedded down under trees, in caves, and on the smoothest earth they could find, or simply collapsed where they stood.

After two weeks, my grandfather’s belt tightened a notch. His battered boots struggled to contain his throbbing feet. It took his final droplets of energy to remove them at dusk. He rubbed his blisters with the olive oil he carried.

After a month, Vasilios’s belt tightened a second notch. Each day brought more bodies as the road took its toll. Increasing numbers of predatory birds began to circle. Those family members who could spare the energy dug shallow graves and buried their loved ones. Most didn’t – the birds saw to their removal.

Turkish gangs dogged the second half of the trek. They demanded bribes and were cruel and inhumane. They abducted and raped in broad daylight, making off with young girls and women as they kicked and screamed and thrashed.

With corpses littering the route, a swarm of disease was the next wave to hit. Malarial mosquitoes and vermin massed in plague proportions.

The seasons soon changed; winter became spring. Climbing to the top of a lush green ridge, Vasilios finally saw the Aegean Sea. It was the bluest, sweetest sight.

Vasilios arrived at the port breathless – his clothes in rags, his skin black. He could barely hold down his bread ration for hunger. A sea of humanity saturated the waterfront. Orthodox Greeks clogged every dirty corner; emaciated, diseased. They turned potato sacks into makeshift clothes and old rubber tyres into shoes. The warehouses were crammed full, no space to lie down and sleep. One out of four travellers did not make it.

The boats bound for Thessaloniki were left floating off the coast to prevent the spread of smallpox, typhus and cholera. Vasilios was eventually herded onto an overcrowded boat that looked like it could sink at any moment. This is an all-too familiar sight for today’s refugees, particularly in the waters off Australia.

The parallels between 1923 and today are plain to see. Forged papers, bribes, gangs, rickety boats, deplorable conditions, disease. The journey to a new life is never easy.

Vasilios was quarantined for a week on an island whose name he did not know. It was there he got his first taste of what it meant to be “coming home”. He was spat upon by the locals. “Tourkosporoi!” they jeered him; “Seed of Turk!” The mere fact he had lived in the Turkish state made his loyalty to Christianity suspicious.

The same welcome greeted Vasilios in his new village of Florina. He watched as mosques became churches, minarets torn down, crosses erected. The native Greeks were suspicious of his odd dialect. They ended up going to different churches and cafés and even used different water pumps.

The parallels between 1923 and today are plain to see. Forged papers, bribes, gangs, rickety boats, deplorable conditions, disease. The journey to a new life is never easy.

When I see today’s traumatised refugees, floating at sea aboard wooden boats (some of them even heading for Greece), or behind razor wire in immigration detention centres, I can’t help but think of my grandparents and what it meant to risk their lives.

First I learned I was adopted. Then I met my biological brothers in Greece
After the initial shock of learning he was adopted, and the subsequent sadness of his biological father’s death before they could meet, Peter Papathanasiou finally makes it to Greece to meet his brothers.

Their sacrifice meant a new life in Greece, an eventual emigration of my parents from war-torn Europe, and the beginning of my own life in Australia. Because of my adoption, I grew up away from my biological parents, and so never met my grandparents. But I quietly thank them every day for their bravery and sacrifice.

There are always two sides to war. Innocents get caught up in it all. Looking back now, many years later, I can’t help but wonder why there was such hatred and bloodshed. Because we are all just people, and worthy of a peaceful life. Perhaps we will one day look back at the current refugee crisis in the same way.

Today, the most popular football team in Florina is PAOK FC, founded 1926, three years after the population exchange. Its logo of a double-headed eagle faces West and East, to honour the club’s refugee roots in Turkey. The eagle’s wings are folded as a sign of long-term bereavement for the uproot from home. The club’s colours are also symbolic: black is mourning for the lost homeland, and white is for the hope of a better tomorrow.

I wear my colours with pride.

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