When Greeks fled to Syria

Over 30,000 peo­ple left the east Aegean is­lands dur­ing the Ger­man WWII oc­cu­pa­tion

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY STAVROS TZ­I­MAS

Gior­gos Tak­tikos was just 5 years old when he and his fam­ily be­gan their long jour­ney to the Si­nai Desert by board­ing a small boat in the mid­dle of the night and leav­ing be­hind their na­tive Chios.

To­day, at the age of 78, Tak­tikos is fol­low­ing his­tory be­ing writ­ten the other way round. As a former refugee, he is pained to ob­serve the boat­loads of peo­ple flee­ing the Mid­dle East and reach­ing Greek shores, while his mind races back to his own long and dif­fi­cult jour­ney into the un­known.

A na­tive of the Chiot vil­lage of Kourou­nia, Tak­tikos was one of over 30,000 Greeks who left sev­eral east­ern Aegean is­lands dur­ing the Ger­man wartime oc­cu­pa­tion, some seek­ing refuge in Syria, oth­ers reach­ing South Africa, in an ef­fort to es­cape hunger and war.

Boats cross­ing over, peo­ple drown­ing at sea, over­flow­ing train wag­ons, refugee camps and de­pri­va­tion – some things haven’t changed as far as the refugee jour­ney goes. What has changed, how­ever, is the des­ti­na­tion: While peo­ple were striv­ing to reach Syria back then, to­day it’s the other way round. “It’s hard to beat hunger and fear; refugee pain is tremen­dous,” said Tak­tikos.

In the fall of 1942, hunger spread across oc­cu­pied Greece: While there were se­vere food short­ages in ur­ban cen­ters, the sit­u­a­tion was even worse on the is­lands, given the Bri­tish Royal Navy’s block­ade of the Aegean and the Mediter­ranean re­gion in gen­eral. Get­ting away was the only way out and for res­i­dents of the east­ern Aegean, in­clud­ing Samos, Icaria, Chios, Lesvos and Lim­nos, this was made slightly eas­ier given the is­lands’ prox­im­ity to Turk­ish shores.

“I was 5. There was plenty of poverty and hunger on the is­land. In Novem­ber 1942, a time when it seemed the sit­u­a­tion was about to get even worse, my fa­ther de­cided it was time for us to flee in or­der to sur­vive. Along with two young men, we stole a boat which the Ger­mans had req­ui­si­tioned, and one night my my fa­ther, mother and younger sis­ter, to­gether with an­other two fam­i­lies, crossed over to Cesme. We were col­lected by Fa­ther Xe­nakis, an Ortho­dox pri­est who met refugees as they ar­rived and took them to an area where hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions could look af­ter them. The first thing he did when we ar­rived was to make sure the wooden boat was bro­ken into lit­tle pieces, so as not to be de­tected by the Turk­ish coast guard, who would have forced us to get back on it and re­turn to Greece.”

Fol­low­ing a three-month stay in Cesme and nearby Izmir, the fam­ily was trans­ferred to now war-rav­aged Aleppo, Syria, un­der the pro­tec­tion of the Mid­dle East Com­mand – a rou­tine pro­ce­dure for refugees ar­riv­ing from Greece at the time. Af­ter ar­riv­ing in Syria, refugees were di­rected to­ward Pales­tine, Le­banon, the Si­nai Penin­sula as well as cen­tral and south African coun­tries.

“We stayed in Aleppo for nine months, in refugee camps. That’s where I went to school for the first time,” said Tak­tikos. “We ate well. The Bri­tish took good care of us. Af­ter that they took us to the Si­nai Desert, via Suez. There were four camps host­ing Greek refugees from east­ern Aegean is­lands there. The liv­ing con­di­tions were good and we stayed there for a year and a half be­fore re­turn­ing to Greece at the end of the war.”

De­spina Si­tara, 84, orig­i­nally from Kal­li­ma­sia, Chios, took a sim­i­lar route. Af­ter ar­riv­ing in Aleppo, she and her fam­ily were taken to Le­banon and then Egypt. As the troupes of Gen­eral Er­win Rom­mel were near­ing Cairo in July 1942, the fam­ily was among 1,200 peo­ple who boarded a boat and reached the Bel­gian Congo via Aden. They re­turned to Greece at the end of the war.

Aleppo, the Gaza Strip, Si­nai and African coun­tries were ma­jor des­ti­na­tions for Greek refugees back then, while a large num­ber of refugees set­tled in Cyprus. Greeks, how­ever, were not the only ones head­ing east, as Poles, Serbs and Euro­pean Jews also crossed the “Greek axis” to safety.

Si­tara and Tak­tikos are now as­sist­ing those trav­el­ing in the other di­rec­tion.

“We are try­ing to help them as much as we can,” they said. “We know ex­actly what they’re go­ing through.”

Syr­ian refugees walk through rain and fog on their way to the near­est reg­is­tra­tion camp on the is­land of Lesvos, Thurs­day.

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