There Was A Time Greeks Sought Refuge In Syria



Greek refugees at Aleppo (Photo: Library of Congress)
Greek refugees at Aleppo (Photo: Library of Congress)

As thousands of refugees from Near East are arriving in Greece in order to progress to the rest of Europe and while the immigration problem is exacerbating, it is time to travel back to the period when Greek refugees were seeking shelter in Syria in their effort to reach their homeland.

The issue was revived last year by journalist Damian Mac Con Uladh in response to the hunger strike of Syrian refugees on Syntagma Square in Athens.

His article was published in the Irish Times and generated a mixed response on social media.  A photograph from the Library of Congress photo archive posted by one commentator, reminded people of the time when Greeks sought refuge in Syria in 1923, after the Asia Minor Catastrophe, and during the forced exchange of population between Greece and Turkey, as agreed upon under the 1923 Lausanne treaty.

After the end of World War II, thousands of Greek refugees travelled to Syria and Lebanon, areas that were under French occupation. At least 17,000 Greeks from Asia Minor sought refuge in Syrian cities alone, Onur Yildirim explains in his work, which is entitled “Diplomacy and Displacement: Reconsidering the Turco-Greek Exchange of Populations, 1922-1934.”

The controversial photograph from the Library of Congress, although not dated, is entitled “Greek refugees at Aleppo” and depicts a group of poorly dressed people waiting in line to be fed.

Under the digitized photograph, one can find a caption which reads: “12,000 Greeks were fed by the Americans.” The American Red Cross estimates that around 2-3 million dollars had been offered for the needs of the refugees in Syria until the summer of 1923.

Yildirim even cites a telegram that was sent from the President of the Refugee Commission in Aleppo to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, asking him to prohibit further Greek immigrants from fleeing Asia Minor for Aleppo, where “it has become impossible to accept more refugees.”

Of course, the life of a refugee both in Syria and in other areas was far from easy. By the mid-summer of 1923, the food that had been obtained from various charities had already run out and the situation for refugees was described as “tragic and precarious.”

As journalist Damian Mac Con Uladh mentioned in his 2014 article, “No doubt, just as the Syrian refugees protesting in Syntagma don’t want to be in Greece, the Greek refugees in 1923 did not want to be in Syria. They wanted to reach Greece, a country most of them had never seen but hoped would at least put them out of danger.”