By allowing a Greek elementary school to be opened the for first time in 49 years on Gökçeada -- formerly Imbros -- Turkey has raised hope among a nearly vanished Greek community.
GÖKÇEADA - The official number of "Imbrosians," the ethnic Greek residents of the Turkish island of Gökçeada, is listed around 15,000. But according to a local NGO, only 250 of them actually live on the island: the rest have migrated to South Africa, Australia, Honduras, Canada, and Greece.
The Imbrosians were among the first victims of the tense 20th-century relations between Greece and Turkey. In the 1960s there were almost 6,000 Greeks, including 1,500 students, on the island, which used to be called Imbros.
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When the number of Greek students diminished to 700 after the 1964 crisis between Greece and Turkey, education through the Greek language was replaced by Turkish at three of the seven elementary schools on the island.
Almost all of the remaining Greek population migrated during the second wave in 1974 when Turkish soldiers landed on Cyprus.
“The only thing I remember is the sadness,” said a woman from Athens, who only wanted to giver her name as Mrs. Vona.
The woman was a third grader in 1963, and describes those days in her still solid Turkish: “It was hard for me as a child to understand what was happening...I knew as many Turkish words as you know in Greek. One day they told me I was going to be educated in Turkish. I remember I was so sad. But both my teachers and my Turkish friends treated us well. I learned Turkish, too. But it was very hard for me.”
Vona’s story on the island ends with the 1974 war of Cyprus. She came back to the island only a few years ago to reconnect with her classmates from 40 years back.
Now, the Zeytinliköy (Aya Tordi) Elementary School will be the first one to offer education in Greek since 1964.
Most of the Imbrosians living abroad keep in touch with the island, says Kosta Hristoforidis, head of Greek Imbrosians’ biggest NGO Athens Imbros Association.
He calls Imbros his “homeland” adding that being an “islander” creates a special awareness of identity. “I am close with people who are American, Australian and South African. But these are identities given only by governments. We share a much deeper common story,” he said.
Hristoforidis said this common story keeps them on their feet: “Greece did not embrace us; Turkey did not make us feel worthy. This turned out to be a watershed moment for the sense of identity of the Imbrosians," he explained. "A feeling of ‘nobody will take care of us if we won’t take care of ourselves’ was formed.”
The opening of the Zeytinliköy School, which used to be called Aya Verdi, means more than just a place to get an education. “This is a turning point more than a contribution to education," Hristoforidis said. "This is a community recreating itself.”
Ultimately, he says that it is vital that the people can exist as a normal community: “The school would not be more than a symbolic gesture if this doesn't happen," he added. “Now we are talking about a community that is two steps away from death.”
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Kalekoy,Gökçeada- Photo: Adam Jones
The abandoning of education in Greek paved the way for a mass exodus, according to Hristofridis. “People remaining on the island sent their children to the schools in Istanbul. The children grew up like orphans for years. Many Greeks who had property and pride attached to the island became either doormen or servants in Istanbul when the parents decided to migrate. We are ready to forget. All we want is equal citizenship.”
The two Imbrosians’ associations based in Athens and Thessaloniki sent a letter to Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül in 2012. The associations had a joint list of demands in that letter, including the Greek-language school. But other demands included the recognition of the property rights claimed by all past beneficiaries, and the removing of obstacles regarding obtaining property and Turkish citizenship to the Imbrosians who decide to return.