Damian Mac Con Uladh

Remembering the Greek refugees in Aleppo by helping the Syrian refugees in Athens

In Greece on 25 November 2014 at 10:28 am
Greek refugees at Aleppo (Photo: Library of Congress)

Greek refugees at Aleppo (Photo: Library of Congress)

My article in yesterday’s Irish Times on the protest of Syrian refugees on Syntagma Square in Athens generated a mixed response on Facebook, where, among other places, I posted it on the page of the sadly defunct Athens News.

The Syrians, among them dozens of children, including a baby, have completed their sixth night sleeping outdoors. Yesterday, a number of them commenced a hunger strike. They want Greece to allow them continue their journey to other EU countries where many have family or know they will receive protection.

From the comfort of their keyboards, a number of commenters on the Athens News page expressed their view on why Syrians deserve no help from Greece, with common arguments being that Syrians are somehow incompatible with Greece or Europe for religious reasons (an opinion shared by a number of expatriate Greeks) or that Syrians should seek refugee with neighbouring “Arab/Muslim” countries. It seems they are unaware of the facts: the statistics show that the vast majority of Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

One commenter, possibly from Syria, reminded them, however, that there was time when Greeks sought refugee in Syria by posting a photograph from the Library of Congress photo archive. The undated photo, entitled “Greek refugees at Aleppo”, shows a group of raggedly dressed people, young boys to the fore, lined up, waiting to be fed. In the foreground, a woman, with a can of some sorts at her feet, stands next to a cart on which something is being cooked. Underneath the scanned photo, what’s left of a caption states “12,000 Greeks were fed by the Americans”.

A close-up of the photo (Library of Congress)

Whose ancestors are they? A close-up of the photo (Library of Congress)

According to one account of the forced exchange of population between Greece and Turkey (full book here), as agreed under the 1923 Lausanne treaty, there were 17,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor in various Syrian cities. So grave was the situation, that in August 1923, the head of the Greek refugees in Aleppo cabled the foreign ministry in Athens, requesting that it prohibit any more Greeks from reaching the city, where “it has become impossible to admit further refugees”.

The situation in general for Greek refugees in the summer of 1923 was described as “tragic and precarious”, which is also the case for the Syrians on Syntagma, as these photos show:

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.

Reaching Greece did offer them protection, even though many of the refugees would admit that they were subjected to discrimination by the indigenous population for years after their arrival. People like Katina, one former refugee from Asia Minor, who days before her death at the age of 92 in 2010 recalled how her destitute family was treated when they reached Greece: “They [the neighbours] wouldn’t give us any coal. Yes, there was a lot of racism.”

In 2014, it’s obscene that refugees fleeing a brutal war should be sleeping on the streets of a European capital city. This is Europe’s shame and the Syrians deserve better.

  1. […] από τις εστίες τους στην Τουρκία! Οι Σύριοι, όπως μας ενημερώνει το άρθρο, στάθηκαν σαν αδέλφια στους Έλληνες πρόσφυγες! Και […]

  2. Dear Mr Mac Con Uladh,

    I visit quite often your excellent blog and so I have read this post. I agree that the living conditions of the Syrian refugees in Athens are quite below standard (I am a volunteer at the Metropolitan Social Clinic in Hellinikon and we also treat Syrian refugees). However, it is not that Greece wants to keep them here. Greece can not allow them to leave for another EU country because the Schengen Treaty and the Dublin II Agreement does not allow that. Sadly, if Greece (and any other Member State) breaks these rules, it will face a prosecution by the European Court. Also by being in the sixth consecutive year of economic depression, the Greek state simply can not provide for these people. So perhaps it would be better to turn the arrow in the direction of the EU policies.

    Best regards and keep up the good work,

    Thanasis Giannopoulos

    • Dear Thanasis, if I may,

      I agree with you that this is a European, not a Greek, problem, and I have written about that before in the Irish Times (see that article here). I think it’s absolutely disgraceful that the UK and Ireland have taken in about 90 Syrian refugees each, for example. Dublin II is a disaster for Greece, which should loudest in calling for a common asylum policy.

      However, it’s not just Schengen and Dublin II that is preventing Greece from allowing refugees leave. There is also a financial motive. From 2011-2013, the European Commission allocated almost €227,576,503 to Greece to police its borders and only €19,950,000 in funds to help refugees. That’s a quarter of a billion in total, which is no small amount. I’m not sure where all that money goes, but if Greece were seen not to be doing the job it is being paid to do (keeping people out), then I would expect that the commission would have another look at the budget it is paying Athens for this work.

      I’m a huge admirer of what the Metropolitan Clinic at Elliniko does and have written about your work many times. Please keep up the excellent and crucial work your end, too.


  3. Reblogged this on Στρατής Φάβρος.

  4. […] του άρθρου του Damian Mac Con Uladh στο προσωπικό του blog. Ο Damian Mac Con Uladh ζει στην Ελλάδα από το 2014 και εργάζεται […]

  5. […] του άρθρου του Damian Mac Con Uladh στο προσωπικό του blog. Ο Damian Mac Con Uladh ζει στην Ελλάδα από το 2014 και εργάζεται […]

  6. […] του άρθρου του Damian Mac Con Uladh στο προσωπικό του blog. Ο Damian Mac Con Uladh ζει στην Ελλάδα από το 2014 και εργάζεται […]

  7. […] του άρθρου του Damian Mac Con Uladh στο προσωπικό του blog. Ο Damian Mac Con Uladh ζει στην Ελλάδα από το 2014 και εργάζεται […]

  8. […] του άρθρου του Damian Mac Con Uladh στο προσωπικό του blog. Ο Damian Mac Con Uladh ζει στην Ελλάδα από το 2014 και εργάζεται […]

  9. Να ευχαριστήσουμε τον κύριο Mac Con Uladh γιατί μας θύμησε μέρος της Ιστορίας μας. Μιας Ιστορίας άρρηκτα δεμένης με τους γείτονές μας είτε είναι κοντά είτε μακρυά μας.

  10. Damian, regarding the picture, the caption is almost certainly wrong. There have never been 12,000 Greeks in Syria or Greek Asian Minor refugees in Syria. From the way they are dressed ( especially the fezes in men, which would not have been worn by any greek at the time) I would probably think they are Turks been expelled from Syria or possibly turkish Cretans (greek speaking so maybe considered greeksby the photographer) after the large population exchange between Greece and Turkey.
    This comment doesn’t take away anything from the actual facts of your article.

  11. […] ενδιαφέρον άρθρο του Damian Mac Con Uladh σχετικά με τους Σύριους πρόσφυγες στην Ελλάδα και την […]

  12. […] ενδιαφέρον άρθρο του Damian Mac Con Uladh σχετικά με τους Σύριους πρόσφυγες στην Ελλάδα και την […]

  13. Thank you so much for that very nteresting post. Greeks tend to have a very selective memory as far as history is concerned, and this is the cause of a lot of their sufferings.
    I feel the urge to say a big thank you to all the Syrians at Syntagma because they’ve reminded me that people are meant to be pitied, but to be admired for their courage and energy, they’ve shown me that you can maintain your dignity even if you sleep on a wet blanket in the center of an unknown city and finally i want to thank them for their kind smiles and friendship.
    I also feel the need to apologize on behalf of all those that may have been less than welcoming here in Greece and of any inappropriate comments you may have heard.
    I hope Syrian people have realized that they are not alone here and that for every person that looks down on them there is another who is a friend. A friend ready to fight for their rights (our rights as humans) and do the best he can to make their stay in Greece as safe and easy as possible under the circumstances.
    Thank you

    • Thanks for your comment. It’s clear that you have been to see the Syrians. The protesters at Syntagma are very fine people and, like you, I’m impressed by their courage and determination and at how they can continue to hope and dream of a better life despite all the ordeals they have been through. They have many friends in Greece and they know that.

  14. […] shows a group of Greek refugees— in Syria, of all places. It was 1922 or 23. I first saw the pic on a blog I read regularly, published a year or so ago on a post about the mistreatment of Syrians in Athens. The photo has […]

  15. […] Το 2014, ο Νταμιάν Μακόν Ουλάντ, ανταποκριτής της εφημερίδας “Irish Times” στην Αθήνα έγραφε στον ιστότοπό του: […]

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