From Asia Minor to Eleusis

Synikismos, Eleusis (Festival Synikismos 2018) // photo credit: Petros Chytiris, Eleusis 2021

The retreat of the Greek army from the heart of Anatolia in late summer 1922 signalled the end of the world for Hellenism in Asia Minor. Hundreds of thousands of civilians abandoned their homes and fled towards the coast, and then on to Greece with any means available. The atrocities and massacres of that dreadful summer were the last agonies of a centuries-old conflict between Christians and Muslims in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Politicians on both sides of the Aegean Sea were determined to prevent another disaster of this scale by coming to an agreement to formally separate the populations of Greece and Turkey. The Treaty of Lausanne (30 January 1923) turned 1.2 million Greeks into refugees without any hope of ever returning to their birthplace. Suddenly, they all had to find somewhere to settle in Greece, a country many of them had never seen before.

Shanty towns

Eleusis, a town of 4400 people, received more than 2000 refugees. Most of them were from Smyrna and the surrounding countryside, Constantinople, Cappadocia in central Anatolia, and the region of Pontus. They arrived destitute and terrified, having witnessed the loss of their entire world and unfathomable atrocities. The early days were very difficult since there was no infrastructure or agencies to receive them. Warehouses were transformed into temporary residences for as many families as they could accommodate. In some cases, the refugees had to share the building with chickens and poultry lice. Wealthy shipowners provided funds for the construction of wooden huts in Amygdalies. Others were forced to spend the nights in the open countryside, until local families took them in. In some cases, when the property was large enough, the owners erected shacks in the garden and allowed refugees to stay there. Those who had managed to escape with a modicum of wealth were able to rent a house or an apartment near the coast and the factories.

The apartments

The provision of housing for factory workers in rural locations was a tradition going back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, but no such care had ever been taken in Greece. The earliest factories were established in major urban centers, where workers could usually secure some form of accommodation. It was only with the appearance of large factories in the second half of the 19th century that industrialists undertook the construction of model settlements for their employees.

The arrival of the refugees increased the pressure on the national housing stock and demanded a comprehensive response. Epameinondas Charilaos, a pioneer of Eleusis’ industrial growth since he founded the “Votrys” factory in 1898, was involved with the resettlement of Asia Minor refugees in his capacity as president of the Refugee Care Fund. He was eager to assist them in any capacity, so in 1923-1924 he decided to build a workers’ settlement on a piece of land owned by his company in northern Eleusis, at the intersection of present-day El. Venizelou and Pindou streets. The development took the form of three elongated buildings (called A, B, C) with a total of 28 one-or-two-bedroom apartments. There was also a central well that had been used for some time to provide the factory with water.

This residential complex was initially used for the workers of “Votrys” who had arrived from Asia Minor, though the apartments were later available to workers from other regions of Greece as well. The buildings were seized by the National Bank of Greece due to the inability of “Votrys” to pay off its substantial debts, and were demolished in 1980-1983. Plateia Laou, a public square, now occupies the site of the old refugee buildings.

The Settlement

In 1924, the efforts to resettle the refugees assumed a more organized form with the establishment of the Settlement (Synoikismos), a neighborhood north of the railway line. The plain mudbrick houses were provided by public authorities and were rather Spartan: just four walls and an earthen floor. The demand for houses was so acute, though, that the new owners moved in without waiting for doors or windows. A simple blanket was used to close any such openings, until people could afford proper door and window casings. The toilets were communal, located in a few spots all around the Settlement. It was a hard life, very different from the level of comfort most refugees had abandoned in their ancestral homelands. But it was a beginning, and a solid foundation on which to build a new life.

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