The arrival of 450 families of refugees from Asia Minor was a transformative event in the history of Eleusis, but establishing a new life in Greece was not easy. Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, an author and politician, noted that the Greeks failed to demonstrate any sympathy towards the refugees when “the merciless waves of history threw them on the rocks of Greece. There was no sympathy, there was no apathy, there was an aversion.”
Racist attitudes were prevalent and widespread. Many refugees were forced to change their last names, abolishing the Turkish-sounding “kara” and “oglou” syllables in an effort to conceal their provenance. But they were struggling against a current of hate and rejection that was so relentless as to find shameless expression in the national press. Nikos Kraniotakis, a royalist publisher, did not hesitate to demand that refugees wear yellow armbands, in order to enable the Greeks to identify and avoid them.
The two faces of Eleusis
The first refugees landed in the port of Piraeus and spent a week in quarantine. They were forced to shave and wash, while their clothes were boiled in large cauldrons. And then they were sent to Eleusis, a town with no infrastructure to receive them. Housing was the most pressing need and every available building or open space was occupied. Eventually, most families were able to settle permanently in small houses, at which point they turned their attention to the tasks of social integration and finding employment.
Many locals were sympathetic or friendly towards the refugees. The charitable group “Agios Ioannis Prodromos” collected clothes, food items, and money to support them. The wife of Ioannis Thanasoulopoulos, president of the community in 1925, made a superhuman effort to provide seamstresses and educated refugees with work. There were local bakers who refused payment for cooking their bread or food. Father Panagis, the parish priest of Saint George, went door-to-door asking for help for their Asia Minor brothers.
Others were hostile or indifferent. They ridiculed their language and their clothes; to them, the people from Asia Minor were hardly distinguishable from the Turks. Store owners refused to accept their money or sell them merchandise. Employers refused to hire them or fired them immediately on the pretext that they were thieves. Some people even refused to give them water, sending them to whatever wells there were available, even though the water in most cases was briny (especially near the coast where many of the refugees were forced to settle). There were cases where locals provided the refugees with seawater for baking bread.
Despite there difficulties (or perhaps because of them), it was not long before the refugees entered local and national politics. As soon as possible, the refugees registered to vote and the new municipal council of Eleusis in 1925 included a pharmacist, a tailor, and a merchant from Asia Minor. Their participation in the 11-member council was nothing short of a small triumph since it was no simple task to participate in elections; the country was still reeling from the effects of the National Schism and the animosity between royalists and Venizelists often gave expression to acts of violence, intimidation, and voter suppression.
The influential publisher Georgios Vlachos (1886-1951) expressed his hostility to the idea that the People’s Party, the preeminent conservative political party, would welcome candidates from among the “refugee herd”. Vlachos rejected the argument that they were Greeks and brothers and related by blood: “Let them be our brothers and our cousins. When they acquire a political conscience and the will of free citizens – something that will never happen – then they will have the right to be considered as voters and as electable candidates.” Vlachos believed that the country was heading towards the dictatorship of the refugees who would then plunder the houses of the locals!
Do not shower so often
But during the early years, it was rather the refugees who felt the need to protect their humble properties and the honour of their families from acts of aggression. Attitudes towards the refugees were shaped by fear of revolution and professional competition. The survivors of the Asia Minor Catastrophe constituted a mass of destitute workers eager to find employment in a country struggling to overcome the effects of a decade of war. The nascent industry could not possibly absorb all these hundreds of thousands of potential employees. The result was the suppression of wages and fierce competition for any job openings.
The majority of Greeks were farmers, who viewed the urban culture and ideology of the refugees as foreign and incomprehensible. Attention to hygiene, a defining characteristic of urban women from Asia Minor, gave rise to derogatory remarks among mainland Greeks, who considered cleanliness the hallmark of prostitutes. The young men of the Settlement, the refugee neighbourhood that grew to the north of Eleusis, were often forced to stand guard in the entrance of the Settlement in order to defend the honour of their sisters, girlfriends, and wives against the insults and physical violence of the locals.