NICOSIA, CYPRUS – In an effort to spare Greek Cypriot children after the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, the Greek Orthodox Church organized an effort was made to ship them to Greece for their safety, as writer Ted Kermeliotis wrote in his article on Aljazeera, entitled “Cypriot Children’s 1974 Journey into the Unknown.” Children as young as six years old were sent by their parents, including Mihalis Mihail, age 9 at the time, who “had never seen a ship before, let alone been on board one,” and boarded The Patra at the port of Limassol in September, 1974, as reported on Aljazeera.
Now 52 years old, Mihail told Aljazeera, “None of us knew where we were going, why we were leaving and for how long. We were heading into the unknown, and we were scared.”
As hundreds of thousands of Greek Cypriots fled their homes after the Turkish invasion, Mihail, his parents and 10-year-old brother Petros fled from their village, Gerolakkos, northeast of Nicosia, and stopped in the village of Mitsero for refuge. As Aljazeera reported, “While they were safer, fears over what could happen next were palpable. So when a local radio announced that a ship would leave Limassol as part of an effort to take children to Greece – where they could temporarily escape the uncertainty gripping Cyprus – Mihail’s parents were among the many who did not think twice.”
“It was a very difficult decision for the parents,” Mihail said, as reported on Aljazeera, “It was the looming fear of the unknown – a fear of a total capture of Cyprus and even killings – that made them do this. They thought that at least some of their children would be saved.”
The article notes that the operation was “rushed” and “hastily organized after a bishop in western Greece wrote a letter to Cyprus’s education ministry to say that church-run boarding houses and local families were willing to host Greek Cypriot children for at least a school year,” adding that “about 200 children aged mostly between six and 12 ended up boarding The Patra. There was no passenger list, so anyone who arrived that morning in September could get on board, and a head count was only conducted after the ship had sailed,” as reported on Aljazeera.
“We were alone among strangers,” said Giorgos Georgiou who is a current member of the Cyprus Parliament and was 11 when he took the trip, as Aljazeera reported, the “drawn-out cries” of some of the children on board was something he remembered vividly.
The children had no knowledge of their destination, no money, just a few possessions with them, and only one adult traveling with them. “My brother and I had a small suitcase with just two or three clothing items each,” Mihail noted, as Aljazeera reported, “Some children simply had a small nylon bag with one pair of trousers; others came with only their underwear.”
The boat arrived at the port of Piraeus nearly three days later. Buses awaited the children who were then driven for several hours to a boarding house in Pyrgos, Ilia. Assembled in the dining area some days after their arrival, Mihail recalled, “Suddenly, the doors opened, and people started coming in. They began choosing children – ‘I want this one, I want that one’ – while some were asking the children, ‘Do you want to come with us?’ It was a friendly atmosphere,” as Aljazeera reported.
Three separate boats carried a total of 415 boys and girls from Cyprus to Greece in September and October 1974, all organized by the Church, as Aljazeera reported noting that “most of the children were taken into foster care by families in Ilia – many of whom worked as farmers or low-wage laborers and had very little money, but took on all the costs of hosting them. Others remained in boarding houses across Ilia.”
After about a year, most returned to their families where they had settled in the Greek Cypriot section of their now divided Cyprus. Some of the children remained for two years and then returned to Cyprus, but only very few never returned to their homeland.
The children’s plight was hardly known except among those who had lived through it.
“As I grew older, I realized that, for Cypriots, this is an unknown tale,” said Mihail, now a journalist and author leading an effort to bring together those who also experienced the trip to Greece in 1974.
Public records were not available, as Mihail found as he conducted his research, the bishop’s letter that set the effort in motion, the passenger lists from the boats are also missing and most government officials are apparently unaware of what happened, Aljazeera reported.
“It was as if there was a veil of silence. The only ones who knew were those who had sent their children [away] and some of their relatives,” Mihail said as reported on Aljazeera.
Mihail and his brother were fostered by a Greek couple who had an 11-year-old son. The brothers stayed with the Greek family for a year and then were sent back to their parents.
“They gave us love and treated us as if we were also their children. We developed bonds that are strong to this day – it’s like being part of two families,” Mihail said as reported by Aljazeera.
Georgiou had a similar experience. He was from the village of Assia which has “the highest number of Greek Cypriots remain missing from the 1974 events, Georgiou says he was desperate for a new start after his family sought shelter in the south,” Aljazeera reported.
“My family and I had been captives in the village for about two weeks. Three of our relatives were killed. It was a very ugly experience, seeing all these things happening, so I wanted to get out – I wanted to leave this situation behind,” Georgiou said as Aljazeera reported.
After his journey to Greece, Georgiou was fostered by an elderly couple with no children of their own. When the school year ended, “They wanted to adopt me, but that was not possible, my parents wouldn’t accept that,” he said as reported on Aljazeera.
Both Georgiou and Mihail later occasionally visited their Greek “aunts” and “uncles.”
Visiting Greece in the 1990s, Georgiou was saddened to learn “his ‘uncle’ had passed away” and “since his ‘aunt’ had died years earlier, the news was particularly devastating,” as Aljazeera reported.
“I cried perhaps more than when my father died – it was the end of an era of my life,” he said, adding that “there are no words to describe what these people did for us during that year… They were poor, but they opened their homes, their hearts and souls and showered us with so much love.”
The experience was not as positive for all the children, including Niovi Kerkidou who was 7 when her family fled their village Katokopia in the occupied north. Of her time living in a boarding house, she said, as reported by Aljazeera, “I would describe it as emotionally painful,” adding that while the Greek staff showed “care, love and kindness” the “strict routine and innumerable rules” were difficult to deal with, and Sunday afternoons in particular were hard since “potential foster families would arrive” at that time.
“During the week, we would be forming friendships, and then these meetings would occur, and you would see your friend leave,” said Kerkidou, as Aljazeera reported, “Children who also wanted to move in with a family were left with a sense of loss and rejection – and these were my feelings then, too.”
Kerkidou, 51, said she “now fully appreciates the support she received from people in Ilia,” as Aljazeera reported, adding that she is an accountant and is writing a book entitled Thank You, which includes details and personal accounts of children with similar experiences as her own.
“In January, Kerkidou returned to the boarding house for the first time since she left in 1975,” as Aljazeera reported, adding that “she was joined by Mihail, Georgiou and 70 others, all of whom wanted to pay tribute to the people who had sheltered them all those decades ago.”
“Our visit was like paying back a debt, to honor these people and show them our eternal gratitude,” Georgiou said, as Aljazeera reported.
Mihail, was one of the organizers of the trip, and as Aljazeera reported, “the events of 1974 are always with him.”
“Not a single day passes where I will not see something on the street, or listen to a song, or have a conversation [or] hear a specific word, that will bring to mind that period of time,” he said as Aljazeera reported, “Even though it’s been almost 44 years, all these [things] constantly swirl in my mind.”