I decided to visit refugee neighborhoods in Athens to honor the one hundredth anniversary of the Lausanne agreement that enacted the Greco-Turkish exchange of populations. The exchange was the diplomatic euphemism that described the expulsion of 1.2 million ethnic Greeks from the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the end of the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922. On a recent unseasonably warm and sunny winter Sunday I went on a small walking tour of the town of Nikaia. Originally known as Kokkinia, it was a refugee settlement that grew in an open space in between Athens and Piraeus in the 1920s. It was there that I found the American Ladies Street, Odos ‘Amerikanídon Kyrión’ in Greek.
The name of street honors the work of a group of brave American volunteer doctors and nurses who formed an organization called American Women’s Hospitals that worked tirelessly to offer crucial help to the destitute malnourished and disease-prone refugees who were being settled in Greece. In Nikaia, which was the biggest refugee neighborhood, with a population of over 30,000, those women, known in Greece as the American ladies, established a hospital and nursing school in 1926.
The purpose of my visit to Nikaia was to see that street with my own eyes and also to try and find remnants of the original refugee houses in the neighborhood. American Ladies Street is located at the center of Nikaia and runs east to west for eleven blocks. Standing in the place of the original refugee houses hastily built in the 1920s are modest three and four story apartment blocks with retail shops on the street level.
At one end of the street stands the modern building of the 2nd Nikaia High School. It was erected on the site of the hospital the American ladies had established which was the only medical facility in the area. By 1934 the American Womens’ Hospitals handed it over to the Greek government. It was eventually replaced by the Nikaia General Hospital St. Panteleimon built a few blocks away. It being Sunday, the school was locked up and I was unable to satisfy my curiosity about whether there was a plaque somewhere commemorating the earlier existence of the American sponsored hospital on that site. And the teacher in me wondered whether anyone spoke to the students about the contribution of the American ladies in the very same place they were learning algebra and Ancient Greek history among other things.
At the western edge the American Ladies street ends at the tiny Peace Square (Plateia Irinis) on which is a statue with the bust of Esther Pohl Lovejoy, a physician from Oregon who was one of the leaders of the American Womens’ Hospitals organization. Before arriving in Greece, Lovejoy had passed through Smyrna only days after the fire in September 1922 and wrote a poignant description of the horrors she witnessed. In one of the rare acknowledgments of Lovejoy’s and the other American women’s contributions to Greece, an organization from another refugee neighborhood, the Estia of Nea Smyrnis left flowers at the foot of her statue.
During my visit I also managed to locate original refugee houses. These line a few streets in the northern section of Nikaia, a few blocks above the American Ladies Street. Some are two-story stone buildings built by the Refugee Settlement Commission in the 1920s, others are pre-fabricated one-story buildings known as the Germanika because they were sent from Germany as reparations from World War I. One of the clues that helped me locate that area was that the streets are named after towns in Asia Minor and the Black Sea Pontus region. One is named after Metropolitan Gervasios, a Pontian Greek Orthodox cleric who managed to ship to Greece icons and other articles from churches in Asia Minor before he fled from Turkey. He distributed many to the churches built in Nikaia and these represent a solemn connection with the homelands of the refugees.
Nikaia’s demographics are in transition. Many old residents moved out and other Greeks from the provinces moved in during the post-WWII era. More recently immigrants from other countries, some of them also refugees, have settled in Nikaia. In one of the small inner courtyards that the Refugee Settlement Committee planners carved out between the clusters of refugee buildings I spotted a gleaming Mercedes-Benz with Albanian number plates, though I am sure most of the newer arrivals in Nikaia rely on public transport, including the brand new Athens metro line that connects the western suburbs to both Athens and Piraeus.
It may be that the remaining original refugee houses will give way to modern apartment blocks. But Lovejoy’s bust and the American Ladies Street will be reminders of the humanitarian work that was done to help the refugees survive and prosper.