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Culture

An Orphan Tells Her Story

May 26, 2020
By Stavros T. Stavridis

I decided to write down my life story in 1999 before I die. My name is Aliki Swann and I was born to Greek parents (Eleftherios and Maria Mastoris) in Constantinople in May 1910. My father was a successful businessman who often traveled to Athens for business. My mother ran the household and raised us, five children. I had two brothers and two sisters who were older than me. 

When Turkey entered the war in October 1914, my father was on a business trip to Athens. He decided to remain there to avoid conscription in the Ottoman army. He opened up a branch in Athens which allowed him to survive there. He wired money to the family in Constantinople.

Eleftherios had a passing interest in Greek politics but stuck to his business without revealing his political leanings. My father was angry over the Royalist government's decision to allow a German-Bulgarian force to occupy Greek soil in June 1916. However, he plodded on with his business until Eleftherios Venizelos established his provisional administration in Salonika in opposition to King Constantine's government in Athens.

He enlisted with the Venizelists and fought against the Bulgarians on the Salonika front. He died from his wounds in early 1918. My mother went into a deep depression learning of his death. I believe my mother had received the sad news via the Spanish Embassy in Constantinople. She never recovered and died of a broken heart in early January 1921.

I remember mother telling us of the difficulties of daily life in Constantinople during the war. We faced shortages of food, heating coal, and high prices. The money our father sent helped us to survive somehow. Within a space of a few years, my siblings died making me an orphan. I didn't have any relatives to take of me or knew of any until I came to live in America.

I wandered through the streets of Constantinople begging to survive. Some people gave me food and others threw a coin or two into my begging bowl. One day I came across a Greek orphanage called Agia Varvara run by Greek nuns. I knocked on the door and this nun took me inside. She was sympathetic to me. This orphanage was also receiving financial support from the Near East Relief (NER) organization. Some 100 orphans were living here who looked well-fed, well-clothed and happy. It put a smile on my face, Little did I know that my life was to change in the coming months.

In the middle of 1921, Mrs. Florence Johnson, a prominent socialite from New York City, visited our orphanage. She was part of a mission to make a movie about the activities of the field stations and orphanages run by the NER in Constantinople and other regions in Asia Minor and the Caucasus. The idea behind the film was to raise public awareness and solicit donations from the American public. Mrs. Johnson took a liking to me from the outset.

I played a young American girl in the film Alice in Starvingland. The plot involved a young girl named Alice who stowed away on a ship for Constantinople where she met her a father, an NER worker where both embarked on tours of NER orphanages and relief stations in Turkey and the Caucasus. Young Alice met healthy orphans who entertained her with Greek and Armenian songs. She was saddened to see orphans denied admission due to a lack of resources. Alice understood it was impossible to care for every orphan and was inspired to assist them upon her return to America.

Florence Johnson liked me so much that she adopted me as her daughter. My Uncle Socrates Peropidis (my father's brother) challenged my adoption in a New York City court. He tried everything to have my adoption overturned but Florence fought him tooth and nail to keep me. In the end, the judge asked me whom I wanted to live with. " I want to live with Florence", I said. Poor! Uncle Socrates, he was very upset with my decision. Nevertheless, we became good friends and visited his family as often as possible. I had no idea that my father had relatives living in America and my mother never discussed them either.

The film was screened in New York City, Manchester (New Hampshire), Boston and Washington DC on December 20, 1921, and 1922. I had the opportunity along with Florence to visit many towns and cities on the east coast to promote the film. The actors portrayed in the film were the orphans themselves.

Church organizations screened the film helping to raise money for the NER. The film was an outstanding success with school children and adults seeing the work of the NER in Asia Minor and the Caucasus. It inspired Americans old and young to donate money to this worthy cause. I was so happy that I contributed to helping out the orphans.

My school attendance was constantly interrupted as we traveled around the country for the NER and later the Near East Foundation (NEF)  raising funds through bazaars and serving Greek coffee. I met this wonderful young girl, Debora Zaimi who graduated from an NEF school in Tirana, Albania who came to America and lived with us for a while. We became very close friends. 

I completed high school and enrolled at Allegany University in Lexington, Kentucky in 1930. I met my future husband, John L.Swann, a dance instructor at Arthur Murray studios, and got married on September 20, 1939. We had two daughters where I taught them to care about orphans and the least fortunate in our society. Most of what I taught them came from the fictional character, Alice in Starvingland. I am proud to state that my daughters have followed in my footsteps working and raising money for the NEF.

I received a medal from the NEF for my contribution to the organization in May 2000. It felt marvelous to receive such an honor.

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