By Vasilis Papoutsis
FRESNO, CA – On May 19 in Fresno, CA, the Greek community will commemorate the victims of the Greek Genocide known as the Asia Minor Disaster.
The event will take place at the Fresno City Hall and Mayor Lee Brand, the entire City Council, along with the Chief of Police and the Board of Supervisors will attend. There will be a flag raising ceremony, a performance by the Kamari dancers of the Fresno’s St. George Greek Orthodox Church, and a historical presentation of the Greek Genocide.
Event organizer Paul Dictos, a Fresno County Assessor-Recorder, said that “this is the first time the Central Valley will have the opportunity to honor survivors and their heritage." Kopi Sotiropulos, co-Anchor of the morning show Great Day at KMPH FOX 26 in Fresno, will serve as Emcee. He told TNH that his participation in the commemoration is driven by his desire to "to raise awareness of an inhumane event that should never been forgotten and it should never be repeated."
Also known as the Pontiac Genocide, the atrocities claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Greeks between 1914 and 1923, at the same time the Armenian Genocide was taking place, and those tragic events have established a bond of brotherhood between the two communities. For that reason, Honorary General Counsel of Armenia in Fresno Berj K. Apkarian will attend the commemoration as well.
The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I brought the rise of the Turkish National Movement under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk that eventually resulted in the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey. Turkish National Movement forces captured Smyrna in 1922. In the aftermath of their victory, the Turks committed barbaric atrocities. Massacres, forced deportations, and death marches went into full effect aiming to resolve the "Greek problem."
The Great Fire of Smyrna culminated the catastrophe, as the Turks burned down the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city. Thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees crammed the waterfront to escape the fire and they were forced to remain there for nearly two weeks. The casualties from the fire alone reached 30,000 lives. In 1923, a population exchange agreement between Greece and Turkey was signed and thousands of Greeks went back to Greece. Thousands more were sent to Crimea.
The Dictos' family was one of those who went to Crimea. Dictos said the reason his family stayed alive is because of his grandmother Parthena's bravery. When they were thrown out of their home by the Turkish army they had only a few minutes to grab what they could carry. She took her two children – Dictos’ mother Sophia and his uncle Panayiotis – to the port to find a way out.
His uncle told him that he watched hundreds of Greek and Armenian bodies washing on shore. They made it to Crimea and lived in a single room in the basement of a home for six years. When the Greek government sent boats to bring refugees back to Greece in 1921, she convinced a widowed man to take her aboard as his wife so she could bring her two children to Greece.
But their odyssey did not end there. In 1935, Dictos’ mother married his father Aristoklies and in 1967 they would immigrate to the United States. They did not speak English and did not know how they would make a living, but his mother was smart. She found a job in a senior facility center and managed to buy a house with a $50 down payment.
"I learned everything from my mother,” Dictos said. “She told me that life is like been a boxer, you must have your fists pulled up and stay ready. And you keep pressing on." The commemoration is Dictos' tribute to his family and all the other families who suffered during the Asia Minor Disaster, in hope that their tragic sacrifices will one day be recognized.