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Melina's Story in Greece

Αssociated press

People crowded into boats to escape from the Catastrophe of Smyrna 1922. (Photo: Museum of Asia Minor Hellenism "Filio Hademenou" in Nea Filadelfeia, Eurokinissi/Tatiana Bollari)

I arrived in Greece with my two young children Ioannis, 5 and Maria, 6 on a beautiful sunny day in late April or early May 1923. The American ship stopped at St George's Island off Piraeus so that we would be examined by doctors to see if we had any contagious diseases. I cannot explain it, myself and my two children were disease-free. Some divine hand protected us. Others looked a sickly grey with the grim reaper ready to take them to the next world.

It took a long time for all of us to be processed and examined by the authorities. We finally arrived at Piraeus and had no idea where we would end up. We waited on the dock until they came to take us to our new ‘home’.

I heard that many of our refugee compatriots were accommodated in schools, churches, warehouses, factories, tents, and sheds in Piraeus and Athens. Some refugees lived in the Municipal Theater of Athens where every box was occupied.

The living conditions were absolutely atrocious with little or no sanitation in overcrowded, leaky buildings filled with mud and collection of puddles of water. Walls had big holes in them which allowed in the cold wind. Many of these folk wore summer clothing which didn't keep them warm in the bitter winter of 1922-23. Clothes had become rags simply sewn together to keep them warm. We arrived in the middle of spring when the weather was warming up and initially avoided the winter blast.

Food was scarce with malnutrition a serious problem. Some people looked like skeletons with a little bit of skin covering their emaciated bodies. Others resembled ghosts ready to meet their creator. A once proud and resourceful people had become beggars with no apparent future.

I thank the charity organizations like the American Red Cross, Near East Relief, and the British Save the Children fund who provided food, warm clothing, and blankets to help us survive our ordeal. Many more of our people would have died without their assistance and one must not forget the charitable people of America and Britain for their generosity.

Dysentry, smallpox, and cholera swept through like a tornado taking with it the elderly and young children. These poor souls were easily prone to disease. We were lucky as these diseases danced around us, disappearing into thin air. Again divine intervention helped us and sustained us.

We were taken to a refugee camp at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. Our ‘home’ would be a tent for the next two years. I never imagined that I would end up in a tragic situation like this considering the comfortable life I once enjoyed in Trebizond. This was a new reality, a tent for a home. The Greek Government gave us two drachmas a day, a little black bread and sometimes some soup.

Our food rations were never enough to sustain us properly, but we were gratefully for being alive. At least in Greece, we breathed the air of freedom without having to worry about being killed by the Turks. Oh, Freedom – you're such a beautiful word.

My children got a cold and we're scared that it might turn into pneumonia. We were very fortunate to have the American Women's Hospital nearby providing us with medical care. Doctors Mabel Elliott and Esther P.Lovejoy did magnificent work tending to the sick in our camp. I remember both of them looking after my children. They were friendly, kind doctors who worked tirelessly in helping their patients. We also had a small pharmacy that dispensed some medications. There weren't a lot of medicines but they certainly helped in saving many lives.

The winter of 1923-4 was very cold with lots of rain and the occasional sprinkle of snow. At least we had warm clothes, warm blankets, and a little potbelly stove stuffed with wood to keep us warm. Wood was not easy to find. However, I walked around the camp and picked up whatever size of the wood I could find for our potbelly stove. There was fierce competition as one had to get up at the crack dawn to get their wood before anyone else. Otherwise, you would miss out and end up in a fight with your neighbor. I was lucky on this score. No fights, and on good terms with everybody.

There were days when I took the children to see the shops in Athens. I would spend some of the two drachmas buying the children lemonade or an ice cream. We did manage to have some leftover change. Many shopkeepers weren't good to us. They called us names like Tourkosporoi (Turkish seeds) which was hurtful and insulting. They were racists and discriminated against us Asia Minor Greeks.

I cast my mind back to our tent at the Acropolis and remember the Parthenon, that great symbol of our Athenian ancestors. I thought that I would be welcomed in the land of my ancestors, only to be treated as an outcast from another world. I became nostalgic and fondly remember the good times I enjoyed with my Turkish friends and neighbors in Trebizond. I wish I could return to my old home but knew that was impossible. Trebizond would always be etched in my heart and soul forever.

Come to the middle of 1925, we finally moved from our tent to Kokkinia in Piraeus. We were given two rooms in a cheaply constructed apartment block. The walls were so thin you could easily hear your next-door neighbors’ conversation. There was poor insulation with extremes of temperature and very little privacy. Whilst it wasn't an ideal situation, at least we had a roof over our heads.

In our apartment block, most of us came from Asia Minor with the vast majority coming from Smyrna. I made friends with some women whose husbands' had died in Greece or during the Greek-Turkish war. They were widows like me with young children who found it difficult finding work to support our families. Work for women was irregular and the men treated us like second class citizens. Male attitudes towards women staying at home looking after the household and the children were prevalent during those days.

I had to find regular work to support my family as my income was spasmodic. I found an old Singer sewing machine in the street which a neighbor repaired. I decided to sew and repair clothes for my neighbors for a small fee. In some cases, I sold some for a higher price in the local market. As I started to save a little money, the idea of starting up my own business became my end goal.

(my next story will be living experience in Kokkinia.)