The Children of Smyrna – As Refugees They Rebuilt Their Lives, and Built a Better Greece

Today they would call CYA Founder Ismene Phylactopoulou a pioneer of social entrepreneurship – in 1962 there was no special term for such a remarkable woman of vision and drive.

ATHENS – In 1962 the renowned study abroad program College Year in Athens was more than a personal dream of Ismene Phylactopoulou, for whom it was time to pursue an endeavor beyond her successful teaching career. CYA, as it is known throughout the academic world of the United States, was also the vision of an appreciative Greek recipient of a scholarship to study in America who forged strong ties to that country, and wanted to build bridges to it once she returned to her adopted country of Greece.

‘Adopted’, because she was born Ismene Hatziantoniou in Asia Minor, indeed in the great cosmopolitan city of Smyrna, the worst of whose tragic fate in 1922 she and her family were fortunate to escape.

The story of Ismene’s family is similar to thousands of others who, although they left almost all their material possessions behind when they became refugees in their own land, a country now called Turkey but where Greeks lived for 3000 years, they enriched the countries, that received them, like Greece, the United States, Canada, and Australia, with their dynamism, education, Orthodox spirituality, and entrepreneurship.

Ismene’s story is a tribute to all the ‘Mikrasiates’ whose memories we honor in this somber commemoration of the destruction of Smyrna and of Hellenism in Asia Minor. The story is told by Ismene’s son, Alexis Phylactopoulos, distinguished retired diplomat in the service of Greece, who is now the proud and devoted President of CYA.

“This was a family of five children – my mother had four siblings, and they were a fairly well-to-do but not wealthy family. Her father was a merchant, her mother was a very well- educated woman – the intellectual head of the family.”

He then discussed the historical background.
“Greece had embarked on that Asia Minor campaign – the Ionian Vision – which developed into a ‘let’s take Ankara’ idea.” But the Greek supply lines were badly stretched, and the Turkish armed forces were receiving support from the French, the Italians, and the Bolshevik – they were getting ever strong under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, later named Ataturk.

“But the people back in Smyrna were not aware of the developing problems given the telecommunications of the time. In 1922 they didn’t know that the front collapsed fairly quickly and the Greek soldiers were on the run.”

Ismene’s family experienced a more or less carefree summer, much like the rest of the Greeks of Ionia. “My mother’s family were having a leisurely late summer vacation at a place called Fokia, ancient  Phocaea, and that is when they heard there was some bad news, that the Greeks were retreating and people were becoming anxious, that there were some upheavals in Smyrna. They hired a boat, brought on board some deck chairs from the house where they were staying, and they travelled back to Smyrna – but then they saw the pandemonium at the harbor and heard the talk of an impending disaster.”

Phylactopoulos said, “her father and a sibling went to the house to see if there was any money or items of value they could take with them – because they had already decided that they had to flee.”

They went to the house, but there was no money – the commercial season had not yet begun, so there were no earnings being accumulated by the family business that dealt in agricultural produce like soybeans.

“He went back to the boat and they made a spur of the moment decision to flee – and it saved their lives. They went to Chios and spent perhaps two weeks in a park there, using the deck chairs as beds.”

Somehow, they found their way to Athens. “We know that for the first few months they were living with another family, with another Smyrniote woman, Sophia Meria, who wrote a book where she describes this cohabitation of two – and maybe more – families in this house somewhere” in the Exarcheia section of Athens.

“Then,” he said, “there is a strange blank period where I have no information,” – a common reality among such families.

“This family of seven – two adults, five children,” he continued, “who had nothing but…education – they were well-educated in the sense that all the children had gone to good schools – somehow, they all survived, and they all did something with their lives. They made something of themselves – and they also contributed to society and the economy after that.”

Ismene’s maiden name was Hatziantoniou, and she spoke fluent English at the age of 15.

“She was very industrious and resourceful young woman who managed to find a scholarship established by Eleftherios Venizelos after he lost the election of 1920 – he was now out of politics, but he was still doing things for Greece. One of the scholarships was for a young woman to study at Wellesley College – which is, by the way, where Madeleine Albright and Hilary Clinton went to school,” Phylactopoulos said.

She studied biology and eventually returned to Greece, in 1927 he believes, and started working at what became known as Pierce College, teaching biology. “That was how she met my father – he was a teacher too. He taught psychology at Athens College.”

George Phylactopoulos was from Constantinople, but he was also in a sense a refugee. He was a Greek citizen whose family had lived in the great City for the previous 100 years, but because they were not Turkish citizens, they could not stay.

“He was a student at Robert College in Constantinople, and he later taught there. He also went to America to further his studies – at Columbia University. He later did graduate work at Harvard.”

Homer Davis, a prime mover at Athens College and its long-time president, also with ties to Constantinople, offered him a job in Greece. There, “my parents met, got married, and the rest is history.”

An important part of the story, however, is the friendships Ismene made in the United States.

“She was attached to her American friends from the States, and over the years she gained more friends from America. There was a strong connection – and I think she felt also a sense of duty to the United States for sheltering her.”

It is remarkable how often one sees that the personal lives of the Asia Minor refugees and the history of Greece were intertwined.

In the late 50s and early 60s Greece’s slow and long post-war recovery accelerated. The country, like the people from Asia Minor, picked up the shattered pieces of its existence after the Axis occupation, and moved forward. “It was a period of reconstruction and construction. Greece was again becoming a more important part of the West – and it was being discovered by film makers, writers. There was a revival of interest in Greece. Greece was in demand, and that’s when she got the idea for College Year in Athens,” he noted.

“She was a rather emancipated woman and a resourceful person,” Phylactopoulos said of his mother with pride as well as warmth.

He explained that she acted from a mix of motives – one was a feeling of ‘giving back’ to the United States by educating American college students. The other was that she wanted a better life for herself. She wanted to do something more interesting, more active, entrepreneurial.

Today they would call Ismene Phylactopoulou a pioneer of social entrepreneurship – in 1962 there was no special term for such a remarkable woman of vision and drive.

Ismene did not wish to merely engage in philanthropic acts here and there – she wanted to create programs and opportunities for others, to build institutions.

“That is what is so remarkable about that generation. They had resilience first of all – and ingenuity.” And just as the country was rebuilding its infrastructure and industries, some individuals were building institutions for the ‘New Greece’ and the refugees from Asia Minor were among the most dynamic and successful on all fronts.

People like Ismene also grasped in the midst of the Cold War that the relationship between Greece and the United States was very important and had to be strengthened.

The endeavor was heroic. “It was startup – a startup with no funds, Phylactopoulos said, adding, “it was just an idea – which took a lot of courage. They were living on just two teachers’ salaries. She ran the school and recruited the teachers and professors. My father, who was known as ‘Phyl’ to his friends, was helping behind the scenes because he had to keep his position at Athens College. My mother thought, ‘I am going to do this even if I have to give up my salary’ and it worked.”

The dedication of the family is also reflected in the fact that Phylactopoulos’ sister Daphne Hatsopoulos, who lives in the United States, also serves today as Chair of CYA’s Board of Trustees.


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