By Karissa Bell
Once-vibrant Greek neighborhoods in Istanbul are now practically relics. Houses that belonged to Greek families lie in ruins; many schools for Greek children are closed, and covered in dust. Greek Orthodox churches are often the last reminders of this shrinking community, which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but now stands at fewer than 2,000.
Recently, though, there have been signs of revival, and even new arrivals from Greece.
When Turkey’s only Greek-language newspaper, Apoyevamtini, was on the verge of closure this past summer, a surge of interest and subscriptions saved it.
The newspaper was in debt, and editor and publisher Mihalis Vassiliadis thought he would have no choice but to close it. The paper was founded by his uncle in 1925.
Finances at the newspaper weakened even further after Greece was hit by economic crisis. The effect, Vassiliadis said, was “very little, like a drop in a glass, but the drop was the reason the glass overflowed.”
He announced that he would shut down the paper on its 86th anniversary, on July 14, 2011. But once word got out, via the Internet and a Turkish man living in Holland, something unexpected happened.
People began calling and asking for subscriptions.
Apoyevmatini gained nearly 300 new subscribers, most of whom, Vassiliadis said, do not speak a word of Greek.
“It was very touching,” he said. “I feel like we have the power to keep running the newspaper, but I don’t feel we have the power to close it.”
The closure has now been postponed, and Vassiliadis hopes that the new interest will bring more advertising to the newspaper he writes and produces with his son, Minas Vassiliadis.
“It doesn’t depend on us, anymore, because we don’t have any more power over our destiny,” Vassiliadis said in a recent interview. “We might be[come] extinct, or we could continue our existence.”
Most of Turkey’s ethnic Greek population left the country between 1923, when the Turkish republic was founded, and 1964, when more than 30,000 Greeks were deported. Vassiliadis blames persecutory and discriminatory government policies, along with attacks on the Greek community on September 6-7, 1955, for the en masse Greek departure.
Minas grew up in Greece. At 2005, at the age of 22, he moved to Istanbul to help his father.
The transition was difficult at first, he said. But unlike Greeks of his father’s generation, he said, he never felt out of place in Istanbul.
“I never felt that I am different,” he said. “If there was nothing here, I wouldn’t come. I found out the stereotypes of many Greeks aren’t true.”
Minas says that he now feels a sense of responsibility to Istanbul’s Greek community, and that it will be up to Greeks of his generation to determine the future of the shrinking Greek community here.
“We need to be saved,” he said. “We need Greek people, new young people to come, [and] have families.”
Minas’ dream could be realized in an unexpected way. The economic crisis that nearly felled his family’s newspaper is also bringing some younger, jobless, Greeks to Turkey.
When Georgia Kapoutsi lost her job at an Athens law office in December 2010, she found herself in the same position as many of her peers — out of work, and with few local options.
“I couldn’t find anything,” she said. “The more I searched, the less I could find.”
After several months of unsuccessful job hunting, she needed a vacation. In April 2011, she came to Istanbul to visit an old friend, intending to stay only a few weeks.Then she visited her friend’s stepmother, who read her fortune in the grounds of her coffee cup.
“She said, ‘you aren’t going away,’” Kapoutsi, 29, recounted. She remembered laughing at the fortuneteller. “I said, ‘come on, I have a house, I have a life.”’ She returned to Athens after three weeks and resumed her job search.
Four days later she was back in Istanbul.
She found a job teaching English. She has no immediate plans to return to Athens, because Istanbul offers her what she thinks is most important ¬¬— independence.
“I’m just learning and working and living,” she said. “But at least I’m living. I choose to be an immigrant.”
Representatives at the Greek consulate in Istanbul, however, are skeptical that Kapoutsi’s story represents a trend: of Greeks migrating into booming Turkey to find work. Consular official Anna Kouvaraki said she doesn’t believe Greeks are immigrating to Turkey because of the economic crisis.
“People come because they want to study or they want another way of life,” she said. “It’s quite easy for Greeks to come here.”
Though it’s unclear whether the new arrivals will affect the state of the Greek community in Istanbul , those who have made the move say that they don’t regret it.
“If I could go to the past and have the opportunity to change [anything, I would definitely do the same thing,” Minas said.
“If you had told me when I was 20 that I would be an immigrant, I would have laughed,” said Kapoutsi, adding that she prefers Istanbul to Athens. “Istanbul has beauty.”