The trip to the once-Greek city formerly known as Smyrna provided a unique experience for the volunteers, who were taken on a guided tour throughout the city’s important historical areas from which hundreds of thousands of refugees fled for their lives nearly 100 years ago.
Such a visit to Smyrna is also relevant in modern times, as the past few years have seen millions of refugees pass through the city on their way to Greece — where our volunteers spent the month of July helping unaccompanied minors.
The team was guided by resident and Greek-American expatriate Chrysovalantis Stamelos, a teacher and filmmaker who has made the city his home after his own journey there to discover his ancestral roots.
One of the volunteers, Heather Marcella, 23, is the descendant of Greek refugees who fled from Smyrna during the Great Catastrophe of 1922.
Featured image: Marcella pictured left during a guided tour through Buca, a historic Smyrna neighborhood once inhabited by thousands of Greeks.
Following is her personal reflection from her visit to Smyrna:
My great grandmother, Eugenia Theodosakis, née Karageorge, grew up in Buca, a suburb of Smyrna, in the early 1900s. The expulsion of the last of the Greek inhabitants took place in 1922. The men were killed, her father and brother included, and she and her sister hid in cemeteries to make their way from Buca to the waterfront of Smyrna.
As the fires burned through Smyrna, she jumped from the pier into the water to escape. She was one of only hundreds who were fortunate enough to be picked up by foreign naval ships and eventually brought to Athens as a refugee.
Some time later, Constantine Theodosakis, a man from Buca who was already a U.S. citizen prior to the catastrophe, came to the refugee camp in Athens to find a wife from Buca, with the thought that all of the young women from his hometown sought help and a new home. And that’s when Eugenia’s new life in the United States began.
Many Greek-American young adults are able to visit the villages where their ancestors grew up every summer, but I have only ever heard about Buca in my grandfather’s stories about his mother. Being able to walk down the same streets as my great grandmother did in her hometown of Buca and visit the same pier in Smyrna where she last stepped foot before jumping into the water to escape death was an experience I’ll never forget.
As we were guided through Smyrna and Buca, I couldn’t help but think how life truly comes full circle. Only by volunteering with refugee children through the Greek America Foundation’s Service Learning program, did I have the opportunity to personally visit my great grandmother’s own refugee history. And while my great grandmother’s background was so different than that of today’s refugees, the foundation of their stories are so similar.
My great grandmother was a teenager, an unaccompanied minor who arrived at a refugee camp in Greece looking to reconnect with her family. This is the exact story of the refugee teenagers I’ve been working with everyday this past month, whether they’re from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, or elsewhere.
It’s tragic that years go by and history repeats itself over and over when war tears through countries, and yet it’s somehow bittersweet that I am able to give back what was given to my great grandmother when she arrived to a refugee camp in Greece: a bit of comfort, the knowledge that people care, and hope for the future.
Our annual summer volunteer program aims not only to teach young adults about service and philanthropy, but also to immerse them in the history and culture of Greece. Please consider making a donation to help more young North Americans experience Greece in such a profound way.