Future of Greek minority in Turkey in the hands of the youth

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Enrollment in İstanbul's Fener Greek High School has dwindled, alongside the city's Greek population. (Photo: Sunday's Zaman, Üsame Arı)

Enrollment in İstanbul’s Fener Greek High School has dwindled, alongside the city’s Greek population. (Photo: Sunday’s Zaman, Üsame Arı)

Source: Today’s Zaman

The youth of Turkey’s Greek minority are facing critical demographic and educational problems which are complicating their ability to maintain their historical tradition in Turkey.

Aug. 22 was the last day of the second biannual Greek reunion on the island of Burgazada. Turks and Greeks were reunited accompanied by the tune of Greek and Turkish songs in a celebration of their friendship that dates back many years. “In Burgazada, we’re all one family,” said Vasilis, a Rum (Greek Orthodox Turkish citizen) who moved to Athens many years ago. Although the Greek Orthodox presence is still evident on the island — Greek songs and Greek words echoing in the streets, being able to eat in restaurants with Greek names and visit the three Greek Orthodox churches that exist on the island — it is noticeable that even at the reunion, only a small number of Rums are aged 30 or under. It is a fact that the community is facing a serious demographic problem; the members of what was once the largest minority community in İstanbul now number only 2,000 people.

However, some positive signs have been noticed in the past few years, as Adonis Parizianos, the president of the Association of Support to the Institutions of the Rum Community (RumVader), notes at the Aya Triada Greek Orthodox Church a few days prior to the reunion. “We had a lot of baptisms this year; a few years back it used to be only funerals,” he underlined, adding that this gives good reason for optimism in the community.

Andreas Rompopoulos, owner and editor-in-chief of one of the two Greek-language newspapers in Turkey, The Voice of Today, and of the first and only Greek online radio station in Turkey, The Voice of the City, said in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman that a recently founded Greek-language children’s creative workshop gives Rums another reason to be positive, as only this year 45 children were enrolled.

When it comes to primary and secondary education, the admirable facilities of Zappeion Girls School, the Phanar Greek Orthodox College and Zografeion Lyceum seem to have been rendered obsolete, due to the very small number of students in each school. Although the labs in all three schools appear to be fully equipped, “We never used them,” Stefanos and Danae, both graduates of Zografeion Lyzeum, highlight at the traditional Sunday coffee meeting at the Burgazada Orthodox Church, Ayios Ioannis. The view that education in the community is an issue that requires serious consideration for the sake of the survival of the Greek minority is widely agreed upon within the community. Of all the historic Greek schools in İstanbul, only the three aforementioned have remained open and even these are struggling, as each class has an average of only six students. Moreover, a large number of these students consist of Antiochian Rum Orthodox children, who learn little or no Greek from their families.

The two above-mentioned factors result in a low educational level at the historic schools, leading a lot of Rums to reluctantly enroll their children in non-Greek-language schools. One of these is Laki Vingas, the head of the Turkish Minority Foundations, who said, “I did not enroll my children in a minority school, but I hope to enroll my grandchildren.” Although positive about the future of the community, Vingas underlines that in order for the community to go forward and start resolving its problems in a risk-taking spirit, expertise in practical matters and effectiveness is needed. His opinion is shared by others, too; one prominent community voice who preferred to remain anonymous noted that “logic and practicality are missing” in contrast to emotional confrontations when it comes to the resolution of problems.

Furthermore, decision-making becomes even more difficult a task due to the fact that minority groups do not have the right to elect a central administrative body that would be responsible for making decisions concerning the matters of each minority community in a faster and more efficient way. For example, such a body is needed in order to arbitrate in the issue of whether to close down at least one of the schools and transform it into a different institution in order to enhance competition and to increase the number of students at the remaining two. This view is supported by the more progressive members of the community, but also has various opponents who want to hold on to their remaining traditional institutions and are hesitant to consider possibilities that might lead to a better outcome for the whole of the community.

“Being so few students leaves us with a very limited range of people of our own age [to form friendships with],” said Nora, a Zappeion graduate of Armenian and Greek descent, and her opinion is shared by the majority of young Rums. It is a fact that circumstances have drastically changed when it comes to the coexistence of minorities and the Turkish majority in İstanbul. Following events of Sept. 6-7, 1955 and the subsequent exodus of the Rum population to Greece due to harsh living conditions in Turkey, the remaining Greeks were closely united for reasons of survival, but those conditions are absent from the present Turkish reality. Nowadays, both the state and individual citizens are much more accepting of minorities than they used to be. “For years we used to have our suitcases packed, ready to leave Turkey at any moment in case anything happened and the situation changed against us,” Parizianos said.

The younger generations have heard of but not experienced the fear themselves, and Greece, in its current situation, does not appear as the “paradise land” anymore. “I am the most recent person who left to study in Greece and I will come back as soon as I finish my studies,” Giorgos, a 2011 Zografeion graduate, emphasized. Although their parents were trying to find the best way and time to move to Greece, the youth of today wants to stay in İstanbul — a very positive fact for the community, which hopes to consequently grow. However, the majority of the youth are not as concerned or involved with the community as the older generations are, and, in the words of Marios Iliadis, “The question of who will be concerned with community matters once we are not able to deal with them anymore is distressing.”

According to the Rum community, the Rum youth, being dispersed and more integrated in the Turkish community than older generations were, seem to lack the incentive and willingness to become involved in the community. They also say that a possible solution to the demographic problem, when it comes to younger people, could be integration between the Rums and immigrants coming from Greece. Especially following the current financial crisis in Greece, more and more Greek students at Turkish universities decide to stay due to the better prospects of finding a job in İstanbul than in Greece. “I did not have any relations with the Greek community for the first two years of my stay, as I wanted to fully experience Turkish society,” noted Alexis from Thessaloniki, though at the same time remarking that this is slowly starting to change. He continued by adding that the more he became involved with the community, the more he figured out the way to approach its members — a fact Vasia, who moved from Athens to İstanbul about a year ago, has had difficulty with. “It is a very difficult and complex matter, bringing those two groups [Turkey and Greece-born Greeks] together, as after all, there is only so much the community can do; if those people want and are to meet, they will find a way on their own, for example, through social media,” observed the anonymous community source.

However, the community, which is mainly headed by people aged 60 and over, might not seem attractive to the eyes of the youth, who are typically 40 years younger than the organizers of community events and processes. Besides the Church, the Greek minority does not have a “steki” — a meeting point known by all local Greeks, such as a café, bar or restaurant. If more young members were involved in the community and its character became slightly more adaptable to present-day tastes and preferences, both Rums and incoming Greeks would be more willing to attend its events and mingle with each other.

The future of the community might seem uncertain, but the fact that the Greek minority has been adapting to the changing dynamics of Turkish society for more than 400 years is unquestionable. Although the community is facing certain critical problems and the burden of the continuation of the historical presence of the Greek minority is on the shoulders of an increasingly integrated youth, all share the view that the most crucial element for the maintenance of Greek Orthodoxy in Turkey is good spirits, optimism and hope. “Rums will not fade away”, Adam says at the Burgazada reunion, further noting that “the year I left İstanbul, people in the streets verbally assaulted me when I spoke in Greek and now they are glad to have me back. I am an optimist; Rums will not fade away.”

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