Non-fiction by Peter Papathanasiou: A Century on, a Modern Refugee Disaster Unfolds in Northern Greece

Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece and adopted as a baby to an Australian family. His writing has been published by Fairfax Media, News Corporation, The Pigeonhole, Caught by the River, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Going Down Swinging, and Visual Verse, and reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement and The Huffington Post. He has been profiled as a feature writer in Neos Kosmos and is represented by Rogers, Coleridge & White literary agency in London. He divides his time between Australia, London, and a small village in northern Greece. He tweets @peteplastic.

This story first appeared in Issue 13 of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.


The last time this many refugees trekked through Northern Greece, it was my grandfather fleeing for his life.

I’m aboard a train in northern Greece travelling west from the city of Thessaloniki to the small town of Florina where I was born. There’s an Orthodox priest with a thick iron-grey beard playing on his iPhone. A stranger leans across the aisle to offer some homemade baklava. Apparently her mother made too much and she doesn’t want it to go to waste. Riding in a baby capsule, my infant son is sleeping, the gentle rumble of the train on the tracks having worked its magic to the welcomed relief of his parents.

Every time I make this journey from Australia to see my family and ancestral home, I am reminded of the trek my refugee grandfather Vasilios made nearly a hundred years ago. But today, the trip has extra poignancy. On the other side of the mountains, millions of mainly Syrian refugees are walking roughly the same route as my grandfather in 1923. The parallels weigh on my mind. Today, Greece isn’t the final destination like it was for my grandfather. Instead, the promised lands are in central and northern Europe. But Greece remains a country on its knees, struggling to cope with a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Greece was a military loser in 1923. It had just suffered a decisive defeat in the Greco-Turkish War, which ended the Greek presence in Anatolia and most of Eastern Thrace. After months of negotiations in Lausanne, a formal peace agreement was signed. In an attempt to bring stability to the volatile region known as ‘the Near East’, part of this agreement dictated a population exchange, or mutual expulsion, between Greece and Turkey. The architect of the exchange, Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

With the stroke of a pen, nearly two million people were made refugees. Muslims living in Greece were forced to abandon their homes and resettle in Turkey. In exchange, the Orthodox Christians living in Turkey, like my grandfather and his young family in Cappadocia, made the reverse journey. Most of the refugees to Greece were to be settled in the north, an area whose identity was unpredictable and wavered according to the strongest army of the day. Newly annexed by Greece after the First Balkan War in 1912-13, the north needed populating.

My family, like many Greeks, still refers to the population exchange as ‘The Disaster’. The Greek economy haemorrhaged overnight. One out of four refugees did not survive the journey. Unlike the exodus of Christians from Turkey, the influx of Muslims from Greece was supervised by envoys. The Red Crescent supplied new arrivals with wood and coal to keep them warm and offered vaccinations. The Greeks saw no such luxuries. To the victor went the spoils.

With the war over, and the return of their triumphant army, the Turks started taking all able-bodied Orthodox Christian men into labour camps. If the Greeks dared return to march on Ankara, the Turks’ prisoners would be executed in retaliation. My grandfather was not interested in being human collateral. All he needed to do was get to the port with his forged papers that said his family had already left, and his passage west would be guaranteed.

So my papou joined the vast, writhing chain of human misery snaking its way out of Anatolia. It was a five-hundred-mile-long funeral procession. Horses carried crying babies in baskets on either side of their saddles. Old women dressed in black walked with a cane in one hand and a caged chicken in the other. There was constant weeping.

Turkish gangs dogged the trek. They were cruel and inhuman. They abducted and raped in broad daylight, making off with young girls and women as they kicked and screamed and thrashed. My grandfather walked on, one aching foot after the other, the faces of his four young children urging him forward. To think he made the journey in February, the coldest month.

At the waterfront, emaciated Christians clogged every dirty corner. After two nights freezing on the docks, my grandfather was herded onto an overcrowded boat that looked like it would sink at any moment. He was quarantined for a week on an island off Thessaloniki whose name he did not know.

Arriving on the mainland, he continued west to Florina. Other refugees went north to places like Kilkis or east to Drama. In Florina, my papou watched as mosques became churches—minarets were torn down, crosses erected. He also got to experience what it meant to be ‘coming home’. Bowed with despair, he was spat upon by the native Greeks, who were distrustful of his odd dialect. ‘Tourkosporoi!’ they jeered him; ‘Seed of Turk!’ The mere fact he had lived in the Turkish state made his loyalty to Christianity suspicious.

Only about 3,000 Greeks now remain in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city of 11 million. They have faced genocide, mass deportations, and discriminatory laws. It wasn’t until 2012 that the first Greek publishing house for fifty years opened in Istanbul.


My grandfather never felt safe in Florina, despite being hidden deep in a wooded valley. It was too close to the border. Greece itself is at the crossroads of three continents—“where Slav meets Turk meets Negro,” my grandfather used to say. And he was right: the town was again in the firing line during the Axis Occupation in World War II, becoming a centre of Slavic separatism, and then after the war was under communist control. Even my birth in June 1974 was touched by events at a border—a month later, Turkish forces invaded Cyprus following a coup d’etat. My baptism was rushed for fear of broader repercussions.

Albania is thirty miles from Florina. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is even closer, only ten miles. Just two weeks ago, the Macedonian authorities began erecting a metal fence with barbed wire along the border with Greece. The refugees threw stones at the Macedonian police who retaliated with stun grenades and plastic bullets. And more recently, Greek authorities bussed more than 2,000 refugees to Athens in a convoy of around fifty coaches, housing them temporarily in former Olympic venues. These refugees were from countries other than Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many had sewn their mouths shut with string and twine in protest against Balkan border controls.

Today, it is extraordinarily heartwarming to see the Greeks, who have so little, give so much to ensure the safe passage of the refugees arriving on their shores. As our train slows for passengers at Edessa, I wonder whether this unquestioned generosity and humanity is due to peoples’ enduring memories of 1923. Like me, many of the benevolent islanders on Kos and Lesbos probably had a forebear involved in The Disaster. The Syrian people are also close to the Greek heart. Syria was part of the late Byzantine Empire, and some of the cities being devastated by the current conflict like Palmyra have deep Hellenic roots.


Greece closed its immigration detention centres in early 2015. By contrast, Australia, the country where I grew up and which has never seen a refugee influx of the scale Greece is experiencing, continues to build more.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that over 800,000 refugees and migrants entered Europe through economically-bankrupt Greece in 2015 alone, many after making the short but treacherous sea crossing from Turkey in rubber dinghies. In the same time, Australia—a country sixty times larger than Greece, with twice the population, and a AAA credit rating—hosted less than 40,000.

On the night of the twenty-third of December, huge bonfires are lit across Florina as part of the annual winter festival. It is an ancient custom, ostensibly to warm the world for the arrival of Baby Jesus on the twenty-fifth. There will be music and dancing on the streets till dawn, and fires that shoot into the sky, higher than most of the buildings, towers of thick wooden beams that the young men have been constructing since autumn.


My relatives in Florina tell me there are sightings of refugees in the steep mountains outside of town. It follows the crackdown north of Thessaloniki, and is the reward for making the arduous trek inland—an easier crossing into the FYROM. Checkpoints are bypassed. Police plan to increase road patrols around Florina.

A group of teenagers enters our carriage, full of energy and life. One of them is a wearing a t-shirt with the logo of PAOK FC. The club was established in 1926 by Greek-Constantinopolitans who fled to Thessaloniki in the wake of the Greco-Turkish War. In honour of the club’s refugee roots, PAOK’s logo is a Byzantine-style double-headed eagle facing east and west. The eagle’s wings are folded as a sign of long-term bereavement for the uproot from home. The club’s colours are also symbolic: black as mourning for the lost homeland, and white for the hope of a better tomorrow. I couldn’t be sure, but I suspect my papou might’ve been a PAOK fan. I know I am.

Our train accelerates out of Edessa station. The line is clear. But further north, refugees remain camped along the tracks, blocking rail traffic. The jolt wakes my son; he cries. It’s his first time following in his great-grandfather’s refugee footsteps. When I get to Florina, I’m buying him a PAOK striped bib.

And one day, perhaps my son appreciate the magnitude of this journey in the same way the Syrian children may value the moment their parents fitted them with a life jacket and crossed the Aegean Sea.

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