On Home and Belonging: A History of Exchange Between Greek and Turkish Populations

Asli Saban, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Migration Studies

“A strong memory is a severe penalty.” — Orhan Kemal

Memory, in all its physical, psychological, cultural and familial forms, plays a crucial role in the contexts of migration, immigration, resettlement and diasporas, given that memory provides continuity to the dislocations of individual and social identity. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have vehement memories and would like to pass them down to other generations. This situation is, however, a puzzling relationship between struggling existence and continuing identities. On January 30, 1923, the population exchange agreement by the then-young Republic of Türkiye – recovering from World War I and the war with Greece – was formally implemented, paving the way for some two million people to leave their home countries. For Turks who left Greece in the following years, the exchange was a bittersweet experience and memorable.

The Ottoman Empire was present in the Balkans until 1912–1913. Ottoman rule was rather long, lasting from the fourteenth century up until the early twentieth century in some territories of Balkan countries. The Ottomans set foot in Rumelia during the reign of Orhan Ghazi, the second sultan of the Ottomans. The Empire, then, has ruled the Balkans for centuries and thus deeply affected the Balkans on the economic, political, cultural, religious and social levels.  During this period, the Ottoman Empire pursued a nation-building policy in Balkan countries with the purpose of trying to create a more homogeneous population in the Balkan nations in order to build nation-states by forcing minority groups and Turkish populations from a variety of territories across Anatolia to move across Balkan countries, including one of forcing groups, called the Karamanids.

The Emirate of Karaman was known as the most powerful enemy of the Ottoman Empire and was always in conflict due to their refusal of accepting the domination of the Ottomans. When the Ottoman empire gained power in Anatolia, it took control of most of the small principalities. As a result of the campaigns initiated by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in 1468, the Karamanoğlu principality came under the control of the Ottoman state. Within the scope of the settlement policy of the Ottoman state in the Balkan countries, those living under the Karamanoğlu Principality were forced to migrate to the Balkans in light of a policy implemented to prevent the Karamanoğlu Principality from revolting against the Ottoman state. Within the scope of this idea of ​​the Ottoman state, the people living under the said principality began to be settled in the Balkan region hundreds of kilometers away.

Those under Karamanoğlu Principality had varying ethical identities, between Turkish-Muslim as well as other religions and ethnic backgrounds. Mainly doing farming and some commerce occupation after settling down across Balkan countries the Turkish Muslim minorities had settled in these regions, especially Greece, Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkans.

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire, which had a multi-ethnic character, collapsed and the new Turkish government changed its state identity as a nation–state under the name of Türkiye as a land of the Turks. Additionally, many Turks and Muslims in Greece were faced with a miserable life due to conflicts with the Greeks. Under such conditions, many Rum and Greek citizens, who lived in the Anatolian part of Türkiye, were obligated to migrate to the Greek lands; Turks and Muslims also migrated from Greece to Türkiye when the policies and agreements were applied by both the Turkish and Greek governments. In turn, the emigrated Turkish communities started to create their new life in various provinces across Anatolia alongside other Turkish communities. Once the first generation arrived in Anatolia, they were invisible and in need. Although they had turned ‘back’ to their own country, they always carried their memories with them. For this reason, first, second and third generations never intend on erasing their memories of Greece, especially since their passing through Greece had rekindled memories of the Turkish-Greek war of 1919-1922 and its traumatic outcome.

Man, 80 years old (Second Generation)

“I was born in Denizli; however, my father came from Greece. My family produced grooming and sold them in Grebene. My father continued his job once he arrived in Türkiye and always mentioned not having any problem with his Greek neighbors until Greek gangs arrived to the villages, which exacted Turkish minorities. My family didn’t want to give exaction money to Greek gangs, but because of that, Greek gangs deforced my grandfather and grandmother and tortured them. Consequently, my grandmother was brutally killed, and my grandfather’s ear was cut off by the gangs; hence his nickname Earless Arif.  They are tragic events … During the exchange population process, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk told the commander, whose name is Bekir, that all people should be moved to T ürkiye safely. No one’s nose gets bloody afterward because the commander and Atatürk protected us.”

Woman, 93 years old (Second Generation)

“My mother and my grandmother came from Greece. They always noted how they didn’t have any problem with their Greek neighbors before the Greek gangs tortured Turkish people. The commander did his best to protect their families and folks, but when the Greek gangs came to their village one day, they captured women and young girls and took them to the mountain where they raped and tortured them. Women lived there, hungry and isolated, for 15 days. Not only that, but the Greek gangs also killed many young girls when they found them outside of the village. Afterward, our family came here carrying the baggage of their huge trauma.”

Man, 65 years old (Third Generation)

“My big family moved from Greece to Türkiye. My family’s financial situation was good in Greece, and they had a good relationship with their Greek friends and neighbors. Nonetheless, Greek gangs forced our families to take money and levied on goods and properties of our families and Turkish minorities in the villages. Our folks didn’t want to give any money to any Greek gangs, mainly because gangs would have used this money for buying weapons and killing other Turkish soldiers. They took many Turkish people from their villages and evacuated them to a mosque, where they killed hundreds of them in a terrible massacre. These victims were not even properly buried in a cemetery. Sadly, they were thrown into the lime pit near the mosque.” 

As these exemplary narratives reveal, the population exchange disrupted the lives of millions of people who were forced to leave their homes, families, and communities. Many people lost their homes, possessions and livelihoods, and they were forced to start over in unfamiliar places. The trauma of the experience left lasting psychological scars on many individuals, leading to feelings of loss, displacement and a sense of unbelonging.

Not only that, but the population exchange also had significant psychological effects on the communities involved. The exchange disrupted longstanding cultural and religious traditions and created a sense of loss and disconnection from the past. Many individuals and communities struggled to adapt to their new environments, leading to feelings of isolation, mistrust and resentment towards the other group.

In short, the Greek-Turkish population exchange had significant personal and psychological effects on the individuals and communities involved, as well as long-lasting implications for the relationship between Greece and Türkiye. The exchange had a profound impact on the perceptions of immigrants on home and belonging, and the experience of forced migration and displacement created a sense of dislocation and alienation, which impacted their perceptions of identity, nationality and citizenship. These effects were passed down through the generations of their descendants, contributing to a legacy of trauma and uncertainty around issues of home and belonging.