Back to homeland: ‘New locals of Imroz’

In the last 2 years, 15 families from Thessaloniki, Athens and Crete settled in their ancestral land Imroz. We met these “new locals” of Imroz, who are trying to build a new life and sending their children to the newly-established Greek schools on the island.


When the decision to shut down Greek schools in Imroz was issued in 1964, there had been 6 elementary schools, one secondary school and 3 pre-schools. 730 students had to migrate with their families. As a result of discriminatory policies started with the population exchange, 15,000 Greeks in Imroz went to various countries all around the world, especially to Greece. Only a small number of Greeks stayed on the island.

For a past couple of years, there has been new developments on the island; refreshing and hopeful developments. The first step for opening schools was taken in 2010. The application process was completed in 2012 and ministry of education finally gave permission for opening an elementary school. First of all, Greek elementary school in Zeytinli, which had been derelict for 49 years, was restored by the collective voluntary work of Greek society. In 2013, the school opened its doors. However, an elementary school wasn’t enough for Greeks to come back to their homeland and build a new life. It was suggested that a secondary school and a high school should also be opened. In 2015, it was done.

Last year, 11 students started to go the schools. Now, the secondary school and high school on the island have 26 students. 15 families, who are originally from Imroz but went to Athens, Thessaloniki or Crete, returned to their homeland, which they had been visiting only in summer. However, what could figures tell us? We headed to Imroz with the hope of finding out how these families live, whether students are satisfied with their lives and whether the families built a new life as they hoped.

From Thessaloniki to Tepeköy

There are still a lot of military areas on the island, but when summer comes, tourists pour in. There are about 8000 permanent residents on the island, but during the summer, the population increases at least ten times with Greeks visiting their homelands, people coming to spend their holiday and surfers enjoying the newly-developed surfing tourism on the island. On the other hand, the island is quite different in winter; an island where you only find a few open shops, lazy cats on the streets, locals, tranquility and quietness. This is one of the things that people who returned to their homeland from places like Athens, Thessaloniki and Crete should get accustomed to.

Moving to another country, and more importantly moving to a village from a city, is a whole new experience. Most families say that they had been coming to Imroz for vacation in summer, but living on the island during winter is very different. We asked the children about their feelings concerning the life on the island. A 11th grade student from Athens, whose family is from Zeytinli, says that he has no problem, though he gets bored sometimes. He says that he swims in summer and takes long walks in winter.

With the support of sponsors, a sports arena near the school is being constructed. The construction work will be completed soon, which is good news for students. The 11th grader we talked to says that he is very excited about it. What about future? We ask what they plan to do after they graduate from the school here. Most of them are thinking about going to other cities. The 11th grader says that he wants to open a language school in Thessaloniki. He also says that he loves Imroz very much. 9th grade student Panos has a quite different dream: he will settle in Istanbul and become a trader. Panos speaks Turkish better compared to other students and he thinks that this is because he lives at the center of the island. He became friends with Turkish children. Panos is excited to tell that they formed a football team on the island. For now, the team has seven players, but the number might increase, who knows? Panos is very energetic; he comes back with a paddle and asks if we want to play ping pong. Of course, he wins the game.

There is creativity”

The curriculum of the secondary school and high school are almost the same with the ones in Greece and students also take Turkish lessons. Students are satisfied with the education: “The education here is better; back in Greece, we were mostly memorizing things. Now, we learn with a better understanding.”

The school has 15 teachers for now, whose wages are paid by Greek government. Physics teacher Dimitris Frangatsiz is one of them; he came from Xanthi. His two kids are going to the schools on the island and he tells about how he came to Imroz: “High school’s principal Kamburopulos is my childhood friend. He told me about the school; they were looking for literature teacher. I said that I don’t anybody who can teach literature, but I know a physics teacher. I was tutoring in Greece for making my living. I thought that the offer for working here is financially better. My wife also liked the idea. She thought that she would love village life and she really did.”

New road at center of the island is currently on the agenda of locals.

Frangatsiz has a 3-year contract and his German wife who studied art therapy in Stuttgart offers art therapy workshop for kids after the school. Accompanying us during our chat with Frangatsiz, Principal İokim Makis Kamburopulos says with a smile on his face: “Kids here need both art and therapy.”

Frangatsiz points out that the difference between the education in Imroz and in Greece is about the administration and the structure of the school: “We have the chance to take care of the children more, since there are fewer of them. It is not like a public school; school administration listens to us and deals with our problems. There is creativity. In Greece, when you do something, the administration acts like you are obliged to do it. Here, when I do something for the kids, I feel appreciated. We can see the results of our efforts.” We found out he is about to get the result of one of his efforts: they started to work for establishing a science lab in the school.

Finding a job or not finding a job, that’s the question

In addition to tourism, animal husbandry is another important means of livelihood. Older locals make their living mostly from olive and animal husbandry, especially from subsistence animal husbandry. Locals say that there is state incentive only for factory animal husbandry, not for subsistence animal husbandry, which causes an uncertainty about the future of island’s economy. For 15 families coming from Greece, course of economy is of vital importance, since they came here also because the economic crisis in Greece. Labrini Ispilioti, mother of two, says: “We came from Athens. I was born in Greece and my husband is from Istanbul. I was working in a super market and my husband was an electrician. His shop was able to make living for 3 people before 2010. However, things didn’t go well. After the crisis, we were no longer able to make a living. In the last period, my husband was working for paying taxes and bills. Two years ago, we had to close the shop.” Ispilioti’s husband is working as a driver on the island and she works as a cook. However, Greece is always in her mind. “Though I like being here, I would go back to Greece, if I find a job. My husband doesn’t want to go back. He will start to do apiculture. If it goes well, we might stay here.”

Having a daughter and a son going to high school, Vula Paraskevi decided to return to Imroz after 6 years of unemployment in Thessaloniki. “My husband was working as a truck driver and we were having financial difficulties. For years, we had been visiting Imroz in summer. Then, we decided to come here for good. We didn't sell our house in Thessaloniki.” This is Paraskevi family's first winter in Imroz; they consider staying, but the children want to go back to Greece after graduation.

Coming from Thessaloniki 2 years ago, Yorgiu brothers are renovating their newly-opened Mira Cafe. They teasingly say, “Just photoshop our clothing.”

Lifeblood” of the schools: Yorgiu brothers

Civil right and work permit constitute some problems. Life is harder for the ones who don't have work permit. The ones having civil right have already started to make permanent investments. Dimitris and Hristos Yorgiu are among those people. Both were born in Istanbul and had to go to Thessaloniki once they were forced out of their homeland. Locals call them “lifeblood of schools”, because they were the first ones to come to the island and increased the number of students with 5 kids. At the beginning of the last summer, they opened a pizza place at the center of Imroz. When we dropped by, there was renovation work in the shop. Mira Cafe will be a tavern. During their break, we talk to Yorgiu brothers. Dimitris says: “In Greece, I worked as a wall painter and truck driver. Our father is from Istanbul and our mother is from Imroz, Dereköy. It was easy to decide to come here, since our mother is from here. The school was a plus of course. We decided to open a shop, since we have civil right. It is easier to make a living here; life is much cheaper.” They say that they didn't have major bureaucratic problems while opening the shop, but the coup attempt affected Imroz as well. After a summer which was not very satisfying in terms of tourism, they will understand whether the shop is profitable in the upcoming months.

Municipal officer Nikolaos KaranikolaMunicipal officer Niko

Well, what do the Greeks who have always been living on the island think about these returns? How do they feel about the new schools? We head to visit municipal officer Nikolaos Karanikola. In 2014, MHP (nationalist movement party) candidate Ühnal Çetin won the local election and one of the first things he did was to hire Karanikola as contract worker. The story seems interesting; a nationalist mayor and the first Greek municipal officer in Turkey. However, for Niko, this story is like a summary of Imroz: “We run for the election together. Once he won, he said, 'Put your uniform and come.' He was the principal of the elementary school before. Since he was born on this island, he doesn't make a discrimination between Turks and Greeks. He comes for celebrating our Christmas. 90% of the locals don't care about the party, they consider the person.”

He says that the only problem with the municipality is the limited resources, since the party is not the ruling one. We find out the most important problem for the locals: the stones of the crossroad at the center. The building contractors of the island came together and had a road made. However, the road paved with stones is a bit rough. Niko says: “In summer, there are a lot of cars. Our mayor suggested it both reducing the accidents and having a nicer look. People don't like it.” Later, we asked taxi driver Trifon about the road. His answer is rather indirect: “Well, I took my car to a mechanic just last week.”

Officer Niko says that schools are good, since they contribute to the economy and increasing Greek population makes the locals feel safer: “Winter is hard here. There are many old people living in the villages alone. Now that new people are here, they started to feel safer. Schools will be maintained, I think. People will come here eventually. They don't pay rent here; they have houses and gardens. However, it is harder for the young ones.”

Paraşkevi Vula Berber KatakalosWe are turning a new page”

Private Gökçeada Greek Elementary School is open since 2013. Principal Paraşkevi Vula Berber Katakalos is originally from Imroz, Zeytinli. She was working in Zapyan Greek Elementary School before and came to the island in the process of opening the school. Emphasizing the importance of the return of families, Katalakos talks about the past and present condition of the island: “In the past, the life was more isolated here. The people were reserved as well. In the last 20 years, tourism gave way to some developments. Now, people are more open. We are turning a new page here.” The curriculum includes Turkish lessons. She says, “They should be able to learn the both languages. We try to eliminate the difficulties that we experienced.” Katalakos says that children learn a new language more easily and there are some works for the parents as well. Imroz Education and Culture Association started to offer Turkish courses for the parents.

Soon, there will be a pre-school as well and this is another good news for locals. Greek society got the necessary permission for opening a pre-school for 3 children. Now, they wait for a Greek language teacher.

A people destroyed by negative laws can survive only with positive discrimination”

Principal of secondary school and high school Iokim Makis Kamburopulos took on responsibility in the process of opening the school and he is one of those who carries on the struggle. Kamburopulos was a student between 1969 and 1971 in the school in which he works as the principal now. His story is a bit gloomy: “When there was no Greek school left on the island, they sent me to Istanbul after 1971. I stayed with a family there. I went through a cultural trauma. Back then, there wasn't electricity in Tepeköy. I went to Istanbul, which was full of lights and cars. My family wasn't with me, I didn't know whom I can trust. After a while, my family came to Istanbul and then I went to Greece. We are the witnesses of the falling apart of Greek society in Turkey.”

Kamburopulos didn't visit the island for years. He started to come again starting from '90s. Then, he decided to settle in. “I don't regret being here,” he says. Only difficulty is the stress; he says that he lives like as if he is in Silicon Valley. Reviving a school in ruins, overcoming the bureaucratic difficulties, solving the problems of students, teacher and parents... Not enough time for too much work. Kamburopulos says that there are hopeful developments despite the current situation in Turkey, but he points out that they should carry on: “Culture of living together is very important. Even setting a minor example in such a tense situation is important. However, employment opportunities should be provided to parents. They try to earn some money from the olive gardens left from their families, but it is not enough. A people destroyed by negative laws can survive only with positive discrimination. This is not something bad. Some support can be provided. There are lands confiscated from Greeks that are not currently in use. The state owns those properties and they can give them to the locals for cultivating. 15 families came, but we want 15 more. If people see that locals have difficulties here, they wouldn't prefer to come here.”

Kamburopulos thinks that returns are not only about economic existence or longing for the homeland; it indicatea the effort for overcoming the traumas and will to establish a dialog: “We make our existence felt better. We meet people, we understand each other better. Living with only my culture and people is boring for me. I am very pleased by the returns and overcoming the traumas. Saying 'Turks did bad thing to us' without doing anything is nothing but avoidance. You cannot confront anything in that way. Starting to live together again is valuable. There is a saying in Greece: throwing a black stone to the back. It means to leave with an intention to never come back. Even the people who had no intention for returning started to come back. We shouldn't give up on our struggle. You cannot carry on that struggle with enmity. We have to come closer. If we make efforts for understanding each other, good things would happen.”

Lakin Vingas. Photo credit: Berge Arabian New paradigms for new generations

Chair of Imroz Education and Culture Association Laki Vingas is one of the most important figures of this process. He participated in all the efforts for opening the schools. We meet with him in Istanbul. Firstly, we ask him about his observations concerning the past and present of the identity of Imroz. He says that since he is not from Imroz, he can only describe the identity of the island as a friend of Imroz: “Systematic evacuation that happened in the last 50 years triggered locals of Imroz in a different way. Since they lost their world, education and social quality, they were not able to forget their trauma. They built a identity on the basis of what they lost in 50 years. The locals of Imroz who were stuck with a longing for the past fell to pieces. However, children of today cannot claim for the same identity. After all that happened, a softer identity will emerge; an identity that thinks about the future as well. This is what we hope for. Today, Turkey and the region is going through some difficulties. We don't know how it will end up. However, this identity would have been softer, if the things followed a normal course.”

Vingas thinks that new paradigms should be created for overcoming the problems of the new generations. Collectively-built schools are the indicators of this new paradigm. Vingas notes that nor regulations neither Turk or Greek locals of the island are ready for this. At the beginning, Greeks on the island worried that they will attract attention. He says, “That is why we thought that we have to create systems that will protect the new paradigm.” For now, everyone is happy with the course of developments. After the institutional developments, infrastructure works will start. Quality of education is one of the main goals: “I keep reminding myself this: no child should say 'I went to Imroz and got frustrated.' This is my concern.”