Are Turkey's Rums coming back?
In his mid-sixties with a career as a diplomat and academic, he decided to return to his birthplace, Istanbul, to spend the last years of his working life teaching in one of the city’s universities. He refers to Greece as a place he has physically and psychologically left behind, a place where he spent only a part of his life and he sees his current reunion with his own remote past as his chance to re-root himself in the same city, in the same neighborhoods, to capture his past in order to survive in the future. Is he a unique case?
I have had the chance to meet and interview many Rums (Greek Orthodox Christians of Turkey) who live mostly in Istanbul. I also found many more in Athens, living with their packs of photographs of old Istanbul and their childhood in the classrooms of Zografeion, Phanar Greek Orthodox College, Zappeion. But when I put the question to the latter, whether they would return to their birthplace to continue their life where they left it in 1955, 1963 or even the 1970s, I always got a negative answer; or at best a long pause of silence.
Although many have now become regular visitors of Istanbul and some even keep summer houses on the Princes’ Islands, the overall majority do not wish to return. The deep traumas of the past are still felt - for the older ones, a real experience and for their descendants, a shadow of fear - and the uncertainty of the present remains an obstacle for a “homecoming.”
So, the case of my colleague triggered my curiosity. Is this something new? Is this a new trend, rather than an isolated case of a disgruntled academic hit by the economic crisis in Greece which slashed academic posts and salaries?
“From my class at school,” he informed me, “there are four or five like me who are asking for their residency back. We have submitted our papers to the Turkish Interior Ministry and we are waiting for their response.” This is a whole new issue the Turkish authorities are dealing with, it is complicated and it takes time, he informed me. I learned also that there is a complicated bureaucratic procedure; a plethora of documents is required from the applicants. How many applicants are there? He could not give me a total figure.
Of course, I could not ask a sensitive question. Considering that he was born in Istanbul, during the early 1950’s and presumably was a Turkish citizen, did he then give-up his citizenship or was he stripped of it when he went or was expelled to Greece? Judging from his age, he could be among the “30,000 Turkish nationals of Greek descent who left Turkey permanently, in addition to the Greek subjects already expelled,” as Cumhuriyet newspaper wrote on Oct. 11, 1964. Just a schoolboy then and now half-a-century later he is presumably asking for his citizenship back.
I do not know whether this returning Rum will eventually be granted full residence or whether there would be conditions attached to it. But the most important thing is to see how many Rums would actually come back even if conditions permitted.
Only last September, a month after he was elected president, Tayyip Erdoğan, in his first official presidential visit to Turkish Cyprus, appealed to the “Rums” to return to their homeland, Istanbul. “Our door is open to our old Rum citizens and their children. We are easy on that,” he had said.
But it is not so easy for them. “The problems of the Rums, 95% of which are living outside Istanbul and Turkey, have to be solved. Among the most important are to be given back their citizenship, to be allowed to register their children to their schools, to be able to work and to be compensated for the damages they suffered when they were forced to cut themselves off their city,” writes Prof. N. Uzunoğlu, a Rum himself, living in Athens, who envisages a new Turkish constitution that would “heal the injustices that have taken place as a result of violation of laws by the state itself.”
I hope, too, that there is a day when Rums could feel confident enough to return to their city and I am eagerly waiting to find out what the outcome of my friend’s request will be.