Pontian Greek Refugees in Corfu (1923). The Center for Asia Minor Studies Archive, Athens Greece.
Crying for your belongings, your stuff, your godsent gifts,
Abandoned, devastated, creatures, birds
Wherein Love ploughed, now Death is reaping
Lost is the homeland, lost is the nest.
K. Palamas, Το τραγούδι των προσφύγων [The Song of the Refugees], 1922
The history of the Ionian Islands is coloured by migration, by the assimilation and the adoption of foreign cultural elements, which gradually shaped modern ‘Ionian culture’
The Ionian region is a meeting point between the East and the West and for this reason, it has welcomed thousands of people over the centuries. Since the 13th century, families from the Italian peninsula, Provence, and the Balkan peninsula have moved to Corfu. Among them were the first Jews and the first Romani people traced in some of these geographical areas.
During the Venetian occupation of the Ionian Islands (1386-1797), there was a mass relocation of populations from the Venetian territory. Some of them were Greek-speaking populations, who fled to the Ionian region to be protected from the Ottoman invasion of the eastern Venetian possessions. A typical example is the case of the Cretan refugees in the 17th century, whose arrival altered significantly the islands’ culture and arts. New populations came as well, often encouraged by the state, from the Venetian mainland and the Dalmatian coast, in order to settle the - until then - sparsely populated Ionian Islands.
In the early 19th century, the gradual loss of the continental possessions of the Ionian Islands led to the relocation of a number of people from Epirus to them. The most typical example is the settlement of refugees from Souli and Parga in several suburbs of Corfu town. A few years later, numerous economic migrants from Malta settled on the islands, as well as many Italian political refugees, expelled from their cities by the Austrian authorities for their patriotic action. These people contributed to the urban planning, building, and institutional development of the islands in the years of the Ionian State (1814-1864), and they also strengthened the local Catholic Christian element.
Later, during World War I in 1916, Corfu emerged as the ‘island of salvation’, as it has remained in the memory of the Serbian people, as approximately 150 thousand Serbian soldiers and civilians found refuge there, after Serbia was defeated in 1915 by the Bulgarian army. Despite its shortcomings, the mobilisation of the state managed to cover the immediate needs of the thousands of Serbs for healthcare and accommodation.
In the same period, Corfu welcomed refugees from Eastern Thrace and Northern Epirus. More specifically, until 1919, approximately 510 people had found refuge from Eastern Thrace on the island. Their accommodation needs led to the requisition of property. The majority of these refugees had returned to their homelands until 1923 or returned with the 1923 Convention for the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations.
Refugees transportation from Kallipoli (June 1915). Spyros Gaoutsis Collection.
Refugees who were already in Mytilene seem to have come to Corfu in October 1921, following a request by the Municipality of Corfu to send 300 refugees as farmworkers.
Thousands of Greeks were forcibly displaced from their homelands, following the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 in Asia Minor. Their peaceful lives and their harmonious coexistence with the Turks – highlighted in several testimonies – were suddenly overturned.
Ευστράτιος Σπανούδης, πρόσφυγας από την Μάδυτο Αν. Θράκης, Θεσσαλονίκη
1999, Ιστορικό Αρχείο Προσφυγικού Ελληνισμού (ΙΑΠΕ).
The collapse of the Asia Minor front and the violent counterattack of Kemal’s forces cost the lives of thousands of Greeks and left an indelible mark on the people who managed to survive and come to Greece as refugees.
The Ionian Islands, despite being on the opposite end of the Greek territory, received a large number of refugees.
Corfu became one of the main hosting places for refugees, at the end of 1922. The Governement’s choice of Corfu as a place of temporary settlement for a significant number of refugees - by the standards of the Island - was not accidental. Corfu had a port that could accommodate the large ships carrying the refugees. Moreover, there were places available for temporary accommodation, such as the barracks and other buildings of the Old Fortress. At the same time, the small islands of Vidos and Lazarreto, which were at a very short distance from Corfu town, could serve as quarantine and isolation sites.
It can be argued that such a political decision could be associated to some extent with the danger of the Italian propaganda. In 1919, the fleet of the Italian allies departed from Corfu, along with the respective French and British fleet, forces that had participated in the military occupation of Corfu during World War I. However, at the time, the local authorities, and especially the Prefecture of Corfu, seemed to be concerned about the increased activity of the Italian consulate and the Italian schools operating on the island, and in its reports, both to the Police and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it refers to “the danger of distorting the ethnic character of the island”.
Decimated And scared They came, half-naked And bleeding And others naked.
Methodios Kontostanos, Πρόσφυγες [Refugees], 1922
The refugees arrived at the island, either individually, a little before or even after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, or mainly in groups.
Χρήστος Φωκάς, Κέρκυρα 20/08/2021, Αρχείο Αναγνωστικής Εταιρίας Κερκύρας.
The group missions of refugees to Corfu began in October 1922. According to the register of the Prefecture, the local authorities were informed on the impending arrival of the refugees by the Ministry for Healthcare.
Ευρυδίκη Γουναρίδου – Κιτούτση, πρόσφυγας από το Ικόνιο Μ. Ασίας, Αθήνα 1975
(Κέρκυρα 2022), Ιδιωτικό Αρχείο Οικογένειας Κατσαούνου.
Crammed in ships, often not knowing their final destination, the refugees left their homelands. The descriptions of the journey depict the tragic conditions they faced.
Refugee missions to Corfu continued through 1923, but also after the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne and the compulsory exchange of populations. The exchange in 1924 brought to Corfu mainly refugees from Cappadocia and Cilicia. Among them was Monk Arsenios (Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian), who led the people from Farasa to the island. Saint Paisios of the Greek Orthodox Church, still a baby, was one of them.
A committee had been set up in October 1922 for the reception and accommodation of the refugees arriving in Corfu. The Municipality of Corfu, along with the presidents of the communities, undertook to register these thousands of people. At the same time, registrations by the healthcare committees seem to have been carried out. These name lists of refugees were sent monthly to the Ministry for Healthcare.
Upon their arrival in Corfu, many refugees found themselves alone and cut off from their families with whom they had been separated during the flight. In addition to the hardship they were facing, they had to seek their relatives, to reunite with them, and to begin their struggle for survival. Searching their relatives was not easy. Some refugees continued for years through the Hellenic Red Cross seeking their people.
During the first, turbulent period of 1922-1924, Corfu welcomed and cared for thousands of refugees. Admittedly, that was more than this small Ionian island could host. However, despite the significant shortcomings it faced, it managed to carry out the enormous work of installing and integrating those that, in the end, made the choice to restart their life there. However, even those who left kept Corfu in their hearts forever.
And you came there and sat
In its castles in front,
From the earth where you sprang
Uprooted cruelly indeed,
And she opened her arms,
And you felt in her hug
Truly rested, in deep…
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