After fleeing the conflict in Syria with his family, Ahmed has rediscovered his roots on the Greek island of Crete.
By Christos Tolis
CHANIA, Crete – Syrian refugee Ahmed Tarzalakis has been in Crete for just a few months but he feels right at home in the Mediterranean island known for its rugged landscape, cuisine and hospitality.
At first residents joked aloud that Ahmed, with his bushy moustache, wiry frame and gaunt face could pass for a native of the Greek island. They were stunned when he answered back in the Cretan dialect that he had learned from his parents and grandparents in the Syrian enclave of Al-Hamidiyah, set up for Muslim refugees from Crete about 120 years ago near the border with Lebanon.
Ahmed, 42, grew up speaking Greek and Arabic, but he can neither read nor write Arabic, the main language in Syria. Now he has set foot for the first time in a land he knew from stories and songs shared by his elders at family gatherings. “This is the land of our ancestors,” he says, although he still feels nostalgia for pre-war Syria.
A stonemason by trade, he fled to Greece with his family to escape the approaching conflict. They made their way by boat to the island of Lesvos and then to Crete’s second largest town, Chania.
Ahmed suffers from a back problem and chronic epilepsy, which affect his chances of working. Ahmed, his wife Jasmin, 33, and their four young children moved into an apartment in Chania and receive monthly cash assistance under the European Union-funded ESTIA (Home) programme, which is run by UNHCR and has benefitted thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece. With help from UNHCR’s local partner, he also receives hospital treatment for his health problems.
“They are a link to the past in Crete.”
This aid is helping the family to start a new life and they already have an advantage because of their historic connection to Crete. Ahmed was born in Al-Hamidiyah, where his family had been living since the end of the 19th Century.
The small town was built by the Ottoman Empire as a refuge for Greek-speaking Muslims on Crete who fled to Syria during the 1897-98 war between Greece and Turkey.
“This closely knit small community of farmers, fishermen and traders held on to its Greek roots, especially with regards to language,” says Dimitra Kampeli, who manages the accommodation programme in Crete on behalf of the Heraklion Development Agency. “They are a link to the past in Crete.”
There is little trace of the Ottoman and Muslim presence apart from a handful of monuments in the island’s main towns.
Some of them are now returning, driven back by the war in Syria. In Al-Hamidiyah, it was increasingly difficult for Ahmed to provide for his family when the trade routes into Lebanon were cut off. He decided to sell what he could and risk the sea crossing to Greece with smugglers. In Crete, they found themselves in a place that seemed eerily like home.
“We probably belong here more than anywhere.”
They have settled in well. “The people here have treated us with kindness and respect,” says Ahmed. The family live in a modest apartment in central Chania and have reunited with relatives, including three sisters who had been there for almost two years. They have helped him, Jasmin and the children, who have been enrolled in Greek schools.
They face many challenges, including health problems and finding employment. Ahmed is optimistic about the future. “I know we can prosper and be happy here,” he says. “After all, this is the land of our ancestors. We probably belong here more than anywhere in the world.”
UNHCR, working with the government and local authorities through the Heraklion Development Agency, provides places for more than 600 people and plans to eventually provide housing for about 750 people in 134 apartments on the island.
“These people have been looking for a place to settle, where one can live peacefully and prosper,” says Kampeli. “May they find in Crete the safe harbour they are looking for.”