The Asia Minor refugees


 Kesariani was born through the flames of the Asia Minor Catastrophe. Since the spring of 1923, refugees who gradually arrived from the coasts of Asia Minor began to install casually in groups, into conical army scenes on the eastern side of downtown Athens, near Syngrou Hospital of Infectious Diseases.

 Most refugees were coming from Vurla. Others were coming from villages of the vast Eritrean peninsula, such as Sibrisari, Cesemes and Alatsata, or villages of the vast region of Smyrni, such as Vujas, Sevnichoi and Kukloutzas. Later a few families from Cappadocia, Constantinople and a few Pontians also arrived.

When Kesariani joined the city plan in July 1923, it occupied an area of 231 acres.

In this location a new life would start from scratch.

The first residential phase of the city practically began several months after the installation, and lasted until 1935. In May 1923, the construction of 500 wooden parapets and 1,000 brick-built rooms began. The construction was adapted to that of the squares.

The brickwork was the basic way of building refugees’ homes, as the brick structures were incomplete and promoted individual user interventions.

Specifically, every 10 or 12 houses formed a block of houses. At the center of each block, which was some kind of a courtyard, there were the (common) lavatories.

At first, the shortcomings were dramatic and the projects were proceeding so slowly that the residents were forced to take illegal action in order to house their families. The following excerpt from Panagiotis Stamboulou’s calendar is characteristic:

” During Easter of 1924 the refugees of the Syggrou camp broke into a warehouse of military material belonging to the army, and turned it into a church. On Good Friday they held a religious ceremony in the name of Saint Nicholas, with Papamichalis as the prime priest. Stamboulos was arrested as the main responsible for the burglary and he was jailed.”

Besides the simple refugee residence, in the late 1920s they began to build two-storey refugee apartment buildings. They were similarly arranged in the block, along the old military road -where the neighborhood would later develop- up to the spot of the square, and then until the elementary school of Venizelos. Later, three-storey blocks of flats were also built.

The class character of Kesariani stems from reality itself. The refugees living in Kesariana were cheap labor force:

More than 50% of Kesariani’s refugees were working in industry and crafts.

– Men were working as dockers, builders, dockers, loaders and costermongers.

– Women and children –in 1926 40% of the city’s refugees were under 16 years old- were working, for instance, in carpeting.

In 1930, 73% of the refugees were living below the poverty line.

The awkward residential settlement and the ownership of the houses have been the cause of multi-year conflicts between the residents of Kaisariani and the state. Initially, all residences were built by the Refugee Care Fund (Ταμείο Περιθάλψεως  Προσφύγων) and were granted free of charge as a social welfare measure to people who apparently lacked economic power. This changed in the summer of 1925, when the Refugee Recovery Committee (Επιτροπή Αποκατάστασης Προσφύγων) acquired the ownership of the Fund and forced refugees to make compulsory rent or buy the premises they were living in.

This decision led to angry reactions whithin the refugee world. Athens’ refugee clubs, mainly in Nea Ionia, Vyrona and Kesariani, decided to violently take over the houses, resulting in violent clashes in July 1925 in the settlement.

Throughout the interwar period, the residents of Kesariani will very often express their protests about the conditions they lived in, in a more intensive way than the other refugees.

In one of these sheds grew a great representant of the Greek song, Domna Samiou:

“[…] As I recall, since a was a child there in Kesariani, we lived in a shack. And not only us, but for a big part of the Asia Minor refugees that had been settled in Kesariani, from a certain point onward they had built us shacks.They had given to each family a room, a quay, regardless of the number of its members. I do not remember dimensions, 4×4, 3×4, I do not know, I was a kid. What I do know is that it was a single room. The sheds were side by side […] So there were six shacks on one side and six on the other, on the back side. A partition of wood separated us, made of boards. If a neighbor from a next-by shack was snoring, we could hear their snoring, as well as all the other noises, we could definitely hear them […]

My father had built an improvised kitchen out of a bunch of gaskets, next to the shed. He had opened gaskets to make a little kitchen outside of the shed, so my mother could cook, and we also ate there, it was our dining room. She also had a basin there, and every Saturday she would wash us and do the laudry, for my father, my sister and me. There was a large barrel in the kitchen where rain water accumulated, because rain water cleaned hair better. ”

Decorating the houses and taking care of the small courtyard was of great importance to the inhabitants of the poor settlement. A whole world of very deprived people lived in these sheds, and they were constantly seeking ways to embellish their everyday difficult life.

This explains the intense nostalgic mood that stains all the testimonies of the old inhabitants of Kesariani regarding that poor but authentically beautiful age that disappeared through the development of the city.

A half century later, Yannis Kouvas gives an enthusiastic account of the memories of his childhood:

“[…] The large courtyards, paved or not, were a paradise. Flowers everywhere, from jasmine and chrysanthemums to pearls (neighbors helped each other to grow flowers in their gardens, and transplanted flowers from one garden to the other), and there were also flowers planted in pots. […] ‘.

For many years, Kesariani was totally neglected. The construction of the settlement was occasional and had no central planning. The article published in the Acropolis newspaper (14 September 1929) on the occasion of the visit of the Mayor of Athens, Spyros Merkouris, to the settlement, provides important insights into the situation:

“The Mayor noted that the conditions in which the inhabitants of this settlement live are really bad. The water, which is distributed to the inhabitants, represented only 10 cubic meters until recently, and lately it has also started to be used by the contractors who are building the new buildings. The worst of all, however, is the outbuildings of the settlement, which are wooden sheds with wooden floors, with open pits. The smell of the impurities pollute the entire settlement, and these sheds also form a trap for those who enter them, because of the very bad condition of the floors. The excesses of the cisterns, which have nowhere else to be thrown, are poured onto the streets. ”

Water supply was one of the main problems. In the early years, the residents of Kesariani took water from the so-called “Vrysaki”, a faucet on the current Formion Street, near the current Caravel hotel, from where they transported the water with containers.

Just a little bit farther, in the area behind the Hilton Hotel, a pump was placed which sent water to a tank located on the street “Dio Aderfia” (today’s M. Karaoli) of the settlement. In 1929-1930, some taps were placed in public places and in few houses.

The sharp doubling of the population of Athens and Piraeus caused colossal problems. In the refugee districts, the question of infrastructure projects, street planning or transport routes was off the table.

Kesariani was exposed to thousands of problems that made its residents’ everyday life really difficult. An article in the newspaper “Refugee World” published on 30 October 1927 provides important insights into this miserable situation:

“With the slightest rain, Ymittos Avenue -from the terminus of tram 12 to the Kesariani settlement- becomes totally impassable.”

On December the 4th, 1927, the same newspaper stated:

“The streets of Eutychidou, Hremonidou and Ymittos Avenue become impassable when it rains, full of mud and puddles …”.

Finally, another article in the same newspaper on 26 October 1930 informs us that residents of Kesariani – Ymittos complained to the Ministry of Transport about the miserable traffic conditions in their settlement, and requested cars from the company “Puer” in order to serve a population of 40,000 people.

After deploying intense efforts, the first school, now known as “old school”, was set up in 1924-1925. It was a brick-built building near the river of Iridanus, and looked more like a shack than a school.

Due to the inadequacy, the request for the establishment of a new school complex was pressing, and although the proceedings were completed relatively soon, the inauguration only took place in 1929.

Unlike Kesariani’s school, the Vyron School –althoug Vyron had half the population of Kesariani- had 1,300 pupils, in a school complex that had a capacity of only 1,000 pupils. It was named “Venizelos School” in recognition to the wife of  Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, Elena, who fully took over the expenses of erection.

Special mention should be made of the school that was founded in Kesariani and was serving disabled people. It is the current Special Experimental Specialized School, the first of its kind to have functioned in Greece and continues to the present day its important function.

We owe its foundation to the great educator and fighter of the National Resistance, Rosa Imvriotis.

Kesariani has never lacked entertainment and collectivity. As mentioned above, the Asia Minor refugees settled in Kesariani were active people who did not give up easily, despite the enormous problems they faced.

The first football pitch created was located on one side of the Skopeftirio parc, and they called it “Koroivo”. They usually used stones to mark goalposts.

Since 1924, while the refugees were struggling for survival, the first independent clubs with names appear, such as:

“Tiger”, “Unbeaten”, “Armenian Union”, “Hercules” and others.

The first athletic club of Kesariani was officially founded in 1927, by the American Near-East Relief Charity Organization. It was named Near-East.

The foundation of the “Public Model Children’s Gym”, known as the Near East, contributed significantly in the development of Kesariani’s remarkable sporting activity.

(More information available on the website of the Asia Minor Culture Center)