Memorialization Projects related to the Refugees of the Population Exchange

İstanbul, 2011

Although Turks were considered the dominant people with some privileges, the Ottoman Empire remained a multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious society until the 19th century. Following the loss of territory in wars and the weakening of the state, the Ottoman bureaucracy sought reforms that tended to centralize the state. This, however, was met with various protests, particularly in provinces far from the center. In response, the idea of creating a homogeneous nation gained traction among the Ottoman bureaucracy and the military class, along the lines of such concepts as Ottomanism, Pan-Islamism and Turkism.

After the proclamation of the Second Constitutional Era in 1908 by the Committee of Union and Progress, the nationalist party that took power gradually, policies aimed at the Turkification of non-Muslim Ottoman subjects began in earnest. During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the empire lost most of its land in Europe, and so these policies became more radical, paving the way for the Armenian genocide of 1915. Having joined the losing side during World War One, the Unionists fell into organizational disarray. However, under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's leadership, this political movement’s ideology continued to be influential in the context of Turkish nationalism. War with Greece until 1922 caused trouble for ethnic Greeks living in Turkish-controlled lands (called Rum in Turkish) following Greece's occupation of parts of Anatolia. After Turkish nationalists captured the Aegean Sea region, the clashes ended; confrontations between Turkish and Greek communities went on, nevertheless.

May 19, 1919, was a turning point in the conflict between Greeks and Turks. For Pontic Greeks, it is considered the beginning of a genocide. A century after Greece's independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, it started fighting the Ottomans in the Balkan Wars in 1912. Suspicions arose among the Turkish ruling elite that Ottoman Greeks living in Anatolia might devise a similar move. The Turkification of Asia Minor which targeted the Armenian and Syriac populations in 1915, was also aimed at Greeks living in Ottoman territories. Following the end of World War One, the War of Independence led by Atatürk turned its attention to ethnic Greeks living on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea, who are called Pontic Greeks after the ancient Greek name for the region. Their population in the 19th century was estimated at between 500,000 and 600,000 people. Attacks on Pontic Greeks by irregular nationalist forces (called Kuvâ-yı Millîye) were led by Topal Osman, who headed a militia in the eastern Black Sea region during the War of Independence. More than 300,000 ethnic Greeks were killed. In the subsequent war and the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923, it is estimated that, another 50,000 Pontic Greeks lost their lives. Between 1919 and 1923, historians believe some 353,000 Pontic Greeks died (Çilingir, 2016: 139).

Amid the genocide, the war between Greece and Turkey continued. This mostly took place in the western regions of Asia Minor. On September 9, 1922, the Turkish army recaptured the city of Izmir. A huge fire broke out, burning the Greek and Armenian quarters. 

The Treaty of Lausanne, signed on 1923 clarified the position of Turkey within the international system and resolved many of the border disputes of the new nation state. Turkey and Greece undertook ethnic and religious homogenization and agreed to initiate a policy of forced migration. As a result, approximately 1.2 million Greek Orthodox, of whom about 190,000 were Pontic Greeks, and about a half-million Muslims were forced to migrate. Although the countries had reached a mutual understanding that these people would not be harmed, serious rights violations took place during the exchange. The criteria for those who would be forced to migrate was not ethnicity or language, but religion. So Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks, the Romanian speakers of Wallach and ethnic Albanians were all forced to migrate to Turkey due to the criterion of religion. These refugees were subject to assimilation policies in the process, and some were homeless for years, forced to move between cities in Turkey. The treaty exempted Turks living in western Thrace in Greece, and Greeks living in Istanbul. The Lausanne Refugee Foundation, is a civil society organization conducting memorialization work about the unjust suffering of these exiles.


Çilingir, T. (2016). “353 Bin Rakam Değil İnsan” (353 Thousand- Human beings, Not numbers). I. Dünya Savaşı ve Sonrasında Pontos Soykırımı (The Pontus Genocide Following World War I) Konferans Tebliğleri. Pencere Yayınları. 

The primary objective of the projects carried out by this foundation is to conduct memorialization research on the collective pain and impact of the population exchange. Among its most important projects is the Refugee Museum, created with the municipality of the town of Çatalca. The museum exhibits historical and cultural objects to keep the memory of the refugees and their experiences alive in the collective memory of new generations. The objects include clothing, various instruments, music books, household items, kitchen appliances, photographs, documents related to the period and documents concerning property given to the new arrivals after immigration. The museum is located in the neighborhood where Greeks once lived, and the foundation is restoring the area in line with its historical fabric. A dynamic memorialization project is the Exhibit of Family Photographs in which descriptions are given about the refugee families along with their images. Recording and documentation are also among the foundation’s activities. In addition to the memorialization of collective grief, the Lausanne Refugee Foundation’s projects are aimed at protecting the cultural heritage that remained after the population exchange. The cultural and musical history of the places where the refugees formerly lived, in addition to their family stories, have been published in books by the foundation. And it works to further the citizenship rights of minority groups living in Turkey and in Greece and to invigorate their media outlets with conferences and reports. Aside from all this, the chorus formed at the foundation is engaged in artistic production. The Lausanne Refugee Foundation’s most important partner in Greece is the Asia Minor Center. Their collaboration includes reciprocal visits, which they intend to resume after the Covid-19 pandemic. The hope is to build a bridge between the grandchildren of the refugees living in the two countries. It is hoped that such a bridge would prevent future forced migrations.

The first statue to the population exchange refugees was erected in 2012 in Küçükkuyu, located near the town of Ayvacık in Çanakkale province in northwestern Turkey. The unveiling ceremony of the monument, built in the harbor, was held by the municipality and included guests from Greece. The Exchange Monument honors refugees from the islands of Crete and Lesbos, at the point where they first reached shore in Turkey and is a likeness of a photograph taken of a family dressed in traditional clothing 130 years ago.

The core purpose of the population exchange between Turkey and Greece stemmed from the need these newly structured nation states felt for ahomogenous ethnic and religious society. Due to this “necessity,” nearly 2 million individuals were displaced. The stories of the victims of this exile are now presented to the public with memorialization projects. The refugees who had to endure this suffered serious emotional trauma; many died before ever having the chance to see their homeland again. The foundation's work on the museum was an important response to the culture of amnesia and silence adopted toward this collective trauma. Similar projects preserve the culture and social history of the refugees to introduce younger generations to the human cost of nation state projects. Along with this, current projects are not limited to the 1920s, but create a platform for resolving some of the problems encountered by minorities today. Although the population exchange was completed by 1930, the problems minorities encounter have not ended. Since the two countries treat collective rights according to the principle of reciprocity, those rights have always been a point of political contention. This situation also placed those groups that did not have to migrate under constant pressure. The Cyprus conflict between 1950 and 1970 seriously affected them. Greeks were attacked, along with Armenians and Jews, during a pogrom in Istanbul on September 6-7, 1955. Many had to emigrate due to these attacks. In 1964, Turkey deported 13,000 Greeks who did not have Turkish passports. When one considers the fact that what occurred in the 1920s was not limited to that era, one recognizes that the foundation has a significant role in bringing the problems encountered by these populations to light.

In spite of the impact of the aforementioned projects, minority populations living in Greece and Turkey have major problems concerning freedom of conscience and their portrayal in the mainstream media with which they must cope. While relations between Turkey and Greece have at times improved in recent decades, the Cyprus issue and the continental shelf problem remain unresolved and continues to pose risks to the political, economic and cultural rights of the minorities living in both countries and leaves them vulnerable to potential attacks by racists. This is because these groups are often treated as hostages, rather than as citizens. A common demand of the descendants of the population exchange refugees is a visa exemption when they visit their native land. Although some institutions working for the rights of immigrants have started certain initiatives in this direction, and even submitted the proposal to the Turkish parliament, there have been no concrete results of yet.