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Syriacs Migrating Home to S.E. Turkey

October 25, 2000

The following article was written by Mert Gozde for the Turkish Daily News on October 25, 2000.

Syriacs who had fled to Europe to escape the terrorism in the East and Southeast are preparing to return to Turkey now that the fighting is over. Mor Samuel Aktas, the Metropolitan for the Deyrulumur (Dayro d-Mor Gabriel) Monastery, and Malfono Isa Gulten say that many elderly Syriacs have returned while the younger ones are waiting for a sign from the government before they make the move back.

We witnessed a lot of activity in the Midyat village of Yemisli (Enhil). As we got closer to the crowd, we discovered that a group of Syriacs, who had earlier fled to Germany and Switzerland, had returned to the village where they had been born and raised.

We talked to these European Syriacs while they were waiting for the minibus which was to take them into the district center. A Turkish Syriac in the group by the name of Aziz Ercin had returned to the village permanently with his wife and children from Switzerland, where they had been living for the past 10 years. When we asked him why he had gone abroad, he replied: "Not a day went past without some sort of incident. They evacuated our village. We went out of fear for our lives." Before I got the chance to ask him why they had returned, he continued: "I never got over the feeling that I was a foreigner in Switzerland. I could not stand life as an expatriate. The longing for the village where I was born and grew up became too great. They can kill me for all I care, but I will never leave my village again. I would rather die than spend my time longing for my homeland."

Syriacs longing to come home

We also spoke with Aziz's son Ibrahim. He did his national service in 1974 and took part in the Turkish intervention on Cyprus. After being discharged, he went to Switzerland. He stated that from the outset he had planned to save his money and return to his village in Turkey. "One, two or three years, I thought. I have been in Switzerland for 22 years. I work in a solder factory. It's good money but I'm not happy because the people in Switzerland are no different from robots. Human relations are very weak. You can travel the world but you will never find people as warm and friendly as the Turks. The people here are a world apart," he said. According to Ercin, there are some 950 Syriac families living in Switzerland. Whenever they get together they only talk about Turkey and when they are going to return. Like Ibrahim, Besim Yildiz lives in Switzerland and is a Turkish citizen of Syriac origin. Yildiz explained that although he has been in Switzerland for the past 17 years, he has never broken contact with Turkey and reads the Turkish papers all the time.

Yildiz is pleased to see that the terrorism in the Southeast has ended and that there is a return to normality. He adds that the Syriacs more than anyone else want to see Turkey join the European Union: "Because that is when all the ethnic and political problems will cease. Turkey will find peace and take its place among civilized countries," he says.

Syriac villages in ruins

On the subject of returning to his village, Yildiz says: "We are all for a complete return of all our community. First, let the old and retired come back. Then, those of us who are middle aged and finally the younger generation. If we pool our resources, we can develop this village and district of ours. When we moved out, foreigners [by that he meant the village guardians] moved in. Yemisli is no longer as clean and well kept as it used to be when we were here. The houses and gardens have been neglected and ruined."

The Syriac youth, although Turkish citizens, could only talk to us with the help of an interpreter. They were born and raised in Switzerland and have become embroiled in Swiss culture. One of them, Tomas Yildiz, says although he was born and raised in Switzerland, he has never considered himself Swiss. He explained why: "They can give us Swiss passports, but they never consider us Swiss. My hair, my dark complexion, everything about me makes me foreign to them. The Swiss look at me like I am a foreigner. They do not count me as one of them. For example, there are some night clubs where foreigners are not allowed in. They class us as foreigners and do not let us in."

We leave the visiting Syriacs and go for a walk around the village. We come across an old man chopping wood in the courtyard of his house. His name is Melke Aydin. He says he is 100 years old and that he has been to Germany twice to see his children. When we asked why he came back instead of settling in Germany, he replied: "I didn't like Germany. I did not like their understanding of purity and innocence."

We come across another old man and his aged wife chatting in another house. The man says his name is Demho Ay, that he is 69. He says he left Yemisli some 25 years previously and lived in Istanbul for 14 years before going with his children to settle in Switzerland. I asked him what he felt abroad. "My body was there, but my spirit was always here. I have been a guest in my village for the past 10 days now. I have still not decided whether or not I will return for good. In fact, I want to return but I cannot persuade my wife to leave our grandchildren."

Why did the Syriacs emigrate?

While wandering around Yemisli, we meet Syriacs who resisted all the pressure and stayed put while others emigrated. One Syriac villager, who wishes to remain anonymous in case he should incur the anger of the village guardians, explained what had happened before the migration: "Our village came under attack many times between 1990-93. We don't know by whom. Most of the villagers fled to Europe fearing for their lives. Some of us stayed put and resisted all their attempts to get us out."

Infrastructure not ready to support return

We leave the village of Yemisli and set off down the Midyat-Cizre road in the direction of the Deyrulumur monastery. The young guide accompanying us fills us in on some information regarding the monastery and the Holy Mary Church inside it: "The foundations were laid in 397 A.D. and construction completed in 512 A.D. It took 115 years to build and has been an active church for 1,600 years now. Services are held every morning, noon and evening. There is a mass held every Sunday." Having toured the monastery and the church, we pass through to an area where guests are entertained. Here we are received by Malfono Isa Gulten. While we are talking, Metropolitan Mor Timotheus Samuel Aktas comes in. We learn from Gulten how terrorism led to a rapid decline in the number of Syriacs living in Turkey from 150,000 or so to the current figure of 25,000. Of these, only 6,000 live in the East and Southeast. The remainder live in Istanbul and Antakya near the Syrian border. Our talk continues along question and answer lines:

TDN:  Is it true that Syriacs who had emigrated to Europe are coming back now in greater numbers and are considering a permanent return?

GULTEN:  They started coming back in greater concentrations this year. ' To date some 2,000 have come back. They are continuing to return. They want to return permanently but they are waiting for an official invitation, a call from the government saying, "You can come back now." If the prime minister or the president were to issue such a call, that would be very effective.

TDN:  Apart from an official invitation, what other demands do the Syriacs have? For example regarding educational, broadcasting and language rights?

GULTEN:  These are all minority rights recognized by the Lausanne Treaty. These are common practices in the EU, which Turkey is trying to get into. Every ethnic group should be able to express itself freely. All races should approach one another with respect and affection and live as brothers. It was like this in the past and can be so again. The Copenhagen criteria guarantee equality among all races, religions and languages because there is no single race, religion or language on Earth. That would be against nature and God's will. Everybody should be able to express themselves freely, but with respect and tolerance for other groups. Of course, the state should have an official language. This is unavoidable. But people have different languages. This is part of the country's richness and beauty. The Syriac language is a rich and ancient language. Wherever archaeological digs are made in Mesopotamia, they find something of Syriac history. This is a treasure for our country. Why should Chicago University have a Syriac Studies Department and Dicle University not? This is a failing, I think. Dicle is in Mesopotamia. It should be the center. Rather than send my son to Chicago or Oxford to learn Syriac, I should be able to send him to Dicle University. That would be a feather in Turkey's cap.

TDN:  They say that the Syriacs who emigrated to Europe are not happy with the countries they settled in. Would you agree with this?

GULTEN:  I totally agree. Everybody wants to live in their own country, in the land of their fathers and forefathers. When they do not live in their own country, they feel grief. I don't just mean Syriacs either, because this is valid for all people. Whenever I leave Turkey, I feel like a foreigner. When I cross the border back into Turkey, I feel at home again and happy.

TDN:   If the environment you spoke of comes about, will we see a migration of Syriacs back from Europe into Turkey?

GULTEN:  I reckon so. Over there, they only experience the worst of everything. Their families have broken down and they have been unable to live within the social structures of the countries they have settled in. That is why they want to return. They are waiting for a democratic environment to be created. They benefited greatly from the gift of democracy in Europe. The moment they believe they can see the same benefits in Turkey, they will come flooding back. When they return, they will add strength to Turkey. Not only through the fortunes they have amassed, but through the wealth of knowledge and skills they have accumulated while abroad, too.

TDN:  Once that environment is established, will you call your fellow Syriacs back to Turkey?

GULTEN:  We already have. We believe that Turkey cannot go back, only onwards and upwards. It is in this belief that we have called them back saying: "Please come home. Take charge of your wealth and your property here."

TDN:  What expectations do the Syriacs have of the state?

GULTEN:  We constantly pray for the salvation of the state. If the state can be saved, so can we. When the state has problems, we too experience these problems. This history and culture belong to the entire world. We want the freedom to teach our children our own language, to advance our own culture. Let us take charge of our churches and our monasteries.

TDN:  What is the situation vis-a-vis your churches and monasteries and other historical sites?

GULTEN:  Some are still standing, but if we don't do something soon, they will soon fall down. Some have been turned into mosques; some have been destroyed. We had six or seven churches in one village nearby. They smashed the altars inside them. Yet, the state put the guardians there to protect them. They just ruin whatever they come into possession of.

TDN:  Those Syriacs who emigrated to Europe allege that the village guardians have moved into the villages they abandoned and have taken over their property. If the Syriacs return, will the guardians move out?

GULTEN:  Unless the state intervenes, the guardians will not give back anything by themselves. Even before we went to Europe, the guardians were constantly complaining to the state about us, saying, "They are infidels, they are this, they are that..." Their aim was to get the state to purge the villages of the Syriacs so that they could move in and seize the property that was there. In the end, they got what they wanted. The Sari village in Idil belongs to the Syriacs. When the villagers moved to Europe, the guardians moved in. Now, the Syriacs have applied to the courts to get their land back. They have the title deeds and everything. The state is not moving out the guardians it had placed there on a temporary basis. We escaped these invaders. Unless the state comes to our aid, how can we get back our property the guardians have taken from us?

Source: Mert Gozde
Turkish Daily News, Ankara

Mor Timotheos Samuel Aktas is the Syriac Orthodox Bishop of the Archdiocese of Tur`Abdin and resides at the Dayro d'Mor Gabriel.

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