The thriving Greek family in Jordan whose refugee story spans multiple conflicts

Jordanian-born Katia Tsichlakis tells Neos Kosmos the story of her family from Minor Asia, Syria, Palestine, Greece and Jordan: a story of persecution, resilience and diaspora survival through language.

Every Greek diaspora family has a refugee or migration story to share.

Some have more than one.

Jordanian-born Katia Tsichlakis is in the second group.

Her father, Elias, his nine siblings and their parents were Asia Minor Greeks who left Cesme, Turkey, at the turn of the 20th century, a few years before the Asia Minor catastrophe.

“Like other Christians, they were facing problems. So pappou and yiayia decided to leave for Syria. Cesme was known for its mills, and we are a family of mylonades [those who run mills] so they ended working in mills also in Damascus,” Katia Tsichlakis tells Neos Kosmos.

This wasn’t the only time Katia’s father would be forced to flee home with family.

Picture taken in Damascus, Syria circa 1920 of Katia’s grandparents from her father’s side, Nicolas and Andonia Tsichlakis, with four of their children. “They were not getting by easily, they were poor. A family of 10,” Tsichlakis explains. Photo: Supplied/Katia Tsichlakis

But not before taking his chances as a migrant just after the end of WWII, to the area then known, under the British Mandate for Palestine, as Mandatory Palestine.

“One of my father’s uncles, Dimitrios, had previously migrated to the US where he managed to make enough money to start a business. He moved to Palestine where he partnered with Palestinians running a flourmill and invited my father to come work with him,” Tsichlakis explains.

Katia’s Mum, Despina, also hailing from an Asia Minor family, who was living in Piraeus at the time, was brought in as a prospective bride for Elias.

The proxenio set up by family friends in Greece was a success.

Wedding of Elias and Despina Tsichlakis in Jerusalem. Photo: Supplied/Katia Tsichlakis

“They got married and were living in Jerusalem since 1944. My great uncle Dimitrios took them under his wing as he had no kids, and my father was working at his flourmill in a town near Jerusalem.”

They stayed in Jerusalem until 1948, when fear of persecution after their flourmill got burnt down, led them to leave again.

The death of their landlord in Jerusalem followed.

“And then my uncle got scared for the family’s safety so they left for Syria.”

It was a year of heightened violence and tensions between Jews and Arabs, just before the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

In a New York Times retrospective, featuring historians of both sides – Jewish and Arab – panel moderator Emily Bazelon describes 1948 as the year which “matters more than any other for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Uncle Dimitrios Tsichlakis circa 1922 while in the army. “The picture was taken most probably in Tsesme (Asia Minor). We used to call him pappou, we lived with him in Amman, Jordan where me and my sisters were born,” says Tsichlakis. Photo: Supplied/Katia Tsichlakis

“In 1948, Jews realized their wildly improbable dream of a state, and Palestinians experienced the mass flight and expulsion called the Nakba, or catastrophe,” Bazelon writes.

Tsichlakis says she had a chance encounter in recent years with a Jerusalem resident who shed some light into the flourmill burning incident.

“It was totally random. I was the tour guide for a group from Jerusalem’s King David hotel management. And as usually in tours they asked me ‘How come a Greek in Jerusalem?᾽

“So one of the things I told them was the flourmill story. The F&B manager then stands up and asks me ‘Was your uncle’s name by any chance Dimitrios?’ It gave me the goosebumps. He told me his father was also working there when Zionists burnt down the flourmill as there were Palestinians workers.”

Katia’s parents, Despina and Elias Nicolaos Tsichlakis. Photo: Supplied/Katia Tsichlakis

But when Tsichlakis went to tell her father about this, he replied ‘This is an old story. Forget all about it.’

“He never liked to talk about those times. They were rough times” Tsichlakis comments.

“Imagine, once again they had to go and start a new life from scratch.”

In Syria, where they fled, the family was not finding it easy to settle. And when a friend made the proposal for a common move to newly-independent then Jordan, the Tsichlakis family migrated there.

“My three sisters and I were born here, in Amman, and dad partnered with others to set up a flourmill again. And so life went on.”

George and Mary Tsichlakis. Wedding of Katia’s late uncle who lived most of his adult life in Melbourne. Photo: Supplied/Katia Tsichlakis

One of the father’s family, the youngest of the 10 siblings would end up in Melbourne, Australia.

“And he lived there till the end. He was married but didn’t have kids.

“I had never been to visit but my dad had. He was impressed with the place and would jokingly say ‘one day, I’m leaving everything behind and moving to Australia.”

Katia is working as a tour guide in Jordan.

Along with information on archaeological wonders, every now and then she shares with visitors snippets of her life story as a Diasporan Greek in the Middle East.

How her native tongue was the Minor Asian Greek or how she ended up attending university in the UKMaybe something about her first solo trip to Greece ending in marriage, a child and separation, up to her life today in Jordan and how much she enjoys speaking Greek to her grandchildren.

“There are a lot of mixed marriages here with Greeks,” she says when asked about local demographics.

Tsichlakis says that her son’s family has now taken the baton for finding meaning in their Greek heritage.

“My daughter in law is Jordanian but also speaks Greek and loves the country. With Tamara and the girls, they go to Greece every year, they read Greek mythology..”

Tsichlakis speaks four languages: Greek, Arabic, English and French.

“When giving a tour, I always respond to the language I’m asked. But with Alexy, my son, I wouldn’t speak another language. It was always Greek.

Katia with granddaughters Gabriella and Maia. The girls attend a weekly online Greek lesson every school year before visiting Greece. Photo: Supplied/Katia Tsichlakis

“I’d love to keep this up with the girls, but they’re young and I don’t want to pressure them.

“Still, I really like the fact they’re learning Greek.”

But language is not the number one thing she’d wish for her granddaughters to inherit, she reveals when asked.

“It’s great they know they’re Greek and they say it. It’s also great they are Jordanian.

“My granddaughters are both Greek and Jordanian.

“What I encourage them to be is their powerful selves.”