By Manolis Kostidis – Istanbul
For the first time in the last 50 years the Greek population of Istanbul is rising as they are no longer leaving their city but staying.
Influenced by the economic crisis “plaguing” Greece, Greeks are leaving their homes and moving to Istanbul; a city with 15 million population that has experienced rapid economic growth lately.
Many of them are opening their own businesses or work for companies in an attempt to escape the scourge of unemployment and recession in Greece.
Meanwhile, dozens of students are studying at Turkish universities. Some learn the Turkish language while others attend English-speaking courses in private universities. Rough estimates indicate 800 to 1000 Greeks have already moved to Istanbul, raising the Greek community population that had fallen to 2.500 recently from 150.000 in 1923. This incoming flow gives hope to the Ecumenical Patriarchate that has for many years observed the Greek population of Istanbul drop rapidly.
Greek teaches coffee to Turks
29 year-old Stelios Nikolopoulos is one of many Greeks that left Athens a year ago and moved to Istanbul. Until 2012 he worked for a big company that traded and distributed coffee. With the economic situation in Greece being unfavorable, he decided to expand his trade in Istanbul as “prospects in Athens declined, as did my salary”.
He moved to Istanbul with his wife and says he is happy with work and life in the Turkish city. “At first it was difficult. My wife didn’t know any Turkish and mine were poor as I had left Istanbul at a very young age. My wife is now learning the language in a private school. There are jobs here and I believe with every day things will be even better”, he tells us.
Stelios Nikolopoulos stresses the Turkish market is rapidly developing and this interested him very much when it came to his own career prospects. He says at the moment he is not looking to return to Greece “until conditions improve” and believes more Greeks will move to Turkey. He has printed business cards with his name and when we ask him if any Turks have reacted to him being Greek he says “almost never, not now, Turks are over these issues and are looking to do business”.
They opened a pastry shop in Istanbul after losing job in Greece
Another example of migrating to Istanbul is that of Rena Laliou and Penelope Zacharakou. Both experienced the Greek crisis and decided to leave Athens and settle in Istanbul in order to open a café-patisserie with the Greek name “Kalimera Cihangir”. Cihangir is the are the shop is situated in the city center.
“I worked for a construction company and was fired two years ago. As you know there were no more constructions so I was out of work. I realized the crisis was getting worse while in Istanbul the economy was different and so I decided to do something here” Rena Laliou says. She reveals to us that since 2003 she had thought about doing something there.
So, along with her business partner, Penelope Zacharakou, they decided to open this shop. Penelope took Balkan studies at university and could not find a job in her field. She did however find a temporary job for a multinational in Turkey. She moved from Athens to Istanbul and when her temporary contract expired she actively sought for an opportunity. “Together with Rena we saw the interest there is for Greeks and Greece and we thought of doing something ourselves” Penelope Zacharakou says.
Their shop, “Kalimera Cihangir”, which has been operating for about 11 months, serves Greek pastries, pies, pecan pies and even frappe that Turks are not accustomed to. “Our business is going well. We are full every day. Turkish people are showing great interest in our shop and I feel as if I’ve opened a shop in Athens. I think I left at the right time” Rena Laliou mentions.
Cretan cuisine moves to Istanbul
Dimitris Pantazis and Irene Kouroupaki decided to leave Greece and start over in Istanbul opening a Cretan restaurant in Bebek, Istanbul, the most exclusive area of the city on the Bosporus.
“We took our risk and decided to come and we haven’t regretted it since. Instead, we wnjoy our new beginning and the beauties of Istanbul” they tell us.
Their restaurant is called Brusko and has attracted great interest since the day it opened its doors as Turks explore the recipes of the island of Crete. Thousands of Turks had grandparents in Crete that moved back to Turkey with the population exchange of 1923. Most of them left Crete for Asia Minor.
“A few years ago I didn’t know much about Istanbul. After a few trips I decided this was the city I want to live in and together with Dimitris we decided to move and continue our life here” Irene Kouroupaki tells us. After a very successful career in the tourism sector in Greece, Irene left Athens and rented a house near Taksim square, she got a residence permit, created a company and continues her tourism activities sending Turkish tourists to Greece.
Dimitris Pantazis, who used to own a high-class restaurant in Athens again with specialties of Crete, says he wants to show Turks the delicacies of the island and points out that our neighbors are impressed. He cooks himself along with an assistant who is Turkish. “Dakos, zucchini, apaki, meat with greens (stamnagathi) and other specialties of Crete leave them speechless” he tells us with a smile.
“What also fascinates them is the mizythra cheese they are not familiar with” he stresses. He also tells us his assistant in the kitchen is learning the secrets of Greek cuisine fast and is very impressed.
“Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, has an impressive economic growth in contrast to the situation in Greece right now” they say and add they plan to stay in Istanbul for many more years.
Education a serious issues
An important issue many Greeks have to face when moving to Turkey is the education of their children. Under the Treaty of Lausanne, parents of children that attend minority schools should be Turkish citizens. If both parents are Greek citizens and live in Turkey they cannot send their children to Greek schools like the Zapeio Primary and Secondary School, the Zografeio High School and the Great School of the Nation. Instead, they have to enroll in private foreign language schools.
If one of the parents has Turkish citizenship there is no problem. Minority institutions are now seeking a “formula” to solve the problem and raise the number of children that is declining in order to reinvigorate the schools on the return of Greeks to Istanbul.
Flights between Greece and Turkey at record levels!
Greek presence in Istanbul and economic relations have boosted airline traffic between Greece and Turkey.
Eight return flights are scheduled daily on the Athens-Istanbul route by Turkish Airlines, Aegean Airlines and Olympic Airlines.
Meanwhile, 38 Greeks are currently employed by Turkish Airlines as Greek pilots left their jobs in Greece and now work for companies in the neighboring country.
There are also flights from Thessaloniki to Istanbul, two times a day as well as daily bus routes from Athens to Istanbul.