No longer the bourgeois ante-bellum provincial capital, the Athens that Gilbert Bagnani sailed back to on January 2, 1923, was much changed from his first year: grim, freezing cold and full of misery. On the streets formerly prosperous civilians had been replaced with armed soldiers and hungry refugees, and modern Greek by mutually unintelligible Anatolian dialects and even Turkish. As more boatloads arrived daily on any available beach with hundreds of women, children and orphans, the schools, churches, and even the theatres were filled with the remnants of suddenly destitute father-less families. Any available open spaces, such as around the Temple of Hephaistos or the bare hills around Athens, were occupied by thousands of refugees huddled in tents of burlap bags, shanties jerry built of five-gallon cans or caves scraped out of the hillsides.
Gilbert wrote on January 14 that there were 125,00 refugees from Thrace and Asia Minor crowded into Athens and the Piraeus, which at that time had a population of only 250,000. (The once prosperous cosmopolitan trading port of Smyrna with its 400,000 inhabitants was now a burnt-out shell.) During his recent trip around the Cycladic islands to Santorini, he had observed: “All the islands are full of refugees from Asia Minor … who spoke to me with much gratitude of the hospitality and ‘philoxenia‘ [‘kindness to strangers’] of the Cyclades. But they are certainly a grave burden for the islands, most of which are unproductive … and the boat was simply packed with them.” It was the first wave of war refugees who had fled for their lives from Anatolia in September 1922 and from eastern Thrace in October which now filled every available space in Athens. (By the Armistice signed at Mudania October 6, 1922, the Allies had agreed that Eastern Thrace was to be handed over to Turkey, subsequently a bitter point of contention with some ambitious Greek generals.)
By January 21, Gilbert wrote Greece’s Refugee Problem – Emigration as a Solution:
“Although, thanks to the energetic measures of the Greek Government and to the generosity of the British and American Relief Committees, the congestion of the refugees has greatly diminished and their temporary condition has vastly improved, nevertheless, the problem which these refugees present seems almost insoluble.
The question, as it now presents itself, is how is Greece going to employ in the future these million odd souls which have so suddenly increased its population? M. Politis, the well-known Venizelist statesman, has recently contributed a long article to the Progres d’Athenes on the subject. He considers that, however terrible the present situation may be, in the long run Greece will be the gainer, since, with the disappearance of that extra-territorial irredentism which has for a century disturbed Greek politics, and with the absorption of the refugees, the Greek nation will become far more homogeneous.
It would seem that the conclusions of M. Politis are correct. The Greeks of Asia Minor and those of Greece proper are very different in character and in customs, and Greece will certainly gain greatly if the former are able to add their characteristics to the mother country.
On the other hand, Greece will never be able to assimilate all the refugees. Travelling in Greece, I have been struck by the general desire to emigrate, and I have often been asked by my mule- driver to help him get an American passport. This is sufficient to show that Greece is unable to furnish properly remunerated work.
The unfortunate refugees in several places are forced to live on the generosity of Europe and America – but that is not likely to last forever.”
Appended by the English newspaper to this article of January 21, 1923, was a note: “Under Major Barton’s supervision, the All-British Appeal (General Buildings, Aldwych, London, W. C. 2) is feeding, in all, 20,000 child refugees and 15,000 adult refugees in various parts of Greece and her islands. Donations are very urgently required.”
Gilbert also wrote that the refugees from Asia Minor “are all violent partisans of the present government, and, far from being apathetic, are ready to express their opinions with considerable force. To them, for example, is due the practical exile of the most stable and most modern Greek politician after M. Venizelos, M. Sterghiades.”