In one of Istanbul's numerous chic cafes in the central Beyoglu district, Eleni Varmazi sits drinking a coffee, savoring city life. Varmazi teaches media studies at one of Istanbul's numerous private English-speaking universities. She’s also a member of the vanguard of Greeks coming to Turkey to work.
"With the [economic] crisis in Greece there is no chance of work for young academics like me," Varmazi said, " I applied to the UK, to Brussels in the European Union … even to Ireland (Laughing).”
With Istanbul only a 5-hour drive away from her homeland, Varmazi eventually came to see Turkey as a possible employment destination, and, before long, she landed a job, "It is even more convenient than trying to find a job in London or in Berlin,” she said. “It is closer. You can go back for weekends. I know two or three people who have moved here and found a job, and I am sure there are a lot more."
Varmazi's story is remarkable considering that for decades Greece and Turkey were hostile neighbors, even though they are NATO allies. The two states reached the brink of armed confrontation on numerous occasions -- last time in 1996 amid a squabble over two uninhabited Aegean Sea islets. But those days of high tension now seem finally consigned to the annals of history.
"We are nowhere close to the very difficult circumstances of the late 90s. … Students from Greece are now even coming to Istanbul to learn Turkish," said Ioannis Grigoriadis, a Greek international relations expert.
Grigoriadis is one of the growing number of Greeks working in Turkey, teaching at Ankara's Bilkent UniversIty. He is so settled in Turkey that he has bought a house In Istanbul's Ballat area, the city's ancient Greek quarter. His family originally came from Turkey but moved to Greece like vast majority of the country's Greek minority because of bilateral tension.
Turkish television programming is helping to solidify the rapprochement trend, said Grigoriadis. "In the last year a very popular television series from Turkey attracted a very high rating on Greek TV. … People [in Greece] understand Turkey is many things, of course there are dark sides like in many countries. So things are moving to a more balanced approach."
Perhaps more important than the number of Greeks coming to work in Turkey, Greek tourism is booming. Over a million Greeks per year have visited Istanbul in recent years. "We love Istanbul. We have memories because a lot of Greek people lived here. We grew up listening to so many stories about Istanbul. So it is nice to visit it," said 22-year-old Maria, who recently visited as part of a tour group from Athens.
Greeks, or as they are called here Rum, once comprised a quarter of Istanbul's population. But now they number only a couple of thousand. At the recent opening of an exhibition celebrating Greek architecture in Istanbul, a first for the city in recent memory, Greek not Turkish was the predominant language. Joining Turkish Greeks were Greeks who had recently moved to the city, some of whom are looking for work.
One attendee, Laki Vingas, is a successful businessman and senior member of city's Greek community. For him an exhibition celebrating the city's Greek community is an indication of how far the Greek community has come since the darkest days of the last century. Not too long ago Greeks in Istanbul "were trying to hide their name, their religion, their identity," Vingas said. "Now they are saying this openly. Unfortunately it was a very bad century, the 20th century. So we feel the 21 century is a turning point for us."
Signs of the Greek community’s population collapse still abound. Istanbul's Zografeion Greek High School is one of the city's largest, featuring 40 class rooms, but the school has less than 100 students. Empty classrooms line quiet halls.
Whereas in the not too distant past, it was common for graduates to leave immediately for jobs and a future in Greece, now the talk is more about staying. "I want to become a translator at university in Turkey because I was born here, I am living here, I love Istanbul, I have friends here, and I don't want to leave them. I want my future here," said 17-year-old Natisa.
A recent study by the Washington, DC,-based Brooking Institution ranked Istanbul among the top cities in the world “for offering the best economic opportunities.” Such findings suggest that the long decline of Istanbul’s Greek community could quickly give way to a boom.
Varmazi, for one, says she has no plans to return to Greece, especially since family pressure to return has stopped. "Now that I am here everybody tells me; ‘don't you dare come back.’ Even my parents say that. They say stay there, try and keep your job as long as you can. Every time I go back to Greece, I feel there is an interest of people looking for a job."
There are no official figures of how many Greeks are working in Istanbul, although the numbers are believed still to be small. But a decade ago it would have been unthinkable for most Greeks even to consider working in Turkey. That taboo seems over.
Dorian Jones is a freelance journalist living in Turkey.
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