Greeks in Georgia, Caught Between Two Homelands
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Text by Tamta Jijavadze 

Photos by Tamuna Chkareuli

 

The large Greek flag hanging in Akhiles Chirahidis’ house is a constant reminder of his roots. And yet, as the 60-year-old quietly walks around the lanes in his native village in eastern Georgia, he feels as Georgian as the other 161 residents of Didi Iraga. For him and the few other ethnic Greeks still living in Tetritskaro municipality, homeland is not a straightforward concept.

“[I’m Greek] Georgia is my homeland, my home,” he says.

Chirahidis’ ancestors migrated to Georgia from Turkey in the 1800s during a series of conflicts between the Russian empire and the Ottoman empire - by 1886 there were an estimated 20,000 Greeks living in the country. During the next century and a half, the community grew and prospered in what became the Soviet Union. In its heyday, ethnic Greeks populated entire villages, specifically in the eastern region of Kvemo Kartli - Didi Iraga, Patara Iraga, Jigrasheni, Ivanovka and Vizirovka.

During the rough-and-tumble decade of the 1990s following the breakup of the USSR, the community migrated en masse to Greece, seeking work in their forefathers’ homeland where they were offered citizenship. Slowly, yet steadily, villages became emptier and quieter. The 2014 census sets the number of ethnic Greeks living in Georgia at 5,544, the majority of whom - 2,113 individuals - are scattered across villages in Kvemo Kartli.

Chirahidis also joined the exodus and moved to Thessaloniki, the industrial heartland of northern Greece and the country’s second largest city. He and his family got Greek passports and settled. His grandfather remained in Didi Iraga as long as he could, eventually joining him in Thessaloniki  in 1994. He died in Greece but he wanted to be buried in Georgia.

“I returned to Georgia in 2012 to bury him, it was his wish. It is also mine,” says Chirahidis in flawless Georgian. Today Chirahidis spends up to ten months out of the year in Didi Iraga, returning regularly to Thessaloniki where his family still lives - Greece has become home for his wife and his children.

“[Y]et they told me that they are going to keep this house after I die.”

Those who want to maintain a link with their native land return to spend some of the holidays or to register properties inherited from their parents or grandparents.

A former driver, Chirahidis is not entitled to a pension yet, and occasionally works as a daily labourer; in addition his family sends him a few hundred euros every month to support him. The garden also provides him with fruits and he produces his own wine and chacha, the strong Georgian spirit distilled from grape pomace, the residue that is left after wine is made.

“I also worked as a stone craftsman, that was a common profession for Greeks who lived here. That’s why all Greek houses are made of stones.” 

Akhiles Chirahidis. Like his parents, he was born in Georgia and he considers it his homeland.
Photos of Chirahidis’ family hang on the wall in his house. His wife and children live in Thessaloniki, where the whole family moved in 1990. They do not want to return to Georgia: both his son and daughter have married and settled in Greece.
A house in Didi Iraga. The owners live in Greece and, like many others, return here only during the summer holidays.
Chirahidis’ cellar. “I admire Georgian wine. Every year I make wine with two kinds of grapes – rkatsiteli and manavi.”
The cemetery in Patara Iraga. Almost all inscriptions on the tombstones are in Greek script. Chirahidis’ ancestors are also buried here.
Chirahidis collects old Greek and Georgian objects, often receiving them as gifts from neighbours. Among them are a tobacco rolling machine and butter churning equipment, as well as a sword and a rug that he claims were brought from Turkey almost two centuries ago.
The Greek community in Patara Iraga built the Church of Saint Ilia, Saint Elias in Greek. Today it belongs to the Georgian Orthodox Church and religious services are held in Georgian, including Ilioba on August 2nd, the day dedicated to the saint. “It is often called the Georgian-Greek Orthodox church, because Greeks built it and they continue to attend the liturgy,” says the local priest Giorgi Altunashvili.
Chirahidis holds a Greek flag. He spends most of his time in Didi Iraga, returning to Thessaloniki to visit his family for a couple of months every year.
A Greek bas-relief ornates a seemingly empty house in Patara Iraga. Many Greek houses sit abandoned, while some migrated owners occasionally come back to check on their property.
An abandoned Greek house in Patara Iraga has been turned into a barn.

A few kilometers away, Sofia Papunidi is one of the 100 people left in Jigrasheni. She shares Chirahidis’ feelings - she is Greek, but Georgia is where she was born and she doesn’t want to abandon it.

“My husband died ten years ago. I decided to continue living in this house, which we built together at great expense. I told my daughter [who lives in Greece] that I wasn’t going to leave my house, but after my death she could sell it,” says the 83-years-old who also migrated to Greece in the 1990s, only to return a few years later. “I was shocked. There was asphalt everywhere, even in the villages. I told myself that this wasn’t my home and that I wanted to live in Georgia. I was [born and] raised in Georgia. My place is here, I should be buried here, where my husband is”.

As for young people, they can be counted on one hand. In Patara Iraga, home to 173 people,  only several young Greek families with children are left and only four children with Greek ancestry attend the local school.

Sometimes, people move in the opposite direction, albeit rarely. Marina Tsiripidi, was born in Georgia like her parents and married Vasily, who moved to Georgia from Greece. After 12 years in Georgia, he has made the country his home - life is hard but he doesn’t want to go back to Greece. Unlike Marina.

“He likes it here, he works in the forest, collecting firewood. I work at the local school where our 12-year-old daughter, Afanasia, goes.”

Chirahidis wants to remains optimistic about the future, but it is not easy. His wife and children visit only occasionally, mainly during specific holidays that Greeks and Georgians share after centuries of cohabitation.  

He knows where he wants his journey to end - he points at the small cemetery.

“My resting place is over there. I want to die here.”

Sofia Papunidi lives alone in Jigrasehi. Like many other ethnic Greeks in Georgia, the now 83-year-old moved to Greece in the 1990s, but she said the home of her ancestors felt too foreign to her. “I’m back here, I returned to my country.”
Chirahidis stands with some friends who have returned to the village to check the state of their family houses, which are falling into disrepair.
Marina Tsiripidi, 37, in Patara Iraga where she lives with her Greek husband and her two daughters.
Afanasia, 12, attends the Georgian school in Parata Iraga. She speaks Georgian, Russian and Greek.
Marina and her daughter Afanasia in Patara Iraga.
63-years-old Alexie Perkulidi is a friend of Akhiles Chirahidis. He, like many other ethnic Greeks, left Iraga and went to Greece in the 1990s. But several weeks ago Alexie came to Georgia in order to register the house he inherited from the mother. Alexie Perkulidi has two daughters, they are married and live in Greece. But as Chirahidis says, Perkulidi plans to return to his native village Iraga and settle there. Alexie Perkulidi does not speak Georgian but he understands some Georgian words.

December, 2018 Journeys

Chai Khana
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