Stella Karachristianidou holds a diploma of Greek Philology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, with a focus on Medieval and Modern Greek Language and Literature. Today, as she decided to live in Istanbul, she demonstrates remarkable efforts in establishing a cultural dialogue between societies by teaching Greek language to Turkish people. Read on to learn more about her journey.
As a Greek who has already experienced living in Greece, England, Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey, how would you define the cultural characteristics of those varying societies?
Ι think that each society has unique cultural characteristics. England, Netherlands and Germany have more similarities. For example, people there are more open to diversity and act more independently. Even though they are aware of their traditions, they tend to adopt a more modern lifestyle. On the contrary, young people in Greece and Turkey have stronger bonds with traditions, even if they try not to, because societies in these countries make a hard effort to keep them alive. And for sure, Turkey and Greece share many cultural elements in music, food, behaviours which I think every Greek and Turkish person can identify.
Just as Baklava aims, you also foster a collaboration between Greek and Turkish population. How does art function in the creation of an intercultural dialogue?
Art is part of human nature and is not restricted by the meaning of borders. It can communicate universal messages. Therefore, it can work easily as means of dialogue between people from different cultural backgrounds. Despite, in order to understand the messages of art, you do not need to speak the same language. For example, Turkish people love Greek music and Greek population tends more and more to watch Turkish series because probably these two societies are into each other’s culture. So every kind of art can bring closer different societies.
As far as we know, you do not define yourself as part of the minority communities in Turkey. How did you decide on working with the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul? Do you have any particular reason for choosing such path?
I am not a minority member because I was not born here. But I would like to consider myself as part of the Greek minority, since I am Greek, and I live here now. So I think for every Greek who comes here, it is one of his / her first options to collaborate with people who speak at least the same language and they can serve in positions for which they have the necessary qualifications. I started working at a minority newspaper here in Istanbul and then, RUMVADER, the main representative body of the whole community, had a need for a person with experience in EU projects. That period, I had just returned from Germany where I attended a 2-month training on cultural management and I believe this was the best opportunity to contribute to the general effort of the minority to communicate their culture and their rights.
Apart from the projects you have been conducting and participating in recent years, you also put effort in teaching Greek language and culture as well. How did this journey begin?
I studied Medieval and Modern Greek Language and Literature. I came to Istanbul 5 years ago to do my internship at the Consulate General of Greece. Almost immediately, I realized the general interest of the Turkish people for the Greek language and culture. So, the moment I decided to live here, I knew that I want to be part of all this effort of creating a cultural dialogue by teaching the language.
You have held a series of language workshops at Kiraathane in Istanbul. Is there any thematic purpose of those ateliers? Do you think you have achieved the level that you aimed?
I am setting the goal of each workshop according to the motivation of the participants. This time, the participants are learning Greek for touristic reasons, let’s say. Most of them want to have conversations with the locals when they go to Greece. Therefore, at the moment, I set as a goal to teach them simple forms and words with which they can have a simple every-day dialogue. We should not forget that Turkish and Greek as languages do not have many similarities in language forms and grammar. We have common words but, still, new learners should devote more time and effort in learning Greek than it would be needed for another language. The workshop is not completed, but I think that we are in a very good level.
In terms of values and the way people behave, could you go for a comparison between Greece and Turkey? What has brought your attention so far?
I believe one of the main differences is the general attitude towards women. Even though, there is an on-going struggle for gender equality, you can evidence in every-day life the unequal treatment of women. This is what first shocked me. It is different to know it as information and different to experience it. I am not saying that gender-equality is implemented in every field in Greece. But, for sure, women are confident that they can find support when is needed.
Also, people who live in this country cannot find their inner peace. At least, the people with whom I am in contact, are constantly worried and feeling insecure for the future. I think it is the same feeling that Greeks had during economic crisis. Hopefully, things for Turkey will be better in the future, too.
What kind of an attitude you have in terms of minority rights within the scope of fundamental rights? In your point of view, which specific point must be urgently improved for the rights of minorities in Greece and Turkey?
I think that the role of every human rights defender should also be to ensure that the rights of national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities are highlighted and taken into account. We should bear in mind that minorities enrich the societies of each and every country in the world. Especially, Greek and Turkish minority’s status in Turkey and Greece respectively was shaped by a clear historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire and historical bilateral agreements concerning minorities in Turkey – namely the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. While the last decade, several reform packages have dealt with minorities’ problems, minority rights abuses still weaken minority foundations and the integration of minorities into the dominant social and political structures. I believe that the Turkish minority in Greece face less problems. I do not want to underestimate their importance, but the history shows that the Greek population faced in the past serious abolition of their rights with a result of the current situation which is the Greek community to fight for its survival given such dwindled demographic numbers which have a direct effect on the community’s participation to the civic life of their country as active citizens.
Unfortunately, these citizens are not received as equals. Due to the Lausanne Treaty, these people are used for mutual agreements between the countries which I think is totally unfair. These people have the same responsibilities and same duties as the other citizens, but they are not conceived like this.
How do you handle the rough times during your research and language projects in Istanbul? Have you faced with an issue that made you feel like you cannot get over it?
I am happy because until now, I did not face major difficulties. I am grateful, though, because, I had people who supported me in every step of the projects I implemented. So, whenever I had difficulties, they were also there and helped me by exchanging ideas and finding solutions.
Have your ever received a comment/message that you have never forgotten from the people you engaged via your projects and courses? If so, could you share one of them with Baklava followers?
During the implementation of the EU project :Bridging the Gap, building together a common future that the Association for the Support of the Greek Foundation (RUMVADER) implemented last year, there were many participants of our activities in cities of Turkey apart from Istanbul that they expressed their lack of knowledge for the Greek minority in Turkey. Of course, now, the Greek population´s numbers are small, but still they are part of Turkey’s multiculturalism. This shows something about the education that young people receive nowadays in Turkey. I should stress that young people were always eager to learn and discuss. So, they need the proper stimulus and they were open to develop an intercultural dialogue. It is normal to afraid the unknown, the ‘other’, but if you come closer and start a conversation, you will realize that there are more things that unite us than the ones which separate us apart.
In the light of your experiences and dialogues in Istanbul, what can you say about the overall situation about ethnic and religious minorities and their future?
I believe that you do not need to be a minority member to realize the fact that minorities in Turkey are facing persisting difficulties and problems. I will express my view mainly for the Greek minority because basically I live and work with them. I cannot talk about the other minorities, but, for sure, Greek community is needed to be supported by younger members and new people with vision, who will set new goals and find new motivations to actively implement the necessary actions to address the problems that the Greek community continues to face. Moreover, demographically speaking there is a real threat to the Greek community’s survival, a community with historic ties to this land and the effects of the loss of Greek culture will greatly affect the cultural identity of Turkey. In order to reverse this, first the state and public actors need to contribute by helping to overcome a series of legal obstacles that exist and make it unable to fully incorporate new members into community’s internal structures. We cannot forget that the current situation of the community is close related to decisions that the state took in the past. Second, the community itself need to overcome the old structures and start thinking productive collaborations and strategic plans which can efficiently handle the challenges that Christian communities face today. It is true that some members of the Greek community has steadily started to conduct activities to outreach to the general public and to enhance the capacities of its individual members since 2012. In particular, RUMVADER, the main representative body of the whole community, implemented its first EU funded project “Minority Citizens-Equal Citizens” from 2012 to 2015 targeting its own members in an effort to raise their awareness on the internal affairs and challenges that the community has to fight for and build their confidence in expressing itself coherently, constructively and effectively in political processes at every level. After that, the Yenikoy Greek Orthodox Community implemented another EU funded project entitled “Social Media and Minorities” with the aim to investigate the social media usage habits of minorities, to inspect the role of social media in social relations and the determine the obstacles against the recognition of differences in social media and freedom of expression. In 2016, RUMVADER started the implementation of its second EU funded project, “Bridging the gap, building together a common future,” contributing greatly to an increased respect and understanding for minority communities and pluralism in Turkey. Nevertheless, the results of these Actions will be feasible as long as the Greek community will continue to count members and to be active in civic life.