For generations, Greek and Turkish communities have found themselves culturally at odds, but the newly-formed Portland Greek/Turkish Association (PGTA) at PSU seeks to bridge the divide.
The association, the first of its kind in the United States, hopes to create a safe environment for Greek and Turkish students and community members to conduct dialogue and explore their similarities and differences, according to founding member Dimitris Desyllas.
“We’re not just talking about issues on the surface, we’re talking about deeper issues,” Desyllas said. “The conflict is not going to be resolved until we get to the root of why we’ve been in conflict for so long.”
Greece and Turkey have a long history of conflict dating back to middle ages. The two countries also fought a violent and bitter war in the 1920s. Over time, a deep-seated mistrust and resentment grew, and signs of tension can still be seen today at both a political and a community level.
One of the major reasons for the strained relations has been the dispute over Cyprus, a small island in the Mediterranean that has been divided between its Greek and Turkish populations since 1974. The island has a long history of bloody ethic conflict between the two groups.
The PGTA was formed in conjunction with the Peace Initiatives Project (PIP), a program created by PSU professors Dr. Harry Anastsiou and Dr. Birol Yesilada. Anastasiou, a Greek Cypriot, and Yesilada, a Turkish Cypriot, founded the PIP as part of the graduate conflict resolution program. Studying strife and its solution within Cyprus as a model, outcomes could be applicable throughout the world.
Desyllas, himself a graduate student in conflict resolution, has worked closely with the two professors in developing the PGTA.
“It’s an inspiration to see Harry and Birol working together because it provides an example for us,” Desyllas said. “The simple fact that a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot came together and created the Peace Initiatives Project is a very big thing.”
Desyllas hopes to use the PGTA to create a model that other groups could use to address long-standing conflicts. According to Desyllas, it could be used by not just Greeks and Turks, but other ethnic groups torn by conflict, such as Israelis and Palestinians.
“We’re hoping that we can take our efforts national,” he said. “It is going to benefit everyone, including our youth, who are our future.”
Anastasiou is very optimistic about the PGTA’s ability to heal the rift between Greek and Turkish communities, and also hopes that the group will attract attention to PSU and provide leadership for other campuses.
“This is the first time we’ve had an institutionalized organization in North America,” he said. “PSU is breaking ground in this way.”
The PGTA, which began with only two members, has already grown to 15 members, and has events bringing the Portland Greek and Turkish communities together.
The most recent event, held on January 31, attracted over 200 people. Portland community members from each side gave greetings at the event, followed by speeches from Anastasiou, Yesilada and a graduate student who had traveled to Cyprus, then a joint statement read by the PGTA.
“Our past has produced a lot of pain and suffering for both communities. It has kept us divided for centuries and deprives us of each other. However, we feel that it is time for change by freeing ourselves from our past,” the PGTA announced in the joint statement.
“With the creation of the Peace Initiatives Project that Dr. Yesilada and Dr. Anastasiou brought to PSU, the safe space was created for us to come together, in an academic environment, where not only our friendships can flourish, but we can begin to address out common past through dialogue, interaction and cooperation.”
The Greeks and Turks in attendance were surprised by how much they had in common, according to Desyllas and Anastasiou. For example, both groups brought food to the event, and found that they brought mostly the same dishes.
“Part of the peace process is rediscovering that the cultures of the two people, though different, have considerable overlaps,” Anastasiou said.
Desyllas considers the event and the PGTA’s work so far to be an encouraging success.
“It seemed like a lot of the tension was gone,” he said. “I think we accomplished what we set out to do and probably more.”
Anastasiou also said he found the event to be encouraging for future relations between Greeks and Turks, and was particularly inspired by the words of one Turkish woman at the event, who had once been expelled from Greece.
“She said to me, ‘it is so much easier to love people than to hate,'” he said.