SOCIETY

Saving the stories of those who left

Hundreds of thousands of precious paper documents are currently rotting away in the basement of the International Organization for Migration in Athens. They detail the stories of everyday Greeks who left their country during the tumultuous decades of the mid-20th century. Those people went on to carve out new lives in Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

The migrants left Greece, but Greece never left them. One was the father of New York entrepreneur Georgios Stroumboulis. A year ago Stroumboulis traveled to Athens to trace his father’s journey from Greece to Canada. At the International Organization for Migration, Stroumboulis was able to locate the very document that enabled his father to make the long journey from Athens to the Americas over four decades earlier. It was a chilling discovery. “This piece of history signified a transition to a new land, the story of an immigrant seeking a better life and the prospect of a new family,” recalls Stroumboulis.

The experience provided Stroumboulis with a keen appreciation for his father’s struggles. But he was also struck by the fragility of that immigration form itself, which now hangs securely above his work desk. The IOM’s archive room was dimly lit and moth ridden. The documents were disintegrating, stacked haphazardly on the floor and available to the public only upon special request. Their future was less promising still. Plans are in the works to discard the archives – numbering at least 200,000 documents – to clear floor space in the IOM’s cluttered basement.

Stroumboulis felt compelled enough to act. In November of 2012 he founded Save the Archives, an initiative aimed at preserving and digitalizing the migration history of Greek immigrants. “I feel passionate about preserving these archives because I’m not an isolated case,” notes Stroumboulis. “There are thousands upon thousands of Greeks just like me with a similar story.”

To fund the time, resources and equipment required to digitize the paper documents, Save the Archives plans to raise 25,000 euros in the coming months from private organizations and individual donors. Once the funds are amassed, a check will be written to the IOM to hire and procure the necessary resources to see the process through. The work will take an estimated 9-12 months. Upon its completion, Save the Archives hopes to create an online portal that will enable worldwide access to the records. The movement can be followed – and contributed to – at www.SaveTheArchives.com.

The cause has drawn high praise from representatives of the international community in Athens. “These archives are a vital link to the past for Greeks of the diaspora in Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United States,” observed Canadian Ambassador Robert W. Peck. “I salute efforts to support this very worthy cause and preserve these precious archives for future generations.” Australian Ambassador Jenny Bloomfield shares those sentiments. “I think it’s very important that we all unite and we all become connected, because it’s a very important source of our shared history. It’s something that should be preserved into the future and digitized for showcasing both cultures in both countries.”

According to Daniel Esdras, the director of Greece’s International Organization for Migration, “there is a risk that valuable records of emigrants who traveled from Greece to a variety of host countries outside of Europe may be destroyed if the digitalization of the archive fails.” Much work still remains to be done. Thus far Save the Archives has raised just over 1,000 euros. Despite the current economic climate in Athens, more than half of those donations have come from Greeks within Greece.

The retrieval of his father’s immigration papers gave Stroumboulis a humbling new perspective. “The documents are a reminder of the sacrifices my parents and many other Greeks made to start a fresh new life. It represents a struggle that all Greek migrants have had to endure. I look at that archive and think how lucky I am – and how necessary it is to do better, be stronger and give back to our culture as much as possible.”

“SaveTheArchives.com is not only a movement to save the migration archives,” he continued. “It’s an appeal to preserve a piece of a story that every Greek living outside of Greece has endured.”