ISS Greece, an adoption agency which once catered to thousands of foreigners who wanted to raise Greek children as their own, is now in the process of digitizing their records.
The organization, which once sent many thousands of children abroad during much harder times in Greece, now focuses its efforts on finding children for childless Greek couples.
But decades of sending babies and young children abroad to live, in the US and other Western nations, are chronicled in their records. And soon that information will be digitized and searchable by those who want to discover their roots.
“Our organization is one of the oldest NGOs in Greece, initially catering to refugees from Asia Minor (Turkey) in the ‘20s,” its director, Despina Oikonomou, explains.
The very etymology of the word “orphan” is Hellenic — from the word ὀρφανός, meaning is a child whose parent(s) have died, are unknown or have permanently abandoned them.
Greece’s many wars, genocides, economic problems, social chaos, and natural disasters caused this unwanted exodus, which has ended up enriching other nations and stripping Greece of many of her people over the centuries.
Genocide, deportation and persecution of the Greeks
Dr. Theodosios Kyriakidis, the Chair of Pontic Studies in the School of History and Archaeology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, spoke recently in a seminar about the many tragic stories which resulted from the Pontic Genocide under the Young Turks and Kemalists which took place from 1913 and 1914 onward in eastern Thrace in Asia Minor and continued in Pontus until 1923.
Widespread massacres, looting, deportations and persecutions of every kind were the norm for the Greek population of those areas at that time, resulting in an enormous displacement of peoples and the creation of thousands of helpless orphans. Kyriakidis noted that most of the massacres occurred before Greece even entered the First World War.
The surviving orphans were left after what the professor termed the “systematic massacres of the civilian population,” creating thousands of displaced children who had lost both parents and had been found wandering, sometimes naked, starving and cold, and who often died from these hardships.
Kyriakidis believes that many orphans were saved from certain death as a result of the work of social and religious organizations. Many of the children were relocated to Athens and other Greek cities and as many as 7,500 orphans were resettled in Corfu alone.
A total of 450 orphaned minors from Carpathia, from ages 1-12, who had been discovered naked or wearing rags during those times, were among the 15,000 that agencies attempted to resettle on Mt. Athos.
Of course, Kyriakidis says, it is impossible to know the real number of all those who were orphaned during this time, especially since so many died of hunger and other privations before they could even be rescued.
“Hundreds of thousands of souls were saved”
A projected total of orphans from the 1915-1930 era rescued by such American individuals and organizations, according to Kyriakidis, most likely amounted to 132,000 — mainly Greek and Armenian — children.
Kyriakidis could only say in conclusion that “Thanks to the actions of these individuals, hundreds of thousands of souls were saved.”
Unrest, deprivation during 1950s, 1960s caused Greek children to be sent abroad
The dark days of the 1920s were thankfully not to be rivaled again in terms of the numbers of children left orphaned, but later political unrest and economic devastation also wreaked havoc in the lives of the Greek people.
“During the fifties and sixties we were involved in intercountry adoptions of Greek children who were living in institutions as a result of both the Second World War and the civil war that followed,” ISS Director Oikonomou notes.
“We have a very well-organized archive of approximately 3,000 cases,” she states, before adding, however, that “maybe some more are still in storage!”
“Very detailed” adoption files still extant
“The case files are very detailed with information on the background of the children whenever it was possible and, of course, the receiving family,” she says.
“All of the cases were handled by some of the most qualified social workers of that time, and as such, the content of the files can be used for academic research as well,” she adds, making the records a treasure trove for anyone who wants to uncover more information on their actual origins in Greece.
“We consider the finding of somebody’s roots as the main service that the archive can be useful for,” Oikonomou states. “We occasionally get requests from adopted children who are now in their later years asking for information.
“According to the Greek law which passed in the middle 1990s, the adopted children have the right to this information. The process is accomplished usually, through a social service of the receiving country.”
She adds that, in order to make this often unsettling and unnerving process is as easy as possible “we try to ensure that proper counseling is done.”
Since this can, and usually does, involve painful memories of the past, Oikonomou notes that “At this end if parents (usually the mother) are alive we consult with them and counsel them before any information is given.”
However, she adds that, naturally, “Each case is different and we would not like to get into details of the counseling as such.”
Facebook post relating story of “Mr. G” goes viral
A case in point is a man who is confidentially referred to as “Mr. G,” who was adopted out of the country as an infant. Sharing his story in a recent Facebook post, the ISS shows how opening records can restore a sense of self and deepen one’s roots in the home country.
As Oikonomou noted in the post, this is “A real story, an essential need and an immediate goal!” encapsulating what the ISS is all about.
“Mr. G. is sixty-two years old today, living and working in Florida, USA,” she states in the post. “He knew from a very early age that he had been an adopted child from Greece.
“In fact, his adoptive parents had kept newspaper clippings that reported his arrival to the United States. When his children became adults, Mr. G. felt the need to visit the country where he was born, the country of his biological parents.
A need to “follow in the footsteps” of one’s parents
“He wanted to follow in their footsteps, to walk on their land and to feel its climate and atmosphere. In his adoption documents, the Organization that had undertaken the mediating in his adoption was mentioned,” she states.
“This organization was called the International Social Service.” All it took from that point onward, Oikonomou recalls, was for Mr. G to search the organization on the internet and contact it directly. And the Florida man was able to finally find out the story of his life, once and for all.
Greek law states all adoptees have right to read records, discover birth family
However, “finding the details of his adoption would not have been easy at all after so many years,” she says, “if the physical file of his adoption was not kept in the office of the organization. Each file contains all the documents that were used to carry out the respective adoption.
“Every adoptee who wishes to be informed about his or her file has the right to access it and to be informed about the details of their biological parents and adoption.
“The Social Service, which supervised the whole process, is obliged to provide, when requested by the adoptee, any assistance in the search for roots under the conditions allowed by law,” Oikonomou relates.
“The ISS, which since the 1950s has been conducting international adoptions (which were made with European countries, Australia and the USA with children that were in Greek State institutions) maintains an extensive physical record that includes 3,000 adoption case files.”
The importance of rescuing this valuable physical record is obvious since there is an immediate risk of damaging the valuable information it contains, she says. Fortunately, modern technology can help to digitize their entire physical records in electronic form and save them from the ravages of time.
“This is one of the immediate goals of ISS!” Oikonomou emphasizes.
Story of finding Greek roots “a common one” for the ISS
The joyous, heartwarming case written about in ISS’ post on Facebook “is a common one,” she explains, and it has elements of what often happened during these types of adoptions, when children were separated from single mothers or were orphaned due to the civil war that raged in Greece for years.
But of course, times have changed greatly for the better in Greece, and the situation now is the opposite, when childless Greek couples often need to adopt children from abroad to complete their families.
“At the present we assist Greek parents to adopt children from other countries (Africa and Asia) since there are not so many children available for adoption in Greece,” Oikonomou states.
“Greek parents do not have to abandon their children anymore”
“It is wonderful to know,” she adds with pride, that “Greek parents do not have to abandon their children anymore.” Still, childless couples face many difficulties and are eager to create families, so there will be no end to the demand for the services that the ISS provides.
“We are handling the issue of international adoptions as a measure of child protection, that is, to give chances of a better future to children that are living in institutions in other countries,” the director explains.
“We are still in the preparatory stage of the digitization project, trying to raise awareness of the public which will be followed by proper fundraising,” she adds. At the moment, the ISS is rounding up quotes for how much it will cost for such an effort.
If you would like more details on the Organization and its important work, please visit its website.