Kurds Flee Persecution for 'Sympathetic Shores' of Greece

After a grueling seven-month trek across Turkey fleeing violence that claimed the lives of three family members, 13-year-old Nezlim and her remaining family took a midnight boat ride across the Aegean Sea, reaching what she calls the "sympathetic shores" of Greece.

Though her parents warn against speaking of their recent ordeal and prospective plans, she says with a whisper, "I can't wait to go to Germany."

That seems to be the hope of hundreds of Kurds washing up on Greek shores, not counting the thousands allegedly planning to set sail from Turkey itself, according to Kurdish media.

Refugees like Nezlim say they were forced to flee to escape persecution by Turkey's military in one of the globe's most enduring and intractable civil strifes.

The 13-year-old conflict in southeast Turkey has taken an estimated 27,000 lives as Kurds continue to fight for an independent state they want to carve from parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

"It is the Kurdish curse," Nezlim says. "We either fight or flee to live." The boatloads of refugees drifting to Italy and Greece in recent weeks were no surprise to Greek officials, who estimate that more than 28,000 Turkish and Iraqi Kurds have entered the country since 1994.

As Greece's Foreign Minister Theodore Pangalos said last week, "When we were sounding the alarm years ago, Europe was turning a deaf ear and blind eye to the Kurdish problem."

What is new, however, is the scale of the influx. But as the European Union ponders ways to protect its frontiers from the Kurdish immigrants, member state Greece is more sympathetic.

"It is the strongest diplomatic card which Greece can deal against it's archenemy Turkey," says Christodoulos Yalourides, a professor of International Relations at Athens Panteios University.

"By drawing European attention and concern to the Kurdish problem, Europeans may pressure Turkey to conform with democratic principles and human rights." Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads for years, squabbling over issues ranging from rights to the Aegean Sea to the division of Cyprus, he says.

In fact, the warm public reception the predominantly Turkish Kurds receive in the country hides more than just diplomacy or traditional ties of friendship, as officials maintain. It is residual hatred for the four centuries Greece spent under the strict rule of the Ottoman Turks, until winning independence in 1830. During that period, Greek dress and language, as well as the most basic of human and civil rights, were denied.

"The same is happening now with the Kurds," says Kaiti Piperopoulou, an English teacher and author of children's books. "We have to help them," she adds while carrying a carton of pencils and notebooks to the Kurdish refugee camp in Lavrion.

Turkey has frequently accused Greece of nourishing Kurdish nationalism and harboring Kurdish rebels in isolated training camps, a charge Greece flatly denies.

The Greek answer to dealing with the deluge of Kurdish refugees mirrors neighbor Italy's: Grant asylum to some, and allow most individuals two weeks to leave the country to start a new life elsewhere. Most, like Nezlim, will head north to Germany.

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