February 10, 2011

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Yes Virginia: Modern Heroes Do Exist: The Story of Hara Nikopoulou

Hara Nikopoulou: “Ellinas Genniese Den Ginese.” 

Please allow me to share with an important story with you.In today's hustle and bustle world, many educators do not bother asking their students who their heroes are because many of the students have such a hard time coming up with someone they look up to or admire. Once too often, when you ask a child who they admire, they will describe someone to you who has made a lot of money, acquired a fancy car and is living the good life. It is not their fault really, children do not not know how these people made it all they know is that this individual has what they hope to have someday.  Unfortunately dear friends, the media tells us who our heroes should and should not be and they generally include celebrities, athletes, and television movie stars. But we very well know that these are not the heroes we want our children looking up to. They should be rather looking at common everyday people, who commit themselves for the better good of their communities. Yes Virginia: Modern day heroes do exist and I will prove this with my story about Hara Nikolopoulou.

The Story of Hara Nikopoulou

More and more alarming information about the results of an education policy which has been pursued for years in the minority areas in Thrace is surfacing. News reports and television shows recently featured one such case about a heroic teacher named Hara Nikopoulou. We can honestly describe her as a modern hero or simply someone who children can look up to. 

Hara is the daughter of a Chairman of the Supreme Court of Greece, and runs by the motto "you are born Greek, you cannot be made Greek" (Ellinas Genniese Den Ginese).

Not wanting to serve in her father’s office, or get set up in the public system altogether, she rather preferred to dedicate her life to teaching. After finishing with her studies and marrying her sweetheart, she decided to relocate to the outskirts of the country in an area of Greece that certainly did not poses the cosmopolitan flare of the city… but that rather possessed the potential she sought to fulfill her thirst for teaching.  She set up her new life in Dereio, Rodopi in Thrace and this is where this heroin’s Odyssey begins…

Watch the full show at this link -

The Current Situation in Thrace

Against Turkish propaganda, which calls the whole Muslim minority of Thraki as strictly Turkish in origin, the current Muslim minority in this area of Greece is divided into several different ethnic origins, mostly Pomak, Roma and Turkish. 

Turkish revisionists declare that although each of the aforementioned groups have their own language and culture, they should still be represented by one National identity, because the Treaty of Lausanne (check article further down) defines them as one Muslim minority rather than three separate ones. That might be a nice little trick by the neighbouring country to deceive uneducated minds… but the Treaty of Lausanne cannot be reconstructed, rewritten or interpreted in any which way or manner to serve their needs.

Knowing this, and taking full advantage of the situation, some say that Turkey has for many years forcefully pushed a Turkish ethnic identity upon the Pomak and Roma communities here, in an act of what they claim to be is an “ethnic discrimination” of their communities by the Greek state. Just for the record, the Muslim minority in Greece is protected against discrimination and promised religious freedom in the Greek constitution under Articles 5 and 13.

What Interests Do Turks Have in Thrace? 

In his book "The Confrontation”, Walid Fares, a Lebanese expert on Islam, says that Turkey wants to re-establish the Ottoman Caliphate and take over all of the Balkans. One simple way to materialize on its plans is to isolate the prefecture of Thraki and then make it demand autonomy. 

Thraki is home to three muftis, roughly 270 imams and 300 functioning mosques. By 2002, nearly 250 officials from the Muslim municipal and prefecture and mayors were elected in local elections here. Of course the same cannot be said for the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, yet the Turkish Government and its political puppets in Thraki and/or Thrace have the audacity to complain about the manner in which their Muftis are elected on Greek soil, which in all reality directly violates the Treaty of Lausanne (check link at bottom). 

Another major difference between Greece and Turkey's respect for the Treaty can been seen in the educational life of the Muslim and Greek Orthodox communities. In Thraki today, there are some 215 primary schools, where Greek and Turkish languages are taught, as well as 2 secondary schools. At this point, my question, obviously, is how many are there in Turkey? I can maybe count them on one hand!

Pomaks, along with Turks and Muslim Roma living in Thrace, are officially recognized as a religious Muslim minority in accordance with the Treaty they fully enjoy their corresponding rights. There is no teaching of their language, but it is sometimes used by teachers to explain some things orally to kindergarten and primary school pupils. If required, Pomak may be used in courts and interpreters will be provided, as this is guaranteed by the Treaty of Lausanne: nevertheless, Pomaks today have been influenced to use Turkish in such occasions.
After this dull, maybe for some, explanation on the politics behind Hara’s story…. some may have already guessed that this story does not really have a “happy end”.

Extremist circles, said to be influenced by the Turkish consulate in the area of Komotini (some claim as false witnesses), together with members of the village where the school was and its Muslim director, began a wild war against this heroic teacher… who in all reality was just doing her job and teaching the Greek language to the children on this area. 

How Everything Began For Hara

Once settled in the area, her first challenge was to revamp the school. According to her, the school resembled a barn rather than a building for teaching, and she says that most of the schools in the area are abandoned on purpose so that Turkey can use it as a propaganda to the simple and very uneducated Muslim community in this area how indifferent the Greek state is about their well being and how they do not respect their existence all together.  Nonetheless, and with the help of several other teachers stationed there, and after numerous letters, and pleas to competent authorities, the teachers under Hara’s guidance were successful in gathering the funds needed in order to make the building worthy of its students once again.

One would ask at this point that what was the Greek state doing about the schools, where they, or where they not funding the educational system in this area. The answer is obviously yes…. but the school’s director never used the funds on purpose and all funds were always sent back to Greek Ministry of Education as mandated by law. It doesn’t take a wise man to figure out that this was done on purpose to convince the citizens of the area that Greece did not care about them, or their children.

Next challenge national celebrations. As we all know, Greece’s primary national celebration is on March 25 of every year, commemorating its independence from Ottoman rule. I don’t think I need to analyze the reasons why this didn't stick well with some authorities in the area who got more than ticked off when Hara decided to go ahead with a common school parade. 

A larger spark followed when she decided to organize a school choir, and the children became so good that they won national distinction and were asked to perform in Thessaloniki. The children were ecstatic, as were the parents, for some had never even left the compound of this area, they had never seen the Greek countryside, let alone a large city… and some, according to Hara, had never even seen the sea. It was indeed a dream come true for them and a proud moment for their parents…. but a nightmare for Turkish authorities in the area…

Following their return to the village of Dereio, Hara received a letter from the head of school board, an appointed by the Turkish consulate Muslim leader (yes you heard correctly) claiming that the choices she was making and the manner in which she was teaching the children of this tiny school was not professional, that it was going against certain dogmas and codes of belief that were practiced in the area and that she had an overall rude attitude towards the people of the area and their traditions. What dogmas… what beliefs… this is Greek soil…?

Throughout this period, Hara was sending many letters to the Greek Ministry of Education; informing them on the situation, and surely this didn’t sit well with Muslim authorities here so they decided to really put the pressure on.  As the new school year began, 2008-2009, Hara together with three more Greek speaking teachers and four other Turkish speaking teachers only welcomed 15 from a total of 35 children to the school. The rest of the children were forbidden by the consulate to attend the school. Then, they gathered signatures to oust her from the area and demand that a new teacher be placed in her position from the Ministry. As the weeks progressed, all expect for one child stopped attending school, and Hara’s story took on an even more dramatic twist.

After being ridiculed, threatened and God knows what else she was also physically attacked in the school and threatened that if she didn’t leave then her life would be even in greater danger. According to her, while she was attacked she was pregnant, and lost the baby because of the brutal beating. 

The situation was making it difficult for her to pride herself on remaining there, and obviously she was in danger all the time. But she did not scare away, and decided to stay and bring her attacker to justice. After several months the case was taken to trial and he was charged with battery as expected. 

Today Hara is not teaching at the little school in Dereio anymore because the situation was too complex and had by now begun affecting her private life as well. The reasons she decided to transfer to another school are not only because she feared for her life, but also because she found it difficult to voice her opinion on subject that is very taboo in this country, and I do not blame her. 

The situation in Thrace is heating up everyday, and everyone who dares to speak about this is usually ignored. The situation is so severe that the Epikaira recently made some revelations about what was going on behind closed doors in this area and how influential the US Consulate in Thessaloniki was here. The ultimate goal, said the relevant article in Epikaira (which was quoting Wikileaks cables) is to manipulate the Greek Muslim minority there so that it can serve American interests.

The magazine which surfaced this story highlighted a strong interest by US officials on issues related to the education of the Muslim minority there, going so far as to even exert pressure on teachers that were teaching Greek to children there to be careful. (Read full story here)

And yes... even the Dereios area where Hara Nikolopoulou thought she could change the world with her pupils.

After she left, some had the audacity to call her a coward… I say she is a living breathing hero. Because of her courage and determination, this issue was brought to the surface nationally. 

The last time I saw her speak was at on the Hardavelas show “Atheatos Kosmos”, (watch the above YouTube video series). 

Her story is very compelling, as has every step she has made since then to make people more aware of the dirty games that the Turkish consulate is involved in in the area to broaden its dominance. 

The bottom line of this story is that "interests" are playing suspicious games at the expense of humble people.

What remained? A teardrop in the eyes of her students that till this day miss their beloved teacher who showed them the Greek sea…

Marina Spanos

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