This Land Is My Land: An ESRC Better Lives Essay

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In this shortlisted essay from the ESRC Better Lives Writing Competition, in which PhD students who have received money from the ESRC write short essays about how their research leads too better lives, anthropologist Holly Chalcraft from Durham University discusses how the ethnic swap between Greece and Turkey after World War I affects self-identity today.

Where are you from? Who are you? Where do you belong? Most of us have been asked, or asked ourselves, these questions on many occasions. But have you ever thought about how complicated answering such questions can be if you have moved from your country of birth to another country? Here I discuss my research with Greek migrants in the UK post-Brexit, to investigate ideas about belonging.

When you think about where you belong, perhaps you think of friends, family, places where you’ve lived and grown up, or the country in which you were born. Perhaps you judge belonging by your passport or citizenship, or perhaps you think that sharing a nationality creates a sense of community.

In my research I realised that many Greek people in London do not feel part of a community with other Greeks. They do not assume they will have things in common with other Greeks just because they share a national identity. My research matters because it shows that we can form relationships and belonging that are not limited by our nationality. To understand how national identity does not automatically create a sense of belonging, I want to tell you about the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.

Holly Chalcraft
Holly Chalcraft

In 1923 Muslims living in Greece were moved to Turkey, and Christians living in Turkey were moved to Greece. The nations thought that sharing a religion would foster belonging to the nation-state. However, the refugees on both sides found it hard to settle and continued to feel attached to where they had been born and raised. Shared religion did not automatically create community belonging.

The idea that nation-states should have the ‘same kinds’ of people (i.e. same religion) so that they felt a sense of community was unsuccessful in 1923. The displaced people felt that their connection to the land on which they were born and had lived all their lives was an important part of who they were and where they felt they belonged. The effect was that Greeks who had lived in Greece before 1923 felt that they belonged in Greece more than the new arrivals, because they had been born on Greek, not Turkish, soil. They called the newcomers names and did not like their music and ‘Turkish’ habits. These  distinctions between Greeks continue today.

Many of the Greek people I spoke to in London have grandparents who were displaced from Turkey to Greece in the 1923 exchange, and feel connected themselves to their ancestral lands. My research has found that Greek people feel a sense of belonging to Turkish lands because their ancestors belonged (and were buried) there. They make their grandparents’ experiences part of who they are. Ideas of belonging to specific lands is clearly a powerful and important part of identity and belonging for past and contemporary Greeks.

The Greek migrants I work with have said that friends and family in Greece have called them ‘the English one’ since they left Greece to move to London. The fact that moving away from the land where you were born and grew up changes the strength of your belonging to that place, shows that we think of belonging as linked to land. It is what makes Greek migrants in London feel neither fully Greek nor British. Sometimes this upsets them.

But does this loss of belonging to where we were born and raised have to be viewed negatively? Why do we think migrants pose such a threat? What can we gain from experiences of living in another country and meeting new people? Can we prevent our assumptions that we will be similar only to those who’ve grown up in our countries, on our lands? My research will make lives better if we all investigate the basis for our own sense of belonging to people and places and consider thinking differently.

Would you consider looking beyond where you were born and raised for the basis of belonging? Is there more to you and your relationship to nationality labels? Could you accept feeling between countries and cultures; neither fully one thing nor another? My research with Greek migrants has challenged my own ideas of belonging. My dialogue with Greek migrants living in London has allowed me to question the basis of belonging and reform it in exciting new ways.

My research can make us have better lives if we all stretch our understandings of belonging beyond ideas of nation-states, borders, and birthlands. Instead of asking ‘Where am I from?’, ‘Who am I?’. ‘Where do I belong?’, I invite you to ask ‘Where could I live?’, ‘Who could I be?’, ‘Where could I belong?’. If we embrace our possibilities for belonging, we might foster new and stronger relationships with a greater range of people and lead better lives.


Shortlisted and winning essays in the series:

  • This land is my land | Holly Chalcraft, Durham University
  • Working relationships | Rosa Daiger von Gleichen, University of Oxford
  • Parenting with mental health | Abby Dunn, University of Sussex
  • Reliving trauma, relieving pain | Alessandro Massazza, University College London
  • The psychology of flooding | Niall McLoughlin, University of Bath
  • Becoming a diagnosis | Lauren O’Connell, University of Essex
  • The illusion of eternal independence | Chloë Place, University of Sussex
  • Tilting at windmills in a climate-changed world | Celia Robbins, University of Exeter

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WINNING ESSAYS

  • Notes on a G-string | Rosie Cowan, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Better lives with better toilets | Ian Ross, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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