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KAFRO, Turkey — Standing on the roof of a 1,500-year-old church, gazing over the village of Kafro, 54-year-old Saliba Alptekin reflected on the past few decades. As the sun set, it cast a warm light over the ancient deteriorated stone houses covered in vegetation, like the one Alptekin once lived in.
Behind the old, crumbling structures stood gargantuan three-story villas, built a decade ago of the same yellow stone as the older homes.
“I have achieved my goal,” Alptekin said. “My children now know their heritage, they speak their mother tongue [Aramaic], and they also have lots of opportunities. They have learned other languages [like German].”
His friend Nail Demir said, “The door of the world is open to them.”
For Alptekin and Demir to be back in Kafro (known as Elbeğendi in Turkish) is a dream come true. Along with all the other residents of the village, they fled to Europe from 1978 through the 1990s until the village was left empty at the height of fighting between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey. At that time,the PKK led the fight for an autonomous Kurdish state — a fight that tapered off through the 2000s until an official cease-fire in 2013 but has since still simmered and occasionally boiled over into violence.
The citizens of Kafro, however, aren’t ethnically Kurdish or Turkish but Syriac, an ancient Christian population. Their mother tongue is Aramaic, a variation of the same language biblical scholars say Jesus spoke. Their ancestors have been in the region for centuries, in southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria, but today they make up a tiny minority in the Turkish population. They didn’t want to get involved in the fight between the state and the PKK. “Our only option was to leave,” Alptekin said.
But now, taking advantage of the decline in the conflict, they are returning and taking with them the experiences of a wider world far beyond the old boundaries of the ancestral village. Though most of Kafro’s old residents still live abroad, many visit for the summer months, and along with Alptekin’s, 17 families of the original 50 have returned from places Germany and Switzerland to the live in Kafro full time.
They brought a generation that was born in Europe, and the influence of decades abroad can be seen and heard. They dress in European outdoor clothing, and residents, especially teens, speak a mix of German, Turkish and Aramaic.
The village now even has a few Swiss cows. “They were born through sperm donation from cows from Switzerland,” Alptekin said.
Today young people hang out at the village’s one restaurant, a pizzeria run by Demir. “We really wanted a place where our youths could hang out,” he said. “We thought about what kind of food to serve, and everywhere around here makes meat and local specialties, but no one makes pizza, so we decided to make pizza.”
European influence can be seen in the real cured salami that can only be imported — brought over by Demir and friends — while Kafro’s specialty pizza boasts the village’s best ingredients: garlic and chicken. But a meal at Kafro Pizzeria, like anywhere else in Turkey, is not complete without crimson Turkish tea.
“This multiculturalism is a really good thing. It is wealth,” Alptekin said. It is with this wealth that Alptekin, Demir and their neighbors hope to revive Kafro.
That recovery would mark the end of a long journey. Southeastern Turkey, where Kafro is located, was once home to some 300,000 Syriacs, according to Evgil Turker, the president of the Federation of Syriac Associations. He hails from Midyat, the closest notable town to Kafro, about a dozen miles away.
“In the 1970s in Midyat, the town’s population was maybe 90 percent Syriac. Today it is the exact opposite. Of 50,000 to 60,000 residents, just 500 are Syriac,” he said. At the height of the violence in the region, in the 1990s, fear of being caught in the crossfire compounded by a lack of economic opportunity meant another a wave of migration of Syriacs to Europe.
“We have been in the region for more than 2,000 years, and this isn’t the first time we have had to migrate,” Turker said. The region’s tumultuous past has resulted in a long history of migration for various local populations. “In the past, Syriacs have moved to Syria and Iraq” — for example, during the mass executions and deportations carried out during the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s.
“The return of residents to Kafro is extremely important to the whole Syriac community,” he said. Five years ago, he was inspired return to Midyat after nearly 23 years in Switzerland. “Not only are people fulfilling their promise to return. It is a morale boost for all Syriacs who live abroad that we are reclaiming our heritage and our land.”
Alptekin also moved to Switzerland in 1984, where he got married and had three children. He had a good life there, he said, training as a chef and eventually running an Italian restaurant, but he always said he would go back. He returned in the mid-2000s and had his fourth child in Kafro. Unlike his other kids, his youngest speaks only Aramaic and Turkish; the others’ first language is German, just as it is with his friend Demir’s daughter, Schmuni, who was born and raised in Germany.
“I went to Kafro when I was 15, and now I’m 23,” she said, in German-accented Turkish. “I knew absolutely no Turkish. I learned here.” The transition wasn’t easy for her and other young people like her. “Germany is ultramodern, and here …there’s a strong traditional culture — like, really strong,” she said.
After the first year, though, Schmuni began appreciating the simplicity of the village and being surrounded by friends and family who have a history just like hers. “I’m really happy here now. It’s wonderful … I can’t really ask for much more,” she said.
However, there is still lament for what has been lost over the decades, particularly the village’s ancient church. The church has been vandalized and cannot be used. In the front courtyard, Alptekin pointed to one grave. “That is my grandmother,” he said. “Even our ancestors couldn’t live in their graves in peace … They opened them.” He insisted that he couldn’t say for sure who “they” were — Turkish soldiers or Kurdish fighters. It was a time of war, after all. Still, it is pretty easy to draw conclusions. “There’s no need to say who did this. You can read what is written, and it’s clear.”
The words, numbers and doodles — including swastikas — scribbled all over the ancient interior walls give clear clues that Turkish soldiers did much of the damage. There are what appear to be bullet holes in the dome above where the pulpit once stood. “This all comes with the problematic idea that Turkey is a country of one people, one language, one ethnicity, one religion,” Turker said.
“While there wasn’t explicit pressure from the state on Syriacs or Christians, we were and in some ways still are treated like second-class citizens,” he continued. Turkey has strict education laws, for example, that prohibit schooling in languages other than Turkish, barring a few exceptions: Armenians, Greeks and Jews in Turkey are welcome to have their own schools with a hybrid curriculum, which teaches students from those communities their ancestors’ language and religion.
Syriacs only recently were added to the list of exceptions, “But it’s too late,” Turker said. “There are so few kids left to teach. Who’s going to build a school for them?”
Even today, there is still a strong military presence near Kafro. Just a couple of miles up the road, the gate that once blocked the road to the village has shifted to block another area instead, and tanks speed through the village to get to their base.
Still, Turker conceded, things have improved for Syriacs, which is why they are returning and will continue to return.
“There is a lot of potential here,” Alptekin said, suggesting that some locals could work in environmental, adventure and religious tourism in the region. “If things are going well, why wouldn't people return? … We’re hopeful of course. What’s the point in life without hope?”