Writer’s mother, 94, was a little girl lost in a political upheaval

Winston Salem Journal, NC
March 19 2004

Clouds Lifted: Writer’s mother, 94, was a little girl lost in a
political upheaval

By Janice Gaston

A Long Search: Writer Thea Halo is shown at right with her mother,
Sano Halo, who was one of thousands of ethnic Greeks exiled from
their homes in Turkey in 1920. (Journal Illust. by Nicholas Weir)

Thea Halo grew up knowing that her mother’s life had been filled with
tragedy. By the time she was 10, the girl who would become known as
Sano Halo had lost everything that mattered to her.

Sano Halo, now 94, was one of thousands of ethnic Greeks driven from
their homes in Turkey in 1920. Marched through mountains and deserts
with ever-dwindling supplies, many of Halo’s fellow Greeks died. Some
dropped dead in their tracks. Her baby sister died in her arms.

By the time Sano Halo was 15, her mother and sisters were dead, and
her father and brother had disappeared. She was married off to a
45-year-old man she didn’t know.

She arrived in the United States in 1925, a teen-age bride, with
nothing left of her Greek heritage, not even the name that her
parents had given her.

Thea Halo tells her mother’s poignant story in her book, Not Even My
Name. Thea Halo, accompanied by her mother, will speak Saturday at an
Agape Celebration Luncheon at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church
Hellenic Center here. Proceeds from the luncheon, which begins at 11
a.m., will benefit youth programs.

When Thea Halo was growing up in New York, she could never explain
her heritage. Her parents were born in Turkey, but neither was

Her mother was a Pontic Greek, an ethnic group that had lived in
Turkey near the Pontic Mountains for 3,000 years. Her father was
Assyrian, a descendant of ancient people thought to be no longer in
existence. Her brothers took on the identity of Turks. Her older
sister told people that they were Egyptian and urged their mother to
do the same. She complied.

In her book, Halo wrote, “It had never occurred to any of us that in
our struggle to have an identity of our own, we had negated hers.”

Sano Halo, then known as Themia, was born in a tiny mountain village
in northern Turkey, near the Black Sea. She doesn’t remember her
family name. When she was not quite 10, soldiers came to her home and
rousted her family. In her book, Halo described what they said:

“You are to leave this place. Take with you only what you can carry.”
They marched the Greeks toward the Syrian desert, Thea Halo said by
telephone from her home in New York.

The march took place within the context of years of conflict between
the Greeks and the Turks.

“The whole history of this thing is so complicated, you could spend
your life on it,” said Bruce Kuniholm, a professor of history and
public-policy studies at Duke University. After World War I, the
Ottoman Empire, which ruled over Greece for centuries, was being
dismembered. An independence movement in the 19th century extracted
Greece from the Empire, but Greek minorities had continued to live

The Treaty of Sevres, imposed on the Ottoman sultan by the Allies in
1920, awarded Greece portions of the empire in the West. But when
Greek forces invaded Turkey to take what had been awarded to them,
Kunhihom said, Turkish nationals, who opposed the sultan and the
treaty, drove the Greeks out. They also drove out the Russians,
Italians, French and eventually the British.

People like the Pontic Greeks, Kunihom said, were caught in the
complicated dynamic of a disintegrating empire, an emerging
nationalist movement and ethnic conflict between the Greeks and the

After Sano Halo’s family passed through a town called Karabahce, her
daughter said, “they decided to run away. Two of their children had
already died on the road.”

Destitute, the family scrounged for food. Thea Halo’s grandmother,
realizing that her daughter might starve, gave her to a woman who
asked to take her in. The girl became a virtual slave to the woman,
who changed her name from Themia to a Kurdish name, Sano.

“She stayed with that woman about two years,” Thea Halo said. The
woman was so abusive that Sano Halo finally ran away. “An Armenian
family took her in,” her daughter said. “When they fled Turkey on
pain of death, they brought her with them as their daughter to
Syria.” There, her fate collided with that of Abraham Halo, who had
fled Turkey in 1905, “on pain of death,” his daughter said. He came
to the United States, married and fathered a child. The marriage
ended unhappily, and he gained custody of his son.

In 1925, he went to Aleppo, Syria, to look for a wife. One of his
relatives had a solution.

“Why don’t you marry that young girl upstairs?” the relative asked.
The decision was sealed.

On her wedding day, Sano Halo was still a child. She had not yet
begun to menstruate, and her breasts had not yet developed. The
bodice of the borrowed wedding dress that she wore sagged against her
flat chest.

When Sano Halo arrived in her new home in New York, she became an
instant stepmother to a boy of 10, a role she was ill-equipped to
play. But she quickly learned about motherhood when she began to bear
children of her own, 10 in all. She forgot the languages of her youth
and spoke nothing but English. When an injury forced her husband to
quit working when he was in his 60s, she got a job and supported the

While her children were growing up, Sano Halo told them about the
tragedies of her early life, but they didn’t truly sink in.

“Parents tell their story,” Thea Halo said. “Especially when you’re
young, you have your own lives to live. You want to go
roller-skating. You hear basically the same stories over and over.”
But she realized that she needed to really hear the stories when she
decided to write a book about her mother’s past.

The idea for a book came after Thea Halo had taken her mother back to
Turkey, after nearly 70 years of exile, to look for her ancestral
home. Sano Halo had never been able to find her village on a map. In
Turkey, she found out why. The name that she remembered, Iondone, was
in dialect. The village was actually named Ayios Antonios.

Emotions ran high for both of them when they finally arrived at the
spot where Sano Halo had lived as a child.

Where 250 houses had once stood, they found nothing but a wooden
shack and empty green hills. A rectangle of wildflowers marked the
spot where the family home had been.

In her book, Thea Halo described what happened then.

“I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes for something lost,”
she wrote. “Or maybe for something found. I had a family at last,
just long enough to know they were gone.”

Thea Halo had spent most of her adult life making a living as an
artist. By telling her mother’s story, she became a writer. She has
put aside her painting and has more books in the works.

Not Even My Name, she said, has taken on a life of its own.

She started getting e-mails from people around the world. “This is
our story,” people told her. She began giving lectures and readings.
She started connecting with people who share her ethnicity.

“I was raised an American,” she said. “I had never been part of a
Greek community, an Assyrian community, an Armenian community,” she
said. “One of the things it did is bring me into the communities of
my heritage.

“It’s been a wonderful experience.”