Coming home after 130 years – bbc news gas 78 industries

Entering a small shop in Chania, on Crete’s north-west coast, Ahmed began to introduce himself. The owner looked at him open-mouthed. He understood what Ahmed was saying, but some of the words he was using were unfamiliar and old-fashioned, and others he didn’t understand at all. It was as though Ahmed had arrived not just from Syria, but from another age.

Ahmed, 42, was speaking in a version of the Cretan dialect he had learned from his parents, growing up in a village in northern Syria in the 1970s and 80s. His parents had spent all their lives in Syria – but some members of the previous generation had been born in Crete and, living together as exiles, they had kept Cretan culture alive.

"We learned Arabic at school but always spoke Greek at home," says Ahmed. Children learned Greek dances and recited short Cretan poems known as mantiades. The parents passed on traditional Cretan recipes, such as fried snails, and intermarriage with the Syrian population was rare. Ahmed’s wife, Yasmine, is also from a Cretan family.

Ahmed’s father’s parents were forced to leave Crete in the 1890s as the Ottoman Empire weakened. The island had been part of the empire for two centuries and roughly a quarter of the population, including Ahmed’s ancestors, had converted to Islam. But uprisings in the late 19th Century resulted in the expulsion of the Muslim population.

Ahmed’s sisters, Amina, Faten and Latifa, and their families were the first to leave. Ahmed himself struggled to find work after suffering from a slipped disk and had difficulty scraping together the money to pay a people smuggler. But finally he, Yasmine and their four children – Bilal, 14, Reem, 12, Mustafa, nine, and four-year-old Fatima – set off for Greece in the spring of 2017. Image caption

The journey took three months and included a perilous boat trip from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, on a dinghy that almost sank. When the family attended their first asylum application interview, Ahmed purposely placed his finger next to his distinctively Cretan surname – Tarzalakis – when asked to show his passport.

Although many Greeks were aware that Cretan enclaves existed overseas, they were still intrigued by the Tarzalakis family dialect. Their accents are typically Cretan, but a lot of the vocabulary they learned in Syria is no longer used either in Crete or mainland Greece.

Although Chania had no Muslim community for more than a century, things are now changing. As well as the 25 members of Ahmed’s family, several hundred refugees from the Middle East have settled in the town over the past few years. The long-closed Ottoman mosque on the seafront is now used as an art gallery, so Muslims pray in rented rooms.

So far, Crete is not quite the land of milk and honey described by Ahmed’s grandparents. He’s grateful for financial assistance from the EU-funded Estia (Home) programme, run by the UNHCR, but says it’s not enough to bring up four children. The men in the family would like to set up a stonemasonry business and the women talk about doing bridal hairdressing, but that remains a goal for the future.