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Kiveli Sybil Gazikas, age 92, of Ivoryton, passed away on May 18 at Yale Hospital of Saint Raphael in New Haven. Kiveli was a proud and loving mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, best known for her love of family, warm heart, and abundance of affection she gave to everyone she met. She had an amazing life story with many struggles, but always found a way to bring joy to life for everyone around her.
She was born Kiveli Gavalas of Greek heritage in Istanbul, Turkey on May 7, 1928. At nine months of age, Kiveli’s mother passed away suddenly leaving two children, Kiveli and an older brother Socrates without a loving mom. Kiveli’s dad was unable to care for them and a decision was made to send Socrates to an orphanage and for Kiveli to be raised by her paternal grandmother. Kiveli’s maternal grandmother never became emotionally close to Kiveli and Socrates, having never recovered from the heartbreak of losing her daughter. Growing up as if she were an only child, Kiveli would not come to learn about her brother until she was an adult.
Kiveli’s life as a young child was very difficult. She remained relatively isolated from other children because her paternal grandmother felt unable to control her as a child. She often went without food which may be why Kiveli spent much of her adult life fulfilling the ultimate role as a Greek mother, overfeeding family, friends, and guests with delicious meals at every opportunity. Having been classified as an orphan, she was given the opportunity to attend an exclusive French Catholic school during high school. There she learned to speak French fluently in addition to her Greek and Turkish. At the time of her high school graduation, she fluently spoke three languages. She picked up her fourth fluent language, English, later in life when she moved to America.
Shortly after her graduation, she met the man who would become her husband of 72 years, Thomas Gazikas. They married on Sept. 28, 1947, in Istanbul, where they began their new life together. Thomas became a successful businessman in Turkey, and there, Kiveli gave birth to two of her three children, Sophie and Dimitrios. They lived a life blessed with abundance in Istanbul. There they owned a beautiful home complemented with plenty of food, and wonderful times spent with friends and family.
Then in September of 1956, Kiveli’s life again changed drastically. A series of raids on homes and businesses, known as the Istanbul September Pogrom (in Greek, Σεπτεμβριανά Septemvriana), raged across Istanbul over the course of two days. As Greeks living in Istanbul, Kiveli and her family were under threat of political violence, so they took cover in their home. As a gang arrived at their house prepared to attack, Kiveli prayed for and received a true modern-day miracle. Just at that same time, their Turkish neighbor intervened and told the attackers that they had the wrong house. He lied to them saying that Kiveli’s family was not Greek at all, but Turkish. Kiveli and her family were protected by this loving neighbor who hid the family for three days until the riots subsided.
Kiveli and Thomas immediately decided to quickly leave Turkey for their family’s safety. In another blessing, Thomas was classified as a political refugee having been born in Albania. This gave the family an option to emigrate to one of many countries including Australia, Greece, Germany, or America. Thomas felt that the best the decision for the family was to move to America, the land of opportunity and freedom where they could avoid religious persecution.
Then one month later on October 22, 1956 with hope for their future and fear in their hearts, they packed up a small number of belongings to prepare for their travels. They hid a few valuable possessions, two newly purchased diamond and gold watches, and some Turkish lira that was hid in the lining of the suitcases. Then they left on a small prop airplane and headed for freedom.
Their hope faded quickly upon arriving in Chicago when they learned that their country sponsor was expecting only one person, not an entire family. The sponsor could offer only one small bedroom and meager dishwasher job for income—nowhere near enough to accommodate their family of four. They attempted to return to Turkey, but Thomas could never return because he was now classified as a political refugee. Needing money in this new land, and Thomas knowing only a few words in English, he pawned the watches and Turkish lira for pennies on the dollar. When all hope seemed lost, the US immigration office found Thomas’ uncle Dimitrios Courmenous, in Stamford, who was willing to accommodate them. It was not long after moving in with their uncle that they found out that their luxurious life back in Istanbul was gone forever. The Gazikas family business was taken over by the Turkish government and all assets were lost. Without the benefit of their wealth back in Turkey, they had only themselves and their personal strength to forge ahead and build a new life in America.
And a new life they built. Thomas took several jobs and Kiveli found a local community of helpful immigrants to teach them about America. Kiveli loved socializing and always found a way to be around other people, especially at the Greek church the family attended. With Sophie’s help, Kiveli learned the English language, allowing her to grow her circle of friends. As her English skills improved it allowed her to go to work, and Kiveli soon began a fascinating career.
She began as a night cleaner at Stamford Hospital, which allowed her to save money to prepare for the birth of her third child, Anthony. After Anthony was born, Kiveli went right back to working at night. She then moved from cleaning positions to a job for a military supplier working on a secret government program building night-vision goggles. Her attention to detail and skill for precision work allowed her to continue building government equipment. Over time, she developed into a talented soldering technician for a NASA supplier. When the family moved to Clinton, Kiveli continued her work at several electronics suppliers in aerospace and other industries. She eventually completed her working career at Whelen Engineering, where she would continue to work until she retired at the age of 84. She was well known and well loved by her colleagues at all her prior companies, many of whom were amazed at the speed and accuracy of a woman her age.
Kiveli’s long and storied career represented more than her willingness to work hard. It allowed her a way to make personal connections and friendships that would last a lifetime, and she spoke fondly of “her girls” at where she worked even after she retired. Working also created a means to help her family and it allowed her to save enough money the old world way, in a cash envelope to eventually have enough to put a down payment on the family’s first house in America. Through her labor, she was able to help Thomas create the life she dreamed of, surrounded by an abundance of food, a loving family, close friends, a warm home, and strong community.
Kiveli’s life story is incredibly inspiring to everyone who hears it and she is most remembered by the legacy of love she expressed in creating her family with her husband Thomas of 72 years. Kiveli was the rock of the family, creating a loving and welcoming home for anyone who knew her. She was an exceptional cook and kept a meticulous house. She had the spirit of a servant which she always attributed to her faith in the Lord. Through all of her struggles, Kiveli always put others before herself, living a humble and unselfish life. She didn’t measure a person’s worth based on their education, wealth, or social status. For Kiveli, it was always the person’s heart that mattered most. Kiveli was one of God’s angels on earth and she will be dearly missed.
Kiveli was an active member of St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church in New London where she shared her angelic soprano voice in the choir. She is survived by her husband Thomas Arthur Gazikas, her eldest daughter Sophie Nordell and her husband Byron Nordell of Otsego, Minnesota, her eldest son Dimitrios James Gazikas of Ivoryton and his life companion Cynthia Stannard of Deep River, and her youngest son Anthony Gazikas and his wife Catherine Gazikas of Centerbrook. Kiveli was a loving Yiayia to six grandchildren, Lisa Barber, Christy Charles, Tom Nordell, Alex Gazikas, Lauren Gazikas, and Mary Gazikas; and four great-grandchildren, Cassidy and Madelyn Barber, and Sophie and Paige Charles.
A private Greek Orthodox service was held graveside in Cedar Grove Cemetery, New London.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, to please honor Kiveli through donations in her name to St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church at 200 Hempstead St., New London, CT 06320.
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