From refugee to a spot on the bench
One in a series on local judges.
by Glenn Tschimpke
You can never go home again, as the saying goes. But that’s usually just a bit of ethereal wisdom that affirms the passing of a bygone era. For Eleni Derke, the saying is literal. She can’t go home. She tried.
“Home” to Derke is Cyprus, a small island of predominantly Greek heritage in the eastern finger of the Mediterranean Sea just south of Turkey. In 1974, when Derke was 12, her sister had been accepted to Ohio State University.
“My father decided to, instead of sending her off to college, for all of us to come to America and have a nice summer vacation and get her settled,” she remembered.
Her father decided to apply for green cards instead of visas for the entire family, which turned out to be a stroke of luck. On July 20, 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and eventually occupied the northern two-fifths of the island, including Derke’s hometown of Famagusta. Ports were closed and the family was literally stranded in America with nothing more than a few suitcases of summer clothes.
“We had planned to go back because nobody thought this occupation would be a permanent thing,” she said. “In fact, 25 years later, we still don’t think it is a permanent thing.”
Derke’s family regrouped and moved in with her father’s sister in Elyria, Ohio, near Cleveland.
“We basically became refugees and we lived with my aunt for the first year or so that we stayed,” she said. “I was in the eighth grade and I didn’t speak a word of English. They threw me into the eighth grade in a public school. I’ll never forget the English teacher that I had, his name was Mr. Bennett. To this day, if I could find him and tell him how helpful he was . . . Every day, he gave me a list of vocabulary words and gave me a test every day on those words. That’s how I learned to speak English within the first couple months of school. It was broken and with an accent, but I was able to survive.”
Derke struggled though a difficult first year in America, learning the language and the culture. Twelve years later, she graduated from Stetson University with her law degree — with honors.
In hindsight, Derke makes it sound almost easy. Despite her rags-to-riches story made for Hollywood, her bubbling voice never lilts to a pessimistic cadence. She doesn’t openly curse the Turks. She doesn’t play victim. She doesn’t blame others. Through education and hard work, she has achieved in America what most natives haven’t and won’t.
“Despite not knowing the language and being homeless without any money and only the clothes in your bag, basically you can make it. Education is the key,” she said. “The Turks might invade your home, but they can never take your education away. That can never be taken away.”
Her college education nearly steered her away from law. Fresh out of high school, Derke passed on Ohio State and headed to the great Northwest to study archaeology and anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle. There she met her future husband, Michael, and toured the West Coast extensively. Partly fueled by her love of travel, archaeology and anthropology she visited distant points, studying ancient and modern civilizations. She applied to join the Peace Corps. She tried to join a professor to study natives in New Guinea. Her parents approved of neither.
“My parents put their foot down and said, ‘No. You’re not going to join the Peace Corps. You’re not going to New Guinea,’” remembered Derke.
She regrouped and discussed her career options with her college advisor, who suggested law school based on her grades and her adept art of persuasion.
“I’ve always been a good arguer,” she laughed. “That’s something my husband always said. Anytime we would have an argument, of course I would always win. He said, ‘Man, you should be a lawyer.’ I always laughed it off because I never dreamed I would go to law school. That was never in the cards for me. But I ended up applying to several law schools.”
Before starting at Stetson, she returned to Elyria and spent a year working at her parents’ restaurant, allowing them to take a much-needed vacation. When the time came, law school was not what she expected.
“This is not for me, I’m dropping out,” was the message she left Michael on the family answering machine after the first day. Michael kept the tape and encouraged Derke to continue.
“Law school was the worst experience of my life,” she said. “I just did not like law school. It’s just a different language. Going from an archaeology and anthropology background into law, you show up in law school for orientation and they have the assignment listed on the board for the first day of class. So I bought my books and went to read it and it was like a different language.”
To add a little spice to the mix, Derke gave birth to her two children, Elias and Rhea, while in school. Nevertheless, she graduated with honors and landed a job at the Public Defender’s Office under Lou Frost, where she worked for two years before she opened a private law firm with Tom Fallis.
In 1994, a county judgeship opened and she knew the position was for her.
“I was the first person in the race,” she said. “I started early on. Then Jerilynn O’Hara ran against me. Then [current circuit court judge] Gregg McCaulie put his name in.”
During the course of the campaign, O’Hara was appointed to the judgeship temporarily until the election was complete.
“Everybody thought I would quit at that point,” said Derke. “People that didn’t know me thought I would quit. I continued running.”
Derke won the election and took her place on the Duval County bench in January 1995. After seven years, she says she’s still happy where she is, but would consider an appellate position in the future if the opportunity presents itself. And when she retires, anthropology is definitely on the agenda.
“When I’m ready to retire, I will go on a dig someplace,” she promised. “I don’t know where, probably outside America. I’ll use that as an excuse to see another part of the world.”
As for going “home” to Cyprus, she tried a few years ago with her husband and children. She talked her way through the gauntlet of Cypriotic and Turkish checkpoints, neutral zones and and political red tape. In the Turkish-occupied territory, she hired a cab to drive her to Famagusta.
“My home town is a ghost town,” she sighed. “It used to look like Miami Beach. It was a major tourist attraction of Europe. People from Germany, Sweden, England all came to Famagusta Beach because it was beautiful. Now it’s fenced in with barbed wire. It has guards posted.”
Derke ultimately fell short of her goal. Famagusta was still a distant vista on the beach and a fading memory.
“I got out of the cab and walked to the beach,” she explained. “You have to imagine, I grew up on this beach. I was raised on the surf and the sand of the beach. I got there and there’s this fence that runs right into the sea. I rolled up my jeans and put my feet in the water and took some sand and put it in my pocket.”
The pocketful of sand now rests in a small container on her desk.
“People can’t possibly understand what a remarkable experience it is to survive that,” she said. “A friend of mine took me to his childhood home in Jacksonville the other day. I felt such sadness that I can’t do that. I can’t take my kids back to see where the mother grew up. I tried.”