The future of Hellenism in the United States is on the minds of several policy makers and academics on both sides of the Atlantic. They appreciate the valuable contributions made over the last century by generations of Greek immigrants to the every day life in the United States and are searching for ways to ensure that the American-born children and grandchildren of these immigrants continue to be inspired by the principles of Hellenism in our century.
U.S. Congressman John Sarbanes was interviewed by the Voice of America on how it was being raised as a Greek-American and what can be done to further the debate on the future of Hellenism in the United States. His on-camera interview is presented as part of the VOA Greek Service series Leaders for the Next Generation.
LEADERS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION – THE VIEWS OF U.S. REP. JOHN SARBANES
Mr. Bistis: Good morning ladies and gentlemen and thank you for joining us. Our guest today is a member of the U.S. Congress. It is a great personal pleasure and a distinct honor for me to welcome in our studio Representative John Sarbanes, from the beautiful State of Maryland. Congressman welcome.
Congressman Sarbanes: It is nice to be here.
Mr. Bistis: You are the grandson of Greek immigrants and your father has been a legendary lawmaker who recently retired from the U.S. Senate after a distinguished service of more than 30 years. How was it being raised as a Sarbanes and growing up in the Greek-American community of Baltimore?
Congressman Sarbanes: When I was 4 years old, I am almost 45 now, my father got into politics. So I knew that right from the beginning, from the time that I first became conscious, I was aware of his public service. I was also very aware of the connection to our Greek heritage and the importance of the Hellenic values to the Greek American community in this country. As you know my father was very proud of his heritage. He passed that along to his children. Some of my best memories are with my yiayia, in Salisbury, Maryland learning a little bit of Greek from her and enjoying her Greek cooking. This is something that is very important to me as well.
Mr. Bistis: Congressman from the various values your family passed on to you which ones would you say helped the most in developing your character and your life in general?
Congressman Sarbanes: We were always told that education and taking advantage of educational opportunity was the most important thing you could do. The legacy of my grandparents and what they gave to their children was really what America was all about, this idea that you have the opportunity to improve over time, from generation to generation. So, the emphasis on education, which is something that the Greek American community as a whole focuses on, that was very important. Secondly, family. Family and community. That is a deep value in the Greek American community and was certainly something that was important for my family. The other thing frankly I believe is this notion of service. It doesn’t have to be elected office but the idea that you should serve in some way, you should have a public service dimension to whatever you do, that was also very important and obviously my father was exemplary in that respect.
Mr. Bistis: I remember during the campaign in one of your speeches you had said that the Greek Americans are one of the most dynamic ethnic groups in this country. What is it that makes the Hellenic American community so unique?
Congressman Sarbanes: I think that the Greeks have a real sense of enterprise and they are bringing energy and creativity in their thinking. Whatever they do, whether they go into business or professional life or public service they are always thinking of new ways of doing things. And that is a very exciting energy and when you look at the Greek American communities around the world, here in the United States and in other places, they have done very well, they have been very successful, wherever they go, and I think it is that drive, that sense of enterprise, of ingenuity, which is responsible for this.
Mr. Bistis: The second and third generations of Greek Americans are in many respects considerably different than the Greek Americans of more than 50 years ago, those who were the actual immigrants from Greece. The new Greek-Americans are born here; English is their mother tongue and their life is centered in the United States. How do these new generations relate to Greece, which has also changed over the years, it is not the same as the one that your yiayia and papou knew. How do they relate?
Congressman Sarbanes: It is a challenge to reach out to the next generation. It is a challenge really in any community to do that. And many communities are struggling with this. There are many of these societies and organizations that exist in the United States which grew up within the Greek American community and they are all trying to reach out to the next generation.
I think the key is that there is a pride in the heritage. Even when you get 2 and 3 generations away from the original immigrant generation there is still that pride in the heritage and there is still a sense of connection to Greece. I think what we can do is we can really start to educate the next generation of Greek Americans on two things. First is what the new Greece represents. Modern Greece, I mean recently modern Greece, is really a vibrant and exciting player on the world stage. You start looking at some of the statistics and it is wonderful what Greece is doing.
The Olympics was a tremendous success. In my mind it is really a platform from which people can start to understand all the other things about Greece that are exciting. So, that is a connection for this next generation of Greek Americans. The other is, just the notion of being enterprising, of emphasis on education, these are values that I think the Greek American community and the next generation of it can embrace. It is a very exciting thing, so if we put these two things together I think we can get a lot of excitement building within that next generation and it can be a way to connect them to the enthusiasm that the first and second generations of Greeks had.
Mr. Bistis: Is there a mechanism being created to tap to this energy?
Congressman Sarbanes: There are a number of initiatives that are going on. There is something called the next generation initiative, which is an opportunity to bring folks of my father’s generation together with people in my generation and sort of hand off some of that pride about our ethnicity. Also, of course, the modern information technology. I think there are a number of Greek organizations that are using this new technology, using the Internet and trying to reach out to the younger group, which is more on the cutting edge with what’s happening.
Mr. Bistis: Congressman Sarbanes thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today and I wish you all the very best with your work on Capitol Hill.
Congressman Sarbanes (in Greek): Thank you very much. I want to say that I am missing Greece. I have not been there for a number of years but I want to return to Greece and hope to be able to that soon.
Mr. Bistis: We also hope that your wish comes true, Congressman, because I am confident that the people of Greece are equally eager to welcome you there soon.
Congressman Sarbanes: Thank you.
Mr. Bistis: Our guest today has been Congressman John Sarbanes from the State of Maryland. This is George Bistis reporting. From all of us at the Voice of America, good day from Washington.