Hundreds of Greek Americans from across of the United States and Canada joined Hellenes from several other parts of the world in a jubilant celebration of their ethnic heritage during a gala event, the 38th AHEPA Biennial Banquet, held in our nation’s capital on Friday, March 7, 2008.
AHEPA stands for American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.
It is the leading association for the 1.4 million Americans of Hellenic decent and hundreds of thousand other Philhellenes. As such, the association promotes the ideals of Hellenism, education, philanthropy, civic responsibility and family and individual excellence.
Since 1929 AHEPA, through its Biennial Banquet, honors those who serve with distinction in the U.S. Congress but this year the association used the event to also salute Greek American public servants in state legislature and local government and to recognized individuals who have excelled in their chosen professions.
All participants and their guests received a warm welcome by Supreme President Ike Gulas and Executive Director, Basil Mossaides, Banquet Chairman, John Grossomanides and the leaders of AHEPA’s women and youth organizations, Karen Stamatiades, Grand President, Daughters of Penelope; Richard Pecka, President, Sons of Pericles; and Stephanie Maniatis, President, Maids of Athena.
U.S. Congressman Zach Space of Ohio served as Master of Ceremonies. He paid tribute to his immigrant grandfather, who instilled in him many of the principles that shaped his private and professional life. Actually, he even brought an old picture of his grandfather at the event. This is how Congressman Space introduced him to all of us:
“My papou, I brought him along with me toady. Zacharias Space, my namesake, came to this country from Ikaria, over 90 years ago. He came here with virtually nothing, nothing except of course his values, his church and his family. My papou was a very poor man. Never had a car. Never had two nickels to rub together. But my father, Socrates, to this day calls him the richest man he knew. He was right, because my grandfather had the love and admiration of his family.”
The Ambassador of Greece, Alexandros Mallias and the Ambassador of Cyprus, Andreas Kakouris publicly expressed the appreciation of the two countries for the work performed by AHEPA.
In the words of Ambassador Kakouris “there are so many people in this room who have given of themselves, given their time and their energy to promote our national causes and each of them deserves our thanks and appreciation.”Ambassador Mallias expressed similar sentiments. He said: “Tonight I am here to thank you very much for your support on behalf of Greece. We thank you because the Greek American community has always been the forefront of our diplomatic and political efforts to have justice and the law prevailing.”
Successful self-made New York businessman John Katsimatides, was honored with the 2008 AHEPA Aristotle Award, which is presented by the Supreme Lodge to “an Outstanding Hellene, who has distinguished himself in his respective profession or field of endeavor”.
It is the highest award the association can bestow on individuals in the business field. In his acceptance speech Mr. Katsimatides provided a moving account of his family’s journey from rags to riches. Listening to him we learned not only an amazing family story but also an inspiring philosophy. The following is a segment from his remarks:
“My two grandfathers came over and went through Ellis Island. One came in 1911 and one came in 1913. They were looking for the American dream. They left my father in Nissiros to take care of his four sisters and his mother.
I was born in Nissiros. His two brothers were in the States and they brought him over in 1949. He did not speak English. Έπρεπε να δουλεύει στα πιάτα (That is why he had to wash dishes for a living). He worked 7 days a week. My father used to try and teach me. He said, look, I am a busboy but I want you to be better than me. So, I tell my children today the same thing. I want you to work hard. You can do whatever you want. But I want you to be better than me. That’s the Greek ethic.”
I was particularly touched and deeply honored by AHEPA’s decision to bestow on me the 2008 Demosthenes Award, which has been instituted “to honor a Hellene who has achieved excellence as a media professional”. I used the opportunity to say how much AHEPA and the Hellenic American community has inspired my work and the work of my colleagues at the Greek Service of the Voice of America.
As an example I cited a television report we produced in New York, when we went to attend memorial services for the more than 30 Greek Americans who perished under the rubble of the WTC Twin Towers, following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Here is part of what I said at the AHEPA event:
“Archbishop Demetrios, who had conducted the memorial services, spoke to me that day and I remember his words very clearly. He said, the terrorists who attacked those towers, with their despicable act showed us the worst face of mankind, but there were thousands of other individuals, including many Greek-Americans, who came out to offer help and support, and those other wonderful people, showed us the best face of mankind. We carried the words of our spiritual leader in many VOA languages, for they reflected not only the feelings of a local community but also the mood of an entire nation. On that day, in his unique way, His Eminence was the Voice of America.”
Another example I offered, of the numerous and important contributions made by the Hellenic American community to the programming of the Voice of America, is related to a more recent development. “Last summer, when Greece was devastated by a series of wild fires, members of Congress, including some who are here tonight like Congressman Space, Congressman Sarbanes and Congressman Bilirakis, as well as community leaders, including AHEPA executives, dropped everything on their schedule and came to VOA to offer, through a television program, sympathy and moral and financial support to those touched by the disaster in Greece. On that day each of our studio guests was a concerned Voice of America.”
At its 38th Biennial Banquet AHEPA also recognized 38 Greek-American elected officials who serve at national, state and local levels of government. Among them were several members of the U.S. Congress including Shelley Berkley of Nevada; Nikki Tsongas of Massachusetts; Gus Bilirakis of Florida; Zack Space of Ohio and John Sarbanes of Maryland. The latter spoke on behalf of the group following the presentation of their individual awards.
Congressman Sarbanes said that an award from AHEPA is one of the greatest honors a Greek American can receive. He then explained why. As he put it: “AHEPA stands for what I believe makes us more proud as Greek Americans and that is the contribution that our community has made to this country. The contribution of our values, the contribution of our spirit, the belief that we understand, as well as any community in this country, what the promise of America is and that we rededicate ourselves and make sure that this promise is there and available to anyone who seeks it.”
On the next day the Daughters of Penelope presented their top award to Ambassador Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cyprus. Speaking at the Banquet Madame Marcoullis provided an expert insight to the latest political developments in Cyprus. She said:
“Since February the 29th of this year, we have a new President in Cyprus, President Dimitris Christofias, and we have a new government fully committed to reunification and a negotiated settlement. President Christofias has extended a hand of friendship to the Turkish Cypriot community as well as a message of peace and coexistence for the two communities in our common homeland.”
The main speaker at the AHEPA event was Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, who particularly stressed the need for religious freedom in Turkey. In this connection His Eminence noted:
“There are several pending issues with the Patriarchate. The Turks deny the title ecumenical as if it was discovered in the 20th century, while the title started in the 6th century. We also have the legal status of the Patriarchate. The Patriarchate has no legal status, with serious repercussions on property and other things…. You see, you go down because you are asked to produce papers that you own a property. What papers can you produce to show that we are the owners of Ayia Sofia? I ask you.”
In his response, Supreme President Ike Gulas thanked all who helped make the AHEPA 38 Biennial Banquet a tremendous success and reminded them of an important upcoming event. “I look forward to seeing you at our Supreme Convention, in Greece”.
Actually, for those Greek-Americans who have not traveled to Greece lately, the AHEPA Supreme Convention provides an excellent opportunity to visit their roots and get to know Greece’s new, post-Olympics, face, which the whole world has been talking about.
See you in Athens, in July.