The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution expressing sympathy for the losses Greece has suffered during a recent wave of violent fires and underlining America’s support in coping with them. Greek American Congressman John Sarbanes presented the resolution, on behalf of the 14 members of Congress who co-sponsored it, during a House session attended by Ambassador of Greece, Alexandros Mallias.
The Congressional event was held as large circulation dailies The New York Times and USA Today each carried a full-page plea for contributions in support of the fire victims in Greece. The plea to Help the Birthplace of Democracy was made by Archbishop Demetrios of America and several national level political leaders with strong ties to the Hellenic American community, including Senator Paul Sarbanes, Senator Olympia Snowe and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Other distinguished individuals who co-signed the request for assistance, published in major U.S. newspapers this week, include Nicholas Bouras, Margo and George Behrakis, Margo and John Catsimatides, Jim Gianopoulos, Mary and Michael Jaharis, Melina Kanakaredes, Helen and Peter Kikis, Faye and Alex Spanos and Nia Vardalos.
All of the above and many other fellow Americans have also joined in offering generous assistance to the victims of the fire-ravaged nation through the Greek Fire Relief Fund. Several web sites have been established to provide information about the Fund and/or facilitate the flow of donations. You could access some of these sites by clicking on the contact links we provide below for your convenience.
America’s early response to the fires in Greece is also the subject for this week’s edition of Reportaz Apo Washington, a VOA/Greek television presentation for affiliate stations in Greece, Cyprus and communities of the Greek Diaspora. Following is an English text adaptation and the original video of this program.
REPORTAZ APO WASHINGTON
GREECE ON FIRE: AMERICA RESPONDS
English adaptation of original Greek program
Byline: George Bistis
Mr. Bistis: The Hellenic community has been mobilized across the United States of America in a major fundraising drive for the benefit of the people of Greece who are facing a major crisis following a series of devastating wild fires that have caused the loss of many lives, an environmental disaster and a great deal of human suffering.
Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, watched the tragic events unfold with a very heavy heart. His Eminence immediately realized that this is indeed a calamity for in addition to the unbelievable losses of lives and property, countless people in Greece have also lost their livelihoods and will need assistance for many years in order to recover.
After praying for those affected, Archbishop Demetrios worked in concert with concerned community leaders and developed a joint plan of action. The plan aims at generating greater awareness among the American people of the ravaging effects the summer fires had in Greece and to raise substantial sums of money to be used for the alleviation of the pain and suffering of the Greek people.
The fundraising started in the churches of the Archdiocese in America where parishioners made generous tray contributions, effectively opening both their hearts and their wallets for the Greek fire victims.
Archbishop Demetrios: In addition, Archdiocesan institutions and related agencies and organizations, like for example the Leadership 100 Endowment Fund, the Faith Endowment, which is our Endowment of Orthodoxy and Hellenism, the Philoptochos Society and the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate were immediately mobilized and they have already brought in substantial contributions for this particular cause. Also we have received pledges for assistance from families and individuals, which are expected to substantially increase the total contribution level. For example, one of these pledges is for a million dollars.
Mr. Bistis: The Ambassador of Greece to the United States, Alexandros Mallias, is justifiably proud and obviously pleased with the spontaneous response of the Hellenes and Philhellenes in America to the call of aiding “the motherland” in its hour of need.
Mr. Mallias: I would say Mr. Bistis that the Greek American response has been from the start and continues to be extremely moving. The wonderful people who make up this community have roots in affected villages, cities and prefectures of Greece, like Evia and Arcadia. They have turned their concern into a coordinated effort, which promises to provide immediate as well as intermediate and long-term assistance to Greece.
Mr. Bistis: Among the first U.S. lawmakers who expressed concern and sorrow for the catastrophic fires, which forced the Greek government to place the country in a state of emergency for three days, is John Sarbanes, Democratic Congressman from Maryland.
Mr. Sarbanes: First of all I want to extend my deep condolences to the families who lost loved ones during this very sad situation. The impact on me and on many Greek-Americans and many Americans, because it extends beyond the Greek-American community, has been very sobering, because Greece has been one of the strongest allies and fiends of the United States for many decades. There is a special bond between this country and the country of Greece, so when we see Greek citizens and villages suffering as they have, our hearts go out.
Mr. Bistis: Republican U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis of Florida expressed similar sentiments.
Mr. Bilirakis: It is a tragedy and my heart goes out to the Greek people. We are very proud Greek Americans and we are all united. We are going to do whatever we can to help the people of Greece. I know we have already sent some aid over there, including fire kits, and our government will also provide federal assistance. We will reassess the situation to ensure that what we do is enough.
Mr. Bistis: Democratic U.S. Congressman Zack Space of Ohio works closely with the previous two guests of this program and with other members of the prestigious Hellenic Congressional Caucus on how best to help Greece mitigate at least part of the crisis that has occurred there. Congressman Space believes that there is a strong co-relationship between the values brought over by Greek immigrants, who came to America in the first half of last century, and the way today’s Hellene Americans are responding to the humanitarian tragedy in Greece.
Mr. Space: Those values are the very kind of values that cause us to have deep empathy and concern for what many of us here in this country view to be as our motherland. Concern for others who are in need, concern for the preservation of historic landmarks, certainly concern for those who are suffering and a desire to alleviate that suffering. We in America are watching the situation very carefully and have grave concern. As an example of the kind of empathy we are experiencing, this was the subject of conversation at the Ikarioti Convention (an annual gathering of Americans descended from the Greek island of Ikaria) that was just held over the weekend in Baltimore and I am proud of the fact that the Ikarian Americans are raising and donating money to help Greece.
Mr. Bistis: The Congressional District of Representative Gus Bilirakis includes picturesque Tarpon Springs, which was established by Greek sponge divers from the islands of Kalymnos, Simi, Halki and Siros on the west coast of Florida, facing the Gulf of Mexico, when they immigrated in the early part of the 20th century. Descendents of these immigrants still live there making Tarpon Springs an American fishing town with a Greek soul. Congressman Bilirakis came to our studio for this interview directly from the airport, immediately upon his return to Washington from Florida. He provided us with this update on the mood of his constituents.
Mr. Bilirakis: The people in Tarpon Springs are very upset. They have a lot of relatives in Greece who suffer. As you know, after the original sponge divers came a lot of other people from all over Greece also settled in Tarpon Springs and in the areas around it. It’s a somber mood. We pray for the people in Greece. They are our brothers and sisters. We have a great connection with the people of Greece and we are going to help them out financially. I will be returning to Florida in the next few days to work on organizing a fundraiser for the people of Greece. We will do anything we can to help.
Mr. Bistis: Congressman John Sarbanes is very excited seeing the Greek American community really stepping forward all across this country. Ever since he was elected to Congress he has been encouraging the community to be more actively involved on issues that are close to its heart. The Congressman from Maryland views the latest community initiative as an important part of a multi level response.
Mr. Sarbanes: We have seen the U.S. government initially contributing about a million and a half dollars of assistance. There is also technical assistance going from the U.S. Forest Service to Greece immediately and there is going to be a fact finding by the Forest Service which will come back and let us know in the government whether there are additional measures that we can take to help with the situation in Greece. In addition, the House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution expressing the sympathy of the entire U.S. Congress for what has happened in Greece. So, this extends well beyond the Greek American community in terms of feelings that are being expressed by the United States. I also expect that there will be a very significant effort by the private sector led, I think, by the Greek American community and we are going to make sure that we get as much information to people as we possibly can about how they can help.
Mr. Bistis: AHEPA, the American Hellenic Education Progressive Association, which is the oldest and largest Greek heritage organization in the U.S., has mobilized its approximately 500 chapters across this country and Canada in a massive effort to provide support for Greece. Basil Mossaides is Executive Director. He spoke to us on behalf of traveling AHEPA Supreme President Ike Gulas.
Mr. Mossaides: We sent immediately from our hospital in Thessaloniki a team of doctors to the Kalamata area to provide any first aid that was needed. We also acquired 10.000 heads of livestock that will be sent to Kalamata, if they haven’t already been there. From our Headquarters in Washington we are sending care packages that consist of necessities, sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, toothbrushes, diapers, etc. Additionally we have initiated a fund drive for the collection of money to be donated through our chapters in Greece. Currently in four days we raised 25.000 dollars on our internet site for the AHEPA Greek Fire Relief Fund.
Mr. Bistis: Drives for the collection of public money in America, in addition to funds they often raise a variety of questions, particularly by the media. However no one until now has questioned the need to help the suffering Greeks. Congressman Zack Space gave us one good reason as to why this may be so.
Mr. Space: Greece has been there for the United States. Greece was one of the first countries to respond after the September 11 disaster in New York City. Greece was there after Katrina, a couple of years ago, to help with humanitarian relief. Now it is our turn to reach out and help those Greeks who are in need.
Mr. Bistis: AHEPA has expanded its fund raising drive for the Greek fire victims beyond the sphere of Greek America. Serbian American, Italian American and Jewish American organizations have reportedly become part of the drive. Basil Mossaides believes this a most important initiative.
Mr. Mossaides: Only with creating alliances and friendships with other organizations we can bring about better days for the affected people in Greece. You see ten dollars are not going to solve the problem. A billion dollars will be needed to replenish the land with trees, with animals and homes and we stand ready for the task.
Mr. Bistis: Experts believe that the wheels of the U.S. aid machine that produces packages of federal assistance to people in need around the world have started moving a little faster as a result of the Greek American mobilization. Ambassador Alexandros Mallias believes that two additional elements could prove to be crucial to the success of the total effort.
Mr. Mallias: The Greek American community has always been and will always be on the side of its motherland. At this point the community constitutes the heart of the mobilization. I am equally certain that the presence of a distinguished American of Hellenic descend, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who is the second in the hierarchy of the U.S. State Department, will contribute substantially in this direction. I also believe it is not coincidental that Andrew Natsios (former Director of USAID) has been selected by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America to serve as its special advisor for the coordination and the distribution of all the Archdiocesan humanitarian aid to Greece.
Mr. Bistis: His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios has no doubt that in time all the wounds suffered by the people of Greece who had the misfortune to go through this historic calamity will be healed as it has happened with the people of New York years after they experienced the nightmare of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Archbishop Demetrios: This is our hope. This is what I pray for. My projection is not wishful thinking. It is based on a reality that we ourselves have experienced so many times in this country.
Mr. Bistis: New initiatives to help Greece are being planned or undertaken practically every single hour of the day by large and small community groups in America. Even non-American based organizations such as SAE, the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, are soliciting contributions from the U.S. Theodore Spyropoulos is Coordinator for SAE America. He is based in Chicago.
The Embassy and the Consulates of Greece in the United States are also working extra hours providing information to public and assisting concerned Americans in making contributions to any of the accounts that have been opened for the benefit of the families of the Greek fire victims as well as for those displaced from their homes and for all the others who saw their properties and fortunes go up in smoke.
The losses from the fires in Greece are estimated to be between 1.6 and 5.4 billion dollars.