A life in the service of the Greek diaspora

The Council for Overseas Greeks (SAE), founded in 1995, is the supreme representative organization for Greeks around the world and its president is one of the most prominent diaspora Greeks – Andreas Athanassoulias, son of Aristides and otherwise known as Andrew Athens. Born in 1922 in Chicago to immigrant parents, in 1955 he founded the Metron Steel Corporation, a particularly successful industry in the American Midwest that even today is one of the USA’s largest steelworks. Athens became involved in Greek community affairs early on in his adult life. Just about every major initiative to support Hellenism and the Orthodox Church in the USA and elsewhere bears his stamp, whether as a founding member or as the chairman of foundations and organizations. He has received over 42 awards from governments, philanthropic foundations and other organizations around the world. Athens also distinguished himself during his military service in the Second World War and in the reconstruction of Europe. As a US Army captain he took part in Allied operations in Europe and the Middle East and was honored both by the USA and by the Hungarian government for his contribution to that country’s postwar reconstruction. Still dynamic at 84, Athens said in this interview that the secret of vitality is not to be afraid of hard work, and to have vision, dedication, self-sacrifice and an unshakable faith in one’s ideals and goals – particularly if one’s role in society is to provide inspiration to others. What makes you believe that you can rally the forces of overseas Greeks, given Greeks’ penchant for self-absorption? For 25 years, I was president of the council of the Archdiocese of North and South America, during Archbishop Iakovos’s tenure. He was a very strong man, a patriot. He loved Greece. He was acquainted with all the US presidents from Nixon onward. Sometimes he would yell at us if we didn’t do things right. It was his way of telling us that we had to be a world force, that we couldn’t only care about Greek Americans. We had to interest ourselves in Canada, Australia, Europe and Africa. We had to get together, to acquire political power. We had to discover the universal nature of Hellenism. This December, I will have been head of SAE for 11 years. Wherever I go and meet Greeks I tell them: «Please, I know as a people we are a bit shortsighted and often don’t see further than our noses. But for heaven’s sake, if we stay in our shells, we will never progress.» What is good for one part of Hellenism should be good for all. We Greeks are all one. We shouldn’t consider Greeks from the Soviet Union as second-rate Greeks, because they suffered both under Stalin and under the Turks. Didn’t Stalin like Greeks? Not at all, because he knew that they were Orthodox Christians but mostly because they would not become Soviet citizens. They said they were Greeks and would stay Greeks. He sent them off on trains to the wildernesses of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Many lives were lost on these journeys. You are a second-generation immigrant. What was the siren song that attracted so many people away from Greece? When my father went to America it was 1904. It took him 30 days to get there on an old ship. Back then, the eldest boys in the family had to go abroad to make money to send home to their families. It was poverty that sent my father away from home. He ended up in Chicago in a room with five other people. Just as foreign immigrants are living today in Greece. Exactly. How did Americans treat the first Greek immigrants? You know how it is. It takes two generations before foreigners can enter a society. The Americans couldn’t stand the Greeks. They went after them, something like the Greeks here go after foreign immigrants. My father said he couldn’t walk down the street on his own, only with four or five others, if he didn’t want to be attacked. What did he do during the Balkan Wars of 1912? He came back to Greece to fight. Many Greeks did. He was shot in the leg in the battle of Bizani and another soldier saved him by carrying him back, because the Turks didn’t take prisoners. They had nowhere to put them, so they just killed them on the spot. When he returned to America he told us lots of stories about what he had been through. There were five of us children and, on Sundays, after church, he would tell us about the history of Greece and everything the country had suffered. One Sunday I asked him why he had gone back to fight. After all, he worked seven days a week to send us to school and put food on the table, as well as send money home to his parents. He got mad at me. «Greece is my homeland and someone wanted to enslave it. I went to fight for its freedom,» he said. We were kids, and those words made an impression on us. Former Soviet Union It seems that it is a deeply ingrained human trait to believe that immigrants will take the food out of our mouths. Perhaps it is understandable up to a point, but very often, acts committed against foreigners are criminal. I see it every so often in the former Soviet Union where I have been going for the past 10 years. Last year, up in the mountains of Georgia, local gangs slaughtered 22 Greeks so they could seize their property. One of them had been stabbed 100 times in front of his wife and disabled child. I went straight to the president and said I could not accept that. «I fought in the Second World War, in Africa and in Europe, but I didn’t fight for what is going on today. We Greeks have fought in every war and have lost so many people, one in nine. If you don’t stop this persecution of Greeks I’ll go to Washington and protest to the point where it will be harmful to your country,» I told him. I went back to the States, to Washington, started lodging protests and within a month the treatment of ethnic Greeks in Georgia changed. The American government gives economic aid to Georgia and brought pressure to bear. The Georgian government sent the army into the region, their Interior Ministry set up an advisory post for a member of the Greek community, so now there is better cooperation and coordination in dealing with the problem. There are fewer violent incidents, but things have not settled down completely yet. Greeks, particularly the older people, live in fear. Many old women sleep fully dressed, afraid of attacks in the night. Why do you keep traveling to the former Soviet Union? We have set up nine medical centers in six states – Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Albania. Every month, 40,000 people, not only ethnic Greeks, visit these centers for free treatment and medication. Hellenicare, founded at my initiative in 1997, is worth 120 million dollars. Funds come from the US government and from donations. Since 1997, we have only received a very small sum from the Greek government. Soon we want to found a new medical center for the Greek community in southern Russia. There are Greek communities around the Black Sea and in other countries in Eastern Europe that go back to antiquity, but have been forgotten by everyone. We at SAE want to be a source of hope for them. At the beginning of my tenure, I swore that no Greek would be forgotten because they are facing major problems, particularly since the fall of the former Soviet Union. In several countries, the health system and the economy have broken down and the people don’t even have basic healthcare, not even a doctor. Because of their Greek Orthodox heritage, many Greeks, particularly those who lived under communist regimes, were persecuted. Yet they still managed to survive and to maintain their Greek identity even if they had to do so in secret. Their love for Greece gave them the strength to persevere. I am proud to have met them. (1) This article appeared in the September 17 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.