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Students Gain Life Changing Experiences at AHIF’s Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus
The American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus completed its sixth year as nine students from across the United States participated in the two-week program held earlier this summer. The participants received firsthand experience about the foreign policy issues affecting Greece and Cyprus, their relations with the U.S., and the interests of the U.S. in the region. Meetings or briefings were held with American ambassadors, officials from various ministries, including foreign affairs; parliament members, religious leaders, think-tank organizations, and members of academia and the private sector of both countries. In Cyprus, the group visited the illegal Turkish-occupied area as well.
Prior to their departure for Cyprus, the students gathered for briefings in Washington, starting with Hellenic House in Washington for a briefing by AHI President Nick Larigakis and AHI Legal Counsel and Board of Directors Secretary Nick Karambelas. They also visited the Embassy of Cyprus to receive a briefing from Consul General Neophytos Constantinou and Congressional Liaison Eleftheria Aristotelous. From there, they went to Capitol Hill to attend a Hellenic Caucus-hosted member-level briefing with Ambassador of Greece to the U.S. Christos Panagopoulos. AHI Members Mr. and Mrs. Steve Veletsis hosted the students for a wonderful dinner at their home.
A full day of briefings from top legislators and diplomats on the issues, followed. The participants learned about the latest on Capitol Hill pertaining to Greek American issues from the co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues, U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).
At the U.S. Department of State, Deputy Director of the Office of Southern European Affairs Daniel Lawton, Senior Cyprus Desk Officer Amy Dove and Senior Greece Desk Officer Davida Baxter also briefed the students. In addition, Christine Brennan, columnist, USA Today, provided a media training presentation to the students.
During their five-day stay in Cyprus, the students met with several high-level government officials including: Government Spokesman Nicos Christodoulides, Ambassador Andreas Mavroyiannis, Greek Cypriot negotiator for the Cyprus problem; President of the House of Representatives Yiannakis Omirou, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Energy, Commerce, Industry and Tourism Stelios D. Himonas.
In between meetings, they visited the ancient archeological site of Kourion and Kato Paphos. They also went on guided tours of Kanakaria Mosaics at the Byzantine Museum and old Nicosia Airport-UNFICYP. Capt. Tomas Ciampor, UNFICYP military public information officer, led them on the airport tour. For the students, visiting the old Nicosia airport brought the Turkish invasion of the island to life. Once a hub of travel and a monument to the modernity and prosperity of Cyprus, is now wrought with bullet holes, barbed wire, and crumbling walls. It stands as a decrepit monument to the horror of the Turkish invasion.
One of the most eye-opening portions of the trip to Cyprus was the visit to the Turkish-occupied area. The students described their crossing over into the occupied area as entering a different world. Monuments to Turkish nationalism, culminating in two giant flags on the side of the PentadaktylosMountains, a Turkish flag and the “flag” of the “TurkishRepublic of Northern Cyprus” marked the landscape. They serve as constant reminders of the injustice of the occupation. “Visiting the Turkish occupied region of Cyprus really brought home how devastating the invasion and continued occupation of the island is till this day,” Peter Milios said. “The amount of destruction, desecration of Orthodox churches, and forced upheaval was shocking, and the atrocities committed there have yet to be resolved.”
Furthermore, the itinerary included a visit to the ghost city of Famagusta. They left knowing that what was once a busting port city is now a haunting testament to the realities of the Turkish occupation. They were shocked to see brand new resorts juxtaposed against abandoned, dilapidated properties once belonging to Greek Cypriots. “I specifically remember being on the beach in Famagusta with the DeadCity behind us, all yellow and cold, and people laying down on the beach sun-tanning,” said Zacharo Diamanto Gialamas. “I didn’t even have to take a picture because I was shocked at the site. But then again, these people don’t know any better and that may not necessarily be their fault. The DeadCity still seemed alive somehow with the memories the Greek Cypriots had in these buildings and streets and that is something no one can ever take away.”
On their first day in Athens the students were also treated to a private tour of the AcropolisMuseum provided by the Ministry of Culture. A welcome dinner hosted by the Ministry of Culture, was also held at the museum. First Counselor Nikolaos Yotopoulos represented the ministry of Culture.
The next day, they were excited to have an audience with President of the Hellenic Republic Karolos Papoulias at the Presidential Palace, a definite highlight of the itinerary in Athens. During the hour-long meeting, President Papoulias wished the participants success in their studies and engaged in a Q&A discussion. Also on July 1, the students met with U.S. Ambassador to Greece David Pearce at the U.S. Embassy. The meeting with the ambassador gave the students a strong handle on U.S.-Greece relations.
They also received a guided tour of the Hellenic Parliament and Tim Ananiades, general manager, Grande Bretagne Hotel, hosted a Welcome Reception.
In a first for the program, the students departed on a day-trip to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. Upon arrival they departed for Nea Santa, Kilkis, where they reviewed a demonstration of the 71 Air-Mobile Brigade weapons system and its capabilities following a briefing provided by Major General Antonios Nomikos, who is the commander of the 1st Infantry Division. Brigadier General Nikolaos Chionis, commander, 71 Air-Mobile Brigade, and Colonel Christos Zezos, commander, 595 Air-Mobile Battalion, also participated at the briefing.
The students visited the Vergina archeological site and received a guided tour.
Upon their return to Thessaloniki, they visited the Headquarters for the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps Greece (NRDC-GR) for a briefing with Lt. General Ilias Leontaris, commander, C’ Army Corps and HQ NATO Rapid Deployable Corps-Greece, and Major General Dimitrios Kalogeropoulos, chief of staff, NRDC-GR.
The students also received a presentation by the Hellenic Navy on July 2. There, they were provided a tour of the frigate, HS Salamis, by Commander Vasilios Griparis; and a tour of the submarine, HS Papanikolis, by Lt. Commander Georgios Karagiannis. Prior to the tours, Vice Admiral P. Litsas, commander in chief of the Hellenic Fleet, provided a briefing.
Following the presentation about Greece’s naval fleet, the students visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a series of briefings with: Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Kyriakos Gerontopoulos, Counsellor Elina Komini, who provided a briefing on Turkey; Counsellor Nikos Sapoutzis, who provided a briefing on maritime and aviation issues; First Counsellor Maria Zisi and Expert Counsellor Sergios Zambouras of the A2 Cyprus Department, who briefed the group on Cyprus.
The busy Greece itinerary did allow for some downtime and relaxation, enjoying an all-day boat outing compliments of Aris Drivas, an AHI supporter. An enjoyable time was also had when the group toured Karaiskakis Stadium, home of Olympiacos FC, which was sponsored by the club and its President Evangelos Marinakis. .
“We are sincerely grateful to Mr. Marinakis and his staff,” Nick Larigakis, the AHI President, said. “He granted our students exclusive access to the entire complex, opening it up for their sole enjoyment, including the exquisite Vammos restaurant. Again, the students received a truly memorable experience.”
The trip concluded with a farewell dinner hosted by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation at the Grande Bretagne. Each trip participant gave a speech about his or her experience, describing it as educational and life changing.
“The trip provided a wonderful opportunity to once again lead such an exceptional group of students to Cyprus and Greece,” Larigakis stated. “It was rewarding to see them gain firsthand experience about the foreign policy issues that concern U.S. relations with Greece and Cyprus. The AHI Foundation looks forward to offering this program annually as support for it has grown and student interest remains at significant levels since the program’s inception. We are extremely grateful to all of our sponsors, both in Cyprus and in Greece, for their generous hospitality and for helping to make the students’ trip a memorable one.”