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The American Hellenic Institute Celebrates 41 Years of Public Service
by Cindy Klimek
The American Hellenic Institute held its 41st annual Hellenic Heritage Achievement & National Public Service Awards Dinner on March 5th. The Black Tie event took place at the Capital Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C. About 350 to 400 people attended. “It’s definitely not a small event,” says AHI President Nick Larigakis with a laugh.
This year’s four honorees are Nicolas Bornozis, President of Capital Link Inc., a New York City-based investment firm, Basil N. Mossaidis, Executive Director of the Order of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), Rena Papapostolou, Co-founder of the ‘Return to Origins’ Hellenic Cultural Organization, and Peter J. Pappas, Chairman of PJ Mechanical Corporation, a New York-based construction company. The Master of Ceremonies was Larry Michael, the “Voice” and play-by-play announcer of the Washington Redskins football team. Music will be provided by Apollonia.
According to the AHI website, past winners have included “world-renowned musician Yanni, prominent businessman and philanthropist George Behrakis; former CIA Director George Tenet; George Stephanopoulos, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News, anchor of ABC’s This Week and former senior advisor to President Clinton; Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman James N. Gianopulos; AOL Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis; Senators Paul Sarbanes, Olympia Snowe, and Joseph Biden; Congressman Michael Bilirakis; and former U.S. Ambassadors to Greece Nicholas Burns and Thomas Miller, to name just a few.”
Says Larigakis, “The event is an opportunity to showcase prominent Greek-Americans within our community who have achieved a high level of success and who have given back to our community in the form of public service. The beauty of it is that even after all these years of doing this event, you never lack for good talent in our community in terms of reaching out and finding these kinds of people. We’re a very high-achieving and service-oriented community and we should all be proud of that. I’m definitely proud of that. Also, the gala is a great opportunity to highlight and showcase and promote the organization, the American Hellenic Institute, and the work that we do,” he says.
Larigakis himself has been with the AHI more than half of its 41 years, coming on board in 1987 as a “lowly office assistant” before climbing the ranks all the way to president. “I’ve got longevity!” he says with a laugh.
He adds, “My major in college and post-graduate studies involved Political Science and International Affairs and I always had a keen interest in the US foreign policy as it relates to Greece and Cyprus. In terms of trying to find work in the field of International Relations, when I learned of this organization it seemed like it would be a good fit for me regarding my academic background and my professional interests as well as my personal interests regarding specifically the foreign policy of Greece and the United States and the relationship between the two countries.”
This relationship was also important to the young AHI, which was just entering its teen years when Larigakis came on board, having been founded on August 1, 1974 following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The organization was invaluable in the United States’ adoption of the rule of law, or the belief that law should govern a nation, rather than the decisions of individual leaders or government officials, and thus cutting off US aid to Turkey. According to the AHI website, “After a dozen major votes in the Congress between September and December 1974, in which the entire community was active in support of the rule of law, Congress passed an arms embargo against Turkey. AHI coordinated the effort in the community, kept a vote count on a daily basis and provided the information to key supporters in the House and Senate. It was an historic success that should never be forgotten. It proved what could and can be done when we are in the right and united on policy. Fundamental to the success was the fact that we stood for the rule of law in international affairs as in the best interests of the U.S…In the years since 1974, AHI has kept the spirit of the rule of law alive. AHI and its affiliate organizations have championed the rule of law and American values in foreign policy as in the best interests of the U.S. This is especially true in Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, a region critically important to American national interests.”
AHI’s strong lobbyist foundations carry on to this day. Says Larigakis, “We actively engage members of Congress and their staff, including the White House and State Departments staff, we meet with them to discuss the issues, which are fluid and changing and you always have to keep up with, we host conferences regarding the issues, we have news forums to highlight particular issues that arise, we have events to commemorate different historical events that are important to us, we have publication programs. We’re very active.”
Besides AHI’s efforts to keep the current generation of leaders up-to-date regarding the issues, the organization also has its sights set on educating future generations by offering various intern and student programs, including a two-week College Student Foreign Policy Study Trip to Greece and Cyprus. “We have interns who come at different times of the year and get exposed to the public policy of Washington and specifically the kind of work that we do. We also have our very important student program where we take students to Greece and Cyprus so we can educate the next generation of Greek-Americans regarding the issues that the organization advocates for today,” says Larigakis, who heads the trip himself.
The trip is open to full-time undergraduate and graduate students. Approximately 10 are selected every year. The application deadline for this year’s trip (the eighth annual) is April 15th. Though students must be of either Greek or Cypriot descent to be eligible for the trip, Larigakis says most come from multicultural backgrounds and says it means a lot to him to help them discover the Hellenic branch of their family trees. “Keep in mind that these students are predominantly products of interfaith marriages, which is indicative of our community. We find with marriage statistics that the average across the Archdiocese is somewhere upwards of 80% in terms of interfaith marriages. That’s the reality of our community, and we’re able to reach out and expand outside our own traditional community and touch other communities, which is great. I’ll give you a small example. At our last program, there was student from the University of Pennsylvania, a very dynamic personality who was the product of a Greek father and Chinese mother. His parents met at an American university here, one having come from Greece and one from China. They met at school, fell in love, got married, and had this child. He had never traveled to Greece before. He had never traveled to Cyprus. Most kids in the program have never traveled to Cyprus, almost 99%. A higher percentage has traveled to Greece but he had never been to either one. I think it might have been his first trip outside the continental United States. He was just absolutely enthralled by the trip and the passion for the issues. He was involved and inquisitive and like a kid in a toy store. He met his relatives in Greece for the first time and it was a whole new world for him. So, he comes back to the States afterwards and he does everything he can possibly do to try to advocate for these issues, including writing articles for the University of Pennsylvania newspaper and the Future of Hellenism Conference of ours that I let him speak at. At the conference, his father came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Up until this trip he was gravitating a little more towards the other side of his culture, his mother’s side, which is fine, but now he can’t ask enough or talk enough about Greece and the trip and he wants to continue to learn and see as much as possible.’ That’s just a small example of how important this trip is to the kids and how important it has become to us,” Larigakis says.
Internships are also open to both undergrad and graduate students and can last from one month to several, depending on the student’s schedule. According to the AHI website, “Interns work directly with staff members on various activities, including performing research and analytics, drafting letters and memoranda, and assisting staff with other project-oriented tasks. They also attend lectures held at think tanks, monitor legislation and congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, draft press releases, and assist with general administrative duties.”
Says Larigakis, “We strongly believe that the current generation is not well-informed enough about these issues and we’re fearful about the future leadership and who will take on the task of promoting and advocating for these issues moving forward. The program is intended to do exactly that. To fill the void of educating this generation and making them understand what these issues are and why they’re important to United States interests as they relate to Greece and Cyprus.”
To learn more about the American Hellenic Institute, click their website is ahiworld.org
To learn more about AHI’s student programs, click here: http://ahiworld.org/for-students/policy-trip.html