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The “Case” for AHEPA

By on October 18, 2019
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

The recent election of New Democracy’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Greece has been greeted with a fair amount of relief and optimism by many in Greece, abroad, and in the large Greek Diaspora. It is early days, but there is a fair amount of optimism that “this time it will be different.” We have of course heard this before, and I am by no means a natural supporter of Mitsotakis, but as the father of children (who are also, incidentally, Greek citizens) I feel compelled to have a bit of cockeyed optimism.

Certainly, the management consultant-style set of goals for each minister promises at least a titular respect for performance metrics, and specifically the appointment of a Greek American publisher as Diaspora Minister points to an active engagement with the Diaspora—the real Diaspora. I view this as positive.

We Diaspora Greeks often deride Greeks in Greece as calcified and corrupt, but perhaps this is an opportunity now to consider our own role in the global Greek context and the relative strengths and weaknesses of our own institutions. How representative are they, who do they represent, are they effective? A bit of navel gazing is in order.

I am partially excepting the Greek Orthodox Church from this discussion from the outset, because the Church is not designed as a representative but rather a hierarchical organization. We can debate the merits of this or the problems, but I for one accept and subscribe personally to the spiritual and cultural role of the church as generally positive and representing the majority—but by no means all—of Greek Americans.

There are also the numerous organizations who focus on their places of origin in Greece (or outside Greece) and while these often foster local ties within the particular region in Greece, we may question their role in a future where most Greek Americans struggle to keep ties with Greece in general, much less a particular region. A fourth-generation person of half Greek background will have enough challenges connecting with his Greek background, much less his, say, Cretan background. We wish these organizations well, but their future role is likely limited under the present circumstances.

What about the several Greek lobbying and advocacy organizations that often—but not always—have a Washington D.C. headquarters? This is a mixed bag. Only one could possibly claim to be representative (more on this later) of a large Greek American constituency or membership. Therefore, for these organizations to claim they are acting on behalf of the Greek American community is rather a stretch. They often advocate issues which resonate with their fellow Greek Americans, but generally they are acting either on their own account, or on behalf of large donors, or the Greek or Cypriot governments who have commissioned their services.

Let us ask, further, what are these services? What milestones can they point to, and how do they evaluate their performance? To be fair, this is not easy. Did a piece of Greece- or Greek community-favorable legislation pass due to their efforts, or due to shifting politics globally and domestically? Often there is no easy answer, but do we not owe it to ourselves to ask the questions? Particularly if they claim to act on behalf of Greek Americans? If you are acting in my name, I should know what you are doing. It seems fair to me, but Washington in general does not seem to act that way—if indeed it ever did.

As I hinted earlier, and in the article’s title itself, I do believe that one organization has the potential to act on behalf of Greek Americans, both in Washington and abroad. It is AHEPA, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.

At first glance, AHEPA seems a strange choice but please bear with me. I am a historian, and I appreciate AHEPA’s deep American roots. Founded in 1922 in Atlanta, in large part as a riposte to the nativism and bigotry of the era—when Greeks and other Southern/Eastern Europeans were the “other,” the organization taught American values along with pride in heritage. Its successes included massive war bond drives during World War Two, and millions of dollars in aid for Greek War Relief. According to a recent article by my friend Greg Pappas in The Pappas Post, AHEPA raised $500 million in war bonds, more than any other single US organization. AHEPA stewarded generations of young Greek American men and women into adulthood with sports and cultural activities, and the occasional political action when needed. AHEPA’s values were present when the late great Archbishop Iakovos marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King.

Beyond the historical gravitas, there is AHEPA’s infrastructure. It is national and most Greek communities of any size continue to have an AHEPA chapter, usually—though not always—a shadow of its former size. This organizational and often brick-and-mortar presence is not shared by any other Greek organization and even in an age of the internet, the physical presence does matter. It matters to your representative or senator, who is more likely to listen to a delegation of registered voters at the district level, than to a delegation in Washington. Sometimes too, chapters have endowments waiting for profitable use. Think of scholarships for our young people, educational programs for Greek Americans, and, crucially, our fellow Americans, or targeted, thoughtful and (crucially) effective aid to Greece.

Having said that, AHEPA is not without its own calcifications. That said, many chapters are growing, despite the national organization’s problems. The young people in both the Sons of Pericles and the Maids of Athena have shown great faith in this venerable organization and form a cadre of several generations of a flowering organization, if they are just given a chance. These youth then mentor younger members, such as my own son, at age 15 the youngest member of the Sons of Pericles New Renaissance 5 Chapter.

Exhibiting a sense of history as Americans and Hellenes, these young people have championed the recognition of the Greek Genocide during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, liaising with state and federal officials, to bring this issue to the forefront—long overdue. This energy and technocracy from a very well-educated younger generation, backed by an infrastructure bequeathed to it by their elders and history, can propel AHEPA forward domestically and internationally.

It is time that we tap the reservoir of intellect, passion and technocracy within the Greek community, not just the donor class, but the regular people with strong middle class American and Greek values. They have been the key to our community’s success in the past, and AHEPA grew with them as an infrastructural and cultural center of gravity. It is time to draw on our history to do it again.


About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.