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In Their Words: Four Insightful Essayss

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Nick Larigakis
November 9, 2010—No. 74 (202) 785-8430

In Their Words: Four Insightful Essays

Participants of AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus describe their Personal Experiences

WASHINGTON, DC —The following Op-Eds by participants of the second annual AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus were published in The National Herald. The students’ insightful essays describe their personal experiences during the American Hellenic Institute Foundation’s trip to Greece and Cyprus.


Remembering Just Enough

by Leah Barkoukis

The shoreline in Famagusta was unlike any other I have seen in my life. More than a division of land and sea, it was a demarcation of freedom and occupation, and a paradox of beauty and beast. Looking out at the glistening ocean and across the landscape, Cyprus seemed a place of bountiful splendor. Dozens of luxury hotels spanned the shore almost as far as the eye could see, indicative of a bustling tourist destination - a place of peace and refuge.

Behind me though, a part of Cyprus was taken hostage. A closer look revealed an ugly truth regarding the country’s history and present situation. The seemingly luxurious hotels were deserted and dilapidated, and the light island breeze suddenly carried a tense and somber aura. The feeling of unease was compounded by the presence of armed Turkish soldiers who watched our group like hawks as we stood just feet away from the forbidden zone. Maybe Cyprus was peaceful, but it was evident that peace was nowhere to be found.

Yet it was here in Cyprus that our group from the American Hellenic Institute Foundation was told by one official in a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia that they [Greek-Cypriots] need to just forget about history and hurry up with a resolution. A gaffe by any normal standard never mind the carefully crafted State Department rhetoric, the comment left us shocked, our director vocally irate and alerted even the most reposed officials. However the statement resonates with each individual, it does shed light on the role of historical memory in present Greek and Cypriot society.

The degree to which historical memory figures in both countries’ current affairs must be a constant balancing act. The officials’ remark lies at one end of the spectrum regarding the role the past should play in the present. Clearly, too much historical memory can be toxic to a country’s future and hope of reconciliation. Yet by the same token, too little throws justice by the wayside in allowing crimes to be swept into the deepest corners of one’s memory.

Consequently, such historical amnesia in Cyprus would absolve Turkey of their violations of human, cultural and religious rights, and international legal conventions. A calling to forget in order to move forward also trivializes the issues, such that the weaker party of the conflict appears intransigent – an unfortunate characterization attributed to the Greek Cypriots by some. And lastly, forgetting the history as advocated by the official would also conveniently exonerate the United States of its role in the 1974 invasion which helped Turkey claim one third of the country.

It is true that scrutiny into the roots of the current conflict does not help matters much now because history illustrates that no party’s hands are clean. When standing on that beach in Famagusta, however, or at a desecrated church with Greek Cypriot headstones overturned and thrown into a shed—it becomes nearly impossible to ask for the slightest bit of historical amnesia for the sake of moving on. Instead, the focus must be on the ethical remembrance of the pieces of history that continue to affect the present situation.

Conversely, Greece seems to struggle with a superabundance of historical memory. If ancient architectural structures decorating Greece’s landscapes are not enough, persistent reminders that Greece was the birthplace of democracy are. With an understanding of the Golden Age of Greece and now the recent debt issues of its economy, it is also important to recognize Greece’s foreign relations. Though its current affairs may appear to play a minor role in global politics, to overlook them could prove to the detriment of diplomacy as overlooking their economy’s role did to global finance. The country faces many regional challenges with Turkey and struggles to find the confidence to stand up to stronger powers like the United States. Despite such impediments, Greece upholds international law, supports Turkey’s admittance into the EU and continues to serve as a loyal NATO ally. These are the facets of Greece’s foreign policy that ought to be remembered because these are the significant issues today.

The extent to which Greece’s and Cyprus’ current regional and international relations are recollected globally matter only as much as the significance attributed to the issues by both countries. I am confident that the problems vexing Cyprus and Greece will change but not easily. Without speaking up, acting and drawing attention to the issues, their problems will linger and continue to be forgotten by the masses. To transform their situations, Greece and Cyprus must take advantage of the various exogenous political, economic and social factors that have the potential to do so. A steadfast determination to educate, lobby and at all costs, to reject the status quo must form the foundation for future action.

Sometimes we must forget, other times we must remember what we would like to forget, but the real challenge lies in finding harmony between the two. It is my hope that Cyprus and Greece rise to the occasion and invoke the proper degree of historical memory for the purpose of bettering their today.

Leah Barkoukis is currently a research assistant and M.A. candidate in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and participated in the second annual AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.


American Hellenic Institute Foundation Foreign Policy Trip: A Call to Action

by John Papaspanos

My confidence in the future of Greece is anchored in her track record of overcoming adversity. In the spirit of the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, we can draw inspiration from the courage and self-sacrifice of Stylianos Kyriakides, the 1946 winner of the Boston Marathon, and his effort to save his country.

“It may be the worst of times; but it may become the best of times.” With this premise, seven Greek Americans, including myself, returned to the U.S. after participating in the second annual Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus—which was sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) and led by its Executive Director, Mr. Nick Larigakis. During the rigorous two-week program, we were granted an invaluable opportunity to learn about the important foreign policy and defense issues concerning the U.S., Greece, and Cyprus through a series of briefings by Greek and Cypriot policymakers, diplomats, parliament members, religious leaders, think-tank organizations, businessmen and members of academia. Essentially, this educational experience enriched our understanding of the ethnika themata by enabling us to gather information from direct and expert sources. And now that we have returned to the U.S. and our daily routines, we are equipped with the knowledge and the network base to make a contribution in accordance with the mission of the AHIF and the best interests of the U.S.—which is to uphold the rule of law in U.S. foreign policy, particularly in matters regarding Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey.

As Greek and Cypriot Americans, I believe it is our duty to transmit a better community for the next generation of U.S. citizens and all members of the Omogenia by strengthening relations between the U.S. and Greece and Cyprus as being in the best interests of the U.S. By reading the materials provided by the AHIF, namely the essays by leaders like AHI Founder and AHIF President Eugene Rossides, we learned about the importance of conducting effective public diplomacy to educate others, and the corollary task of engaging in advocacy.

Public diplomacy is very important in the policy-planning process and for shaping public opinion. It involves the use of information to inform others about the complex issues regarding Greece and Cyprus. It can take place in the office, at a restaurant, or in the university lecture hall. We can also use social networking sites like Facebook as a platform to organize the Greek and Cypriot grassroots network. Recently, a successful online campaign caused pop star Jennifer Lopez to cancel a planned concert in the Turkish-occupied territory of Cyprus.

During the program, I wondered if anything can be done to help Greece in her internal affairs. I realized that the many political, economic, and social problems that were major factors resulting in the debt crisis can only be addressed by the Greek people. When we were in Athens weeks after the tragic Marfin Bank incident—when President Papoulias stated that Greece has reached the “edge of the abyss”—I wrote the following prediction in my notebook: “In the coming years, observers may remember these recent months as the ‘worst of times’, but these dark days may have ushered in a new era for Greece. The potential for a new, modernized Greece is increasing as Prime Minister Papandreou, a Greek American, is executing transformative policies. I hope his ambitious agenda will achieve its objectives—including the recent smoking ban in public places.

Even more difficult and time-intensive than public diplomacy is the challenge of engaging in advocacy. It involves the mobilization of citizens to participate in the democratic process. Ideally, I believe the Greek government should invest in Washington, D.C. lobbyists and provide funding for think tanks. If U.S. policymakers are more aware of the strong strategic relationship between the U.S. and Greece, then perhaps Greece can assume a stronger geopolitical role and receive more favorable treatment by the U.S. For example, we learned during the AHIF trip that a high-ranking U.S. official assigned to defense issues was unaware of the importance of the U.S. naval facilities at Souda Bay, on the island of Crete. Such information, along with other salient facts provided to us by the Greek Ministry of Defense, should be relayed to both the White House and Capitol Hill by the Greek Government.

I believe the best course of action is for the Greek and Cypriot youth to become politically active. One way is to develop advocacy skills by interning or working for organizations like the AHIF. Due to the current diplomatic rift between Turkey on the one side and the U.S. and Israel on the other, we have a golden opportunity to gain traction on some issues. For example, Chairman Howard Berman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently oversaw a hearing about the deteriorating US-Turkish relationship. In his fourth point, Rep. Berman states, “It’s time for Turkey to draw down its absurdly high troop level in northern Cyprus. And Turkey should cease settling Turkish citizens in northern Cyprus.” Now that the window of opportunity has widened, it is time for the youth to get involved and to learn how to undertake political action.

John Papaspanos earned his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Seton Hall University in International Relation in 2010. He is currently conducting research on energy issues with a Fulbright Scholarship at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and he will be returning to the U.S. to study law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Class of 2014. John participated in the second annual AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.


“Notes from the Occupied North”

by Alfonso Romero

First…

We’re waiting in the beating sun outside of the van, lined up in our business-casual attire and designer sunglasses, looking very much like Americans as we wait on our driver, the man with the plan, to come back from negotiating with the border guards at the Turkish side of the Green Line. Before he left, before he hastily disappeared into one of the featureless offices that make up the checkpoint, he told us not to identify ourselves as college students on the AHI Foreign Policy Study Trip to Greece and Cyprus, he told us not to say anything about why we were visiting the North besides that we were interested in having a nice dinner in Famagusta.

As I sit here along the side of the crossing, I can’t help but let my eyes wander from the haphazardly-strewn concertina wire that marks the UN Buffer Zone, to the guard in the tower above us casually holding his rifle, to the legions of Turkish Cypriot laborers crossing back to the north—they give new meaning to everything I thought I knew about the evil eye. I’m starting to feel glaringly aware of the reality of everything we, as lobbyists-in-training, had been studying academically for the past days and weeks. Visions of headlines dance through my sun-addled brain. “American Students Arrested, Accused of Spying” is one of them. “President Carter personally thanks Alfonso Romero for helping ease tensions in the region” is one of the more grandiose ones.

I suddenly remember that my camera has pictures that include: 1. Touristic snapshots of the outside of the Capital Building, the White House, and the J. Edgar Hoover Building from the first day of our trip in Washington, D.C. 2. Pictures of our group in front of government buildings and with government officials in Lefkosia 3. Pictures of the UN Buffer Zone and the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus. I start to wonder if it would be a better idea to discreetly throw my camera into a shrub lest some inquisitive border guard misinterpret its contents.

Later…

Our driver, through some alchemy unknown to us, got us through the border checkpoint without a hitch, despite the fact that we looked like an audition group from America’s Next Top Politician. We’re in and driving through the occupied North, aka the “TRNC,” aka “The Turkish Entity,” aka “The Quotation-Marked Ambiguity.” We’re looking at everything like it’s our first time seeing it, wondering if things look more arid in this part of the island because of bad land management on the part of the Turks, or because this part of the island has less water. Is that a villa that was stolen during the invasion, or something built in the last few years for a Russian or English vacationer?

On our left we can now see the famous Turkish and Turkish Cypriot-entity flags garishly taking up the better face of a mountainside. Imagine that Coca-Cola were to lease half of the moon’s surface and then put up a gigantic red and white Coke logo up for all time. Now imagine that Coca-Cola’s military wing was responsible for the death of your countrymen and the occupation of your country for over 30 years and you start to get the picture.

Still later…

The air conditioning in the van is built for an older, simpler era, mainly an era where wooly mammoth still walked the earth. Miles and miles of deserted farms and crumbling farmhouses pass us by. At times it feels like our van is standing still and northern Cyprus is moving. Then we come to the graveyard. And the church.

Nestled alongside a sleepy and seemingly-uninhabited village (2 hours in the North and I’ve seen less people around than a procrastinators’ support group) is a church left over from before the ’74 invasion. The graveyard out back is binary. The Greek side is empty and overrun with weeds, the Turkish side is full of elaborate gravestones and well-maintained. We move on to the church, our footfalls crushing dried weeds and brush as we circle the abandoned and desecrated building, a sinister procession of the epitafio. The church itself has been gutted, left open to the elements with only pigeons as its flock. Outside, we see a shed. Inside the shed, the broken and carelessly strewn gravestones and crosses from the church and graveyard.

Famagusta…

The seaside city is frozen in an eerie mockery of 70s resorts; empty buildings promising tourism that will never come. Guards and snipers roaming the rooftops of abandoned, crumbling hotels as veiled women and day-trippers sunbathe and swim with the ghosts of this once-beautiful city. An entire city invaded and abandoned, preserved like a forgotten statue worn smooth from too much history. For my generation, the injustices of Famagusta and Cyprus are in danger, like a statue that we pass every day on our way to jobs, or school, or work, of fading away into the smooth surface of abandoned memory.

Alfonso Romero is currently a Master’s student in Political Science at the University of Cincinnati and participated in the second annual AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.


Reflections and Resolutions Regarding my AHI Greece and Cyprus Visits

By Michael Savvas

During a briefing at the American embassy in Cyprus, I heard from a State Department official the words, “History does not matter.”

This was the message that was conveyed to my colleagues and me at the American Hellenic Institute Foundation’s (AHI’s) Foreign Policy trip to Greece and Cyprus. The response was in regards to a question posed to Ambassador Frank Urbancic and his State Department colleagues about the atrocities in Cyprus. The young participants, sponsored by the AHI Foundation, were university students who studied history and foreign policy, and who, as AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis explained, “are constituents represented by 14 U.S. senators and 7 congressmen.”

Unlike my fellow participants, I was unique in that I had not joined this program in hopes of becoming an employee for the State Department or as a Greek lobbyist on Capitol Hill. My main incentive was to make a difference in my local community as an informed proponent of things Hellenic. I attend San Diego State University, which annually sponsors a trip to the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” Because I feel this program legitimizes this so-called “nation” as a sovereign state, I wanted to learn more about the Cyprus crisis so I could have the knowledge and credibility to explain to my university why this program is unethical and dishonorable. Because my education has prepared me to become a Special Education instructor, the briefings and experiences of the AHIF program were both informative and enlightening.

During a session at the American Embassy in Cyprus, I came to the conclusion that the U.S. government is more interested in a resolution that will alleviate the problem than in a fair settlement that distinguished victim from culprit, usurper from owner. Knowing at least the obvious, I was disturbed that the embassy spokesman gingerly avoided mentioning that Cyprus was invaded by Turkish troops who used American arms, in violation of previous international agreements.

Our visits to the American embassies in both Greece and Cyprus also taught me a lot about the State Department’s stance on both countries. While sitting in seats and a room that reminded me of an elementary school library, we listened to a State Department official read notes directly from a power point presentation. When it came time for questions, we asked the State Department officials about the American military base in Souda Bay and whether the Department of State was aware of improvements for the future. The embassy officials were unaware of any improvements that were to take place and I was distraught at their lack of insight regarding the base, since it is located in a key geopolitical location related to the Middle East.

Experiences in Greece and Cyprus inspired me to work in making a difference upon my return to the United States. Visiting the occupied area of Cyprus was emotionally draining but necessary since it was imperative to see the unsavory truth. During our visit, for example, we visited a desecrated Church that included a cemetery where tombstones were thrown in a shack as if they were trash. We also visited what was formally Famagusta’s resort area. Seeing five-star hotels that have been abandoned since the Turkish occupation and that now lie between barb-wired fences protected by armed Turkish soldiers showed me the extent of the Turkish occupation. Throughout Cyprus, on several hills and walls, we could see in Greek letters the words Δεν Ξεχνω (I Will Not Forget) and these words were a message for me as well, having vowed to make a united Cyprus an issue in the forefront of my concerns.

As a small beginning, upon arriving in the United States, I hosted a “Jennifer Lopez Party” among a dozen friends. I did this in order to honor the singer’s courage in cancelling her concert in the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” The AHIF foreign policy trip inspired me and has made me to want to make a difference and inform people about the atrocities that have taken place in Cyprus and about the intransigence of the Turks. In fact, the trip informed as well as inspired me to wish to make a difference and to educate people about the atrocities that have occurred in Aphrodite’s island. I shared my knowledge and opinions on Cyprus with my friends and classmates and will continue to do so in the future. Thanks to my education with AHIF, I plan to work in informing the uninformed about the injustices in Cyprus and to struggle for a fair re-solution to this perennial problem.

Michael Savvas is a senior at San Diego State University. He will be graduating with a B.A. in English in December and plans to pursue a teaching credential, so he can assist students with mild to moderate disabilities. Michael participated in the second annual AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.

Photos of the trip are available by clicking here. http://ahiworld.org/2010student_trip/index.htm

The American Hellenic Institute is a non-profit independent Greek American public policy center that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and within the Greek American community.

 

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For additional information, please contact Nick Larigakis at (202) 785-8430 or at [email protected]. For general information about the activities of AHI, please see our website at http://www.ahiworld.org.