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Seventh Annual AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece, Cyprus a Success
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Georgea Polizos
September 14, 2015—No. 45 (202) 785-8430

Seventh Annual AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece, Cyprus a Success

Students Gain Firsthand Experience about Eastern Mediterranean Region

The American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus completed its seventh year as ten students from across the United States participated in the two-week program held June 17 to July 3, 2015. 

The student participants were: Zoe Andris, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology at Kenyon College; Corinne Candilis, a junior at Swarthmore College who is pursuing an Honor’s degree in Economics with a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies; Jerry Christodoulatos, a recent graduate of Villanova University who received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, Classical Studies and History; Kristina Demolli, who is currently a senior at the University of California, Santa Cruz, pursuing a double major in Human Biology and Economics; Orlando Economos, a rising junior at Tufts University who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Film Studies and Production; Elias Gerasoulis, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts double major in government and history at the University of Pennsylvania; Yanni Metaxas, a junior at Boston University who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics with distinction in Arts & Sciences and a minor in Modern Greek Studies; Niko Piperis, who is a rising junior from Omaha, Nebraska pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Philosophy at Boston College; Peter Tsetsekos, a pre-junior at Drexel’s LeBow College of Business pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration; and Elizabeth Vasilogambros, who is a sophomore at Butler University pursuing her Bachelor of Arts double major degree in Political Science and Strategic Communication with a minor in sociology.

During the program, the students 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 embassies, 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 Turkish-occupied area.

“The trip provided a wonderful opportunity to once again lead such an exceptional group of students to Cyprus and Greece,” AHI President Nick Larigakis said. “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.” 

Washington, DC

Prior to their departure for Cyprus, the students gathered for briefings in Washington, June 17-18.  

On June 17, the students assembled at AHI’s Hellenic House in Washington for a briefing by AHI Legal Counsel Nick Karambelas. In the afternoon they learned about the latest developments 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). They also were briefed by Eleftheria Aristotelous, congressional liaison, Embassy of Cyprus and toured the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum. 

A full day of briefings from top diplomats and community leaders were held June 18. In the morning, Amy Dove, Cyprus desk officer, Nicole Lima Nucelli, Greek desk officer, and Phil Kosnett, director, Office of Southern European Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, all briefed the students. They also met with Ambassador Christos Panagopoulos, ambassador of Greece to the United States; and First Counsellors Nicolaos Krikos and Antonis Papakostas for a briefing at the Embassy of Greece. In the afternoon, Ambassador Patrick Theros provided a presentation to the students. Lastly, they attended a discussion on the relationship between Greece, Cyprus and Israel with Rebecca Levin, senior associate, Political Outreach, AJC; and Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president, B’nai B’rith International. 

Cyprus

The delegation arrived in Nicosia, Cyprus on June 20.  During their five-day stay, 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. 

The students also had a meeting with Commissioner to the Presidency for Humanitarian Affairs and Overseas Cypriots Fotis Fotiou and a briefing provided by Ambassador Pavlos Anastasiades, June 24.  Also that day, the ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a luncheon for the students and also provided a briefing on the Cyprus issue by Michalis Zaharioglu, director of Communication, ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The students received briefings on defense matters from Lt. Col. Stylianos Siakallis of the Cypriot National Guard and Brigadier General Dimokritos Zervakis at the Cyprus Army General Staff headquarters.  

The students attended a working luncheon during their visit to Cyprus. The Press and Information Office sponsored it on June 24.  Vaso Chrysantho and Melina Demetriou represented the press and information office at the luncheon. 

In addition, the students had an audience with American Ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus John Koenig and members of his staff at the American Embassy and an audience with His Beatitude the Archbishop of Cyprus, Chrysostomos II at the Holy Archbishopric of Cyprus. 

In between meetings, they took a day excursion to Moni Kykkou monastery, museum and Throni, and the Tomb of Archbishop Makarios on June 21. On June 22, the students enjoyed a beach trip to Agia Napa and visited Shiakolas Tower, Tymvos Macedonitissas military cemetery, and Limassol marina on June 23  

They also went on a guided tour of old Nicosia Airport-UNFICYP.  Capt. Maj. Robert Sczakszon, UNFICYP military public information officer, led the students on the airport tour.  For the students, visiting the old Nicosia airport brought the Turkish invasion of the island to life. The students made the observation that the airport, which was 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. 

Visit to Turkish-occupied Cyprus

One of the most eye-opening portions of the trip to Cyprus was the visit to the Turkish-occupied area, June 22. The students described their crossing over into the occupied area as entering a different world. They observed a strong, undeniable Turkish presence in the occupied area. Monuments to Turkish nationalism, culminating in two giant flags on the side of the Pentadaktylos Mountains, a Turkish flag and the “flag” of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” marked the landscape.  They serve as constant reminders of the injustice of the occupations and filled the students with a range of emotions.

While in the occupied area the students visited a desecrated Orthodox Church. The church was decrepit, filled with pigeon droppings, broken windows, and void of icons. They also witnessed a desecrated and looted Orthodox cemetery.

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 felt grief when I saw Famagusta and realized that people who referred to it as a ‘ghost town’ were not exaggerating; if anything they were playing it down,” Kristina Demolli said. “I felt anger when I heard about the more than 1,000 missing Greek Cypriots whose whereabouts are unknown, yet no one, not even the United Nations, is doing anything to help bring peace and closure to the relatives of all those people.”

Overall, the Cyprus journey provided the students with a lasting impression about the Cyprus issue. Their visit to the island was both informational and inspirational, informing the students about the different facets that make up Cypriot foreign policy and showing them the devastating effects of the illegal military occupation by Turkey since 1974.

Greece

After an enlightening trip to Cyprus, the students embarked for a nine-day visit to Greece. 

On their first day in Athens, June 26, the students were treated to a private tour of the Acropolis Museum conducted by Ms. Anna Benaki. A welcome dinner hosted by the Ministry of Tourism, was also held at the museum.  Antonis Miyakis, directorate of Services Abroad, Public Relations Department, represented the ministry of Tourism and spoke with the students.

Also on the first day, Libra Group CEO George Logothetis held a discussion with the students at The Grande Bretagne Hotel. 

Tim Ananiades, general manager, Grande Bretange Hotel, hosted a Welcome Reception for the students.

Students Receive Tour of NSA Souda Bay, Crete

The students departed on a day-trip to visit Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay, Crete, June 26.  They toured the NATO Missile Firing Installation (NAMFI) and received a briefing from Lt. Lazaros Skylakis; visited the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Center (NMIOTC), toured a training frigate stationed at NMIOTC, and received a briefing and presentation from Capt. Spyridon Lagaras, Cmdr. Parisis Kanoutos, Cmdr. Corrado Campana, and Capt. Nikolaos Kapokakis; and toured U.S. facilities at Souda Bay.  The students also received a tour and briefing of an F-16 thanks to Capt. Emmanouil Papadakis and a briefing at the 115th Combat Wing by Col. Konstantinos Zolotas, 115th CW Operations and Training director.  Before departing Crete, the students were treated to dinner at the Officers’ Club.  

“A special thanks to Captain Dimitrios Dimitriou for his support and assistance. He worked closely with us to ensure that our visit to Souda Bay a productive and educational one,” Larigakis said. “An additional thank you to Lt. Lazaros Skylakis for not only briefing the group but also hosting a dinner for us at the Officer’s Club. He really went above and beyond the call to ensure the students had a memorable visit.”

Upon their return to Athens, the students continued to learn about Greece’s defense and military capabilities with a briefing they received from Deputy Defense Minister Nikolaos Toskas at the Ministry of Defense (essentially Greece’s Pentagon), June 29. While at the Ministry of Defense, Capt. Dimitri Dimitriou and Lt. Gen. Georgios Paraschopoulos, chief of staff, Hellenic National Defense General Staff also briefed the students.

The next day, the students arrived at Salamis for a Greek Naval Fleet presentation, including a visit to a Greek naval frigate and submarine. They met with Commander in Chief of the Hellenic Fleet Vice Admiral Georgios Giakoumakis H.N. and received a briefing from Capt. Michael Naoum.  A tour of the H.S. Spetsai, a frigate, was provided by Cmdr. Panayiotis Karavas.  Lt. Cmdr. Georgios Karagiannis, commanding officer, H.S. Papanikolis, provided a tour of the submarine. 

Students Meet Greece’s President, Tour Parliament

The students were excited to have an audience with President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos at the Presidential Palace on July 1—a definite highlight of the itinerary in Athens. During the hour-long meeting, President Pavlopoulos wished the students success in their studies and engaged in a Q&A discussion where he stressed his views about the importance of U.S.-Greece relations.  The students were honored to meet the president and appreciated the generous amount of time he afforded them.  

Also on July 1, the students met with Alternative Minister of Tourism Elena Kountoura. They also received a guided tour of Hellenic Parliament and met with Members of Parliament Athanasios Athanasiou and Maria Triantafyllou, who represented the Standing Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense and the Select Permanent Committee on Greeks Abroad. 

During the evening, Secretariat General for Greeks Abroad Michalis Kokkinos hosted the students for dinner.

Students Meet Archbishop of Greece, Foreign Ministry Officials

In addition, the students had an audience with His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All Greece, June 30.  That evening, the students were treated to dinner at the beautiful Yacht Club of Greece in Piraeus sponsored by Navios shipping company and graciously facilitated by Angeliki Frangou

Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefings were held July 2.  Topics included: Cyprus with Sergios Zambouras, expert advisor A, A2 Cyprus Division; Turkey with Ambassador Alexandros Couyou, A4 Directorate for Turkey; the Western Balkans with Christoforos Psilos, expert counsellor, A3 Western Balkans Division; and Greek-American relations with Periklis Ghicas, first counsellor, A7 Department for North America.   Ghicas explained his job responsibilities, which include working with American officials to educate them about the strategic importance of Greece’s issues to the United States.

The itinerary in Athens also afforded the students the opportunity to learn more about Greece’s economic crisis during meetings with Ambassador Ioannis Vrailas, deputy head of the Delegation of the United Nations, and Dr. Constantine Papadopoulos, former secretary general for International Economic Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current instructor at the American College of Greece’s business school.  They also met with George Michelis, chairman, Hellenic Financial Stability Fund. 

Additional meetings and briefings were held with: Nick Gage, award-winning Greek American author and former investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times; and Professors Theodoros Couloumbis and Ioannis Armakolas, ELIAMEP—the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy.  The academicians gave their perspectives on contemporary issues facing Greece. 

Furthermore, the students got a taste of the Fourth of July celebrations in Greece as they enjoyed a July 4th reception at the U.S. Embassy in Athens on July 2.  They were also able to meet U.S. Ambassador David Pearce at the reception.

The busy Greece itinerary did allow for some downtime and relaxation for the students, who enjoyed an all-day boat outing compliments of Aris Drivas, an AHI member, June 27.  That evening, AHI member George Mermelas sponsored a dinner for the students at Mirtia restaurant in Nea Smyrni.  An enjoyable time was also had when the group toured Karaiskakis Stadium, home of Olympiakios FC, June 28 which was sponsored by the club and Evangelos Marinakis.  They also sponsored dinner that evening at the exclusive Vammos restaurant. Katerina Milona represented the sponsors.

“We are sincerely grateful to Mr. Marinakis and his staff for a private tour of Olympiakios Museum and the stadium,” Larigakis 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. Many of the officials with whom the students met and AHI supporters attended the dinner.  Each student gave a speech about his or her experience. The students’ statements differed, but there was a common thread of gratitude to all of the AHI Foundation supporters. All of the students described their experiences on the foreign policy trip as educational and life changing.

“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,” Larigakis said.  “Their selfless contributions to the AHI Foundation program are invaluable.”


Photographic slideshow created and produced by 2015 participant, Orlando Economos.


Student Testimonials and Reflections…In their own words… 

andrisThe AHIF Foreign Policy trip gave me an unforgettable learning experience, one that would have been impossible to attain from any textbook or lecture. I began the trip knowing very little of the Cyprus problem and Greek-U.S. relations, and now I can confidently say that I have a strong base of knowledge of both of these topics—from being briefed by Cypriot and Greek officials and diplomats to being in both countries and experiencing it firsthand. 

Not only was this trip educational and informative, but it also reinforced my pride as a Greek-American. Learning about the social, political and economic challenges of both countries strengthened my ties and affinity towards my heritage and culture. I returned to the United States with a notebook completely filled with briefing notes, nine brilliant new friends, and a rekindled sense of philotimo for my home country, for Cyprus, and the citizens of both countries.—Zoe Andris is a junior pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology at Kenyon College in Ohio. 

candilisThe American Hellenic Institute Foundation provides students with an inside look at the occupation of Cyprus and Greek-American relations in a way that no other organization can. Nick Larigakis uses his decades of experience to select enlightening speakers and alerts students to the most current issues surrounding the topics. The result is a collection of students equipped with both an in depth and up to date knowledge of Cypriot and Greek international issues and interests.—Corinne Candilis is a junior at Swarthmore College pursuing an Honors degree in Economics with a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies.

christodoulatosThe AHIF Foreign Policy trip was a truly unique learning experience for me. Meeting government officials, military officers and other policymakers added a tangible dimension to the theoretical concepts I had learned about in my international relations classes during college. These decision makers gave the AHIF group invaluable insight into the challenges that face Cyprus and Greece. Visiting Greece in this time of crisis was a particularly poignant experience; I have visited Greece almost every summer since I was born, but I have never seen it in such disarray. I witnessed citizens uneasily waiting at ATMs, hoping that they would be able to withdraw money to go about their daily lives. And then I watched the passionate demonstrations at Syntagma Square, where the gathering of people in unimaginable numbers prior to the July 5th referendum was truly moving. I saw a side of Greece that I had never seen before.

And yet, perhaps the most enjoyable part of the trip was learning and growing with the diverse group of participants, whose connections to Greece and experiences with Greek culture varied immensely. Every student added a unique element to the chemistry of the group. And most importantly I’d like to thank Nick Larigakis and Georgea Polizos, whose work and commitment made the trip possible.—Jerry Christodoulatos is a recent graduate of Villanova University in Pennsylvania, who received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, Classical Studies and History. He plans to enroll in Ph.D. program in the fall of 2016 and eventually pursue a professorship in the field of international relations.

demolliBeing one of ten Greek-American students chosen to represent the United States was an absolute privilege and honor for me. It was by far the most rewarding experience I have ever had the pleasure of being a part. I have never had so many emotions flood through me in such a short period of time. I felt grief when I saw Famagusta and realized that people who referred to it as a ‘ghost town’ were not exaggerating; if anything they were playing it down! I felt anger when I heard about the more than 1,000 missing Greek Cypriots whose whereabouts are unknown, yet no one, not even the United Nations, is doing anything to help bring peace and closure to the relatives of all those people. However, I also experienced great pride when I saw that despite all the struggles that Cyprus is experiencing, they are overcoming all those issues and emerging as a great partner that has so much to offer. Lastly, I am deeply grateful to AHI for exposing me to this great injustice because although I bear a responsibility as a Greek to support Hellenism, it really isn’t a matter of taking sides; it is an injustice to humanity and we owe it to ourselves to bring peace to all those affected.

Being back in Greece and seeing how functional and unaffected Athens looked gave me peace and a sense of reassurance that no matter how frightening a picture international media painted, Greece would always be able to stand on its own and overcome any struggle. Even though I did not agree with some of the policies the government was implementing or how the people reacted with uprising and public gatherings at the heart of Athens, it gave me a great sense of pride and honor, dare I say, to be present at such an historical moment and be able to witness democracy happening in the same country that gave birth to it.—Kristina  Demolli is a senior at the University of California, Santa Cruz, as a double major in Human Biology and Economics. 

economosThe AHIF Foreign Policy Trip is an incredible experience for any Greek-American. The work that AHIF is doing is of paramount importance to Greeks and philhellenes everywhere. Going abroad and being exposed to the foreign political apparatus of Greece showed me a side of the country that you rarely see on summer vacation on the islands. I cannot recommend this program highly enough, and would have every young Greek-American participate if it were possible.—Orlando Economos is a junior at Tufts University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Film Studies.

gerasoulisThe AHIF Foreign Policy trip to Greece and Cyprus was a truly profound experience. We are currently living in an age that is overflowing with information, but often lacking in authentic insight. The AHIF trip was not only tremendously effective in teaching delegates about policy, but a transformative experience that allowed students to gain a deeper perspective and greater self-realization. From visiting the occupied area and the city of Famagusta, which has been abandoned since 1974, to engaging in a dialogue with the President of Greece during a historic time not only for Greece but for the entirety of Europe, the trip gave the delegates rare lifetime experiences and opportunities. We are all incredibly grateful for how AHIF has empowered us as young leaders, and it is our duty to use these experiences to help us shape the kind of world that we seek.—Elias Gerasoulis is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania (Upenn) majoring in history and government with a focus on pre-law. 

metaxasThe AHIF Foreign Policy trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every Greek-American has pride for, and a sense of what it means to be Greek-American. The AHIF trip succeeded in bringing these people together in their ancestors’ land and enhancing their overall experience and sense of what it means to be Greek-American.

Mostly everyone connects with their heritage through the customs, traditions, religion and overall culture of that heritage. But the AHIF trip was able to go beyond that and give Greek-Americans the opportunity to connect with their heritage in a deeper way. Being able to go to Greece and Cyprus and learn about the modern-day foreign policy of two nations with rich histories put a new spin on my view of my favorite region. I had already known the history, the democracy, the independence, the various occupations and much more. But now I am able to look at Greece and Cyprus as modern-day states and understand how they operate in the world in which I live, today.—Yanni Metaxas is a junior at Boston University pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics with distinction in Arts & Sciences, and a minor in Modern Greek Studies.

piperisBefore embarking on the AHIF Foreign Policy trip, I was skeptical of how much I was going to learn, having already spent extensive time in Greece. The ability to feel immersed in contemporary Greek issues, however, took my understanding of my Hellenic identity to a new level. I feel more connected to modern Hellas, and feel that I can truly serve as an advocate for Hellenic issues in my own communities. That is the greatest gift I received through my AHIF Foreign Policy trip experience, and I’m excited for more Greek American college students to feel the same way.—Niko Piperis is a junior from Omaha, Nebraska pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Philosophy at Boston College. 

tsetsekosI will always cherish the opportunity I had to discuss the Greek crisis with those that are taking the crisis by the horns at this very difficult time. It's one thing to read about it on CNN or Huffington Post, and another actually to be in Syntagma Square speaking with influential individuals.—Peter Tsetsekos is a pre-junior at Drexel’s LeBow College of Business, in Philadelphia, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration. 

vasilogambrosThis trip to Greece and Cyprus was one of the most important experiences of my life. As a Greek American, I knew something of the issues facing Greece from discussions at family dinners, but seeing everything first-hand was life changing. This trip provided us with the opportunity to see first-hand what documentaries and textbooks cannot fully describe or explain. I cannot describe the feeling in my heart when I saw the desecrated churches and cemeteries and the effect the occupation has had on the people of Cyprus. I listened in horror to the reports of the missing persons even years after the illegal invasion by Turkey. 

The timing of our trip also provided us with the opportunity to see history in the making in Athens. From our hotel room, we watched the rallies in Syntagma Square. We experienced the long lines of people waiting, trying to get just a little bit of money from the bank. Just enough to help them survive for the week. Meeting the President of Greece and listening to his plea to America, through us, Greek American students, was a lesson in politics that you cannot learn in the classroom. I’ve always known that I wanted to use my majors of Political Science and Strategic Communication to help a cause that I believed in. This trip helped me realize that I want to use my talents to fight human rights abuses such as I experienced on Cyprus. Finally, this trip gave me the opportunity to meet some extraordinary individuals. Although each of us, the participants, came from different backgrounds and had different majors, we shared the fact that we were proud Greek Americans who all felt passionate about what we learned.—Elizabeth Vasilogambros is a sophomore at Butler University pursuing her Bachelor of Arts double major degree in Political Science and Strategic Communication, with a minor in sociology. 

 

 

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For additional information, please contact Georgea Polizos 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 and follow us on Twitter @TheAHIinDC.