Panepirotic Federation President Nicholas Gage’s Convention Gala Speech

Writer and Journalist, Nicholas Gage. (Photo: TNH archive/Theodore Kalmoukos)

CLEARWATER, FL – The Panepirotic Federation of America held its 40th biennial convention in Clearwater, February 21-24 and re-elected renowned author Nicholas Gage as Federation President. In his speech at the Convention Gala, he shared his pride in his heritage and noted the Panepirotic Federation of America’s dedication to its mission to help and protect Epirotes. Gage pointed out that “much more needs to be done because hostility towards ethnic Greeks in Albania is high at all levels of public life.”

The full text of his speech follows:

Last summer, I opened a small museum in my village of Lia, in the Morgana mountains of Epiros near the Albanian border, that features the work of an artist named Sotiris Sorogas, who is considered the dean of contemporary Greek painters. I chose him for the museum not because his grandmother comes from the village, but because of what he paints. He draws mostly the ruins of fallen walls and abandoned homes. But in the middle of those harsh surroundings, usually drawn in charcoal, he puts in a beautiful flower—a blood red poppy, a bright yellow daisy—a thing of beauty among the hard ruins.

I chose the work of Sorogas because for me, it captures the essence of our homeland—Epiros—a hard, unyielding land of rocks and ruins, but also a land of great beauty and splendor. I chose it also because it captures the essence of us Epirotes—a stoic people, hard as Sorogas’ ruins, but a creative people, capable of gestures and achievements as splendid as his flowers. It is the ideal metaphor for the creative drive that inspires Epirotes to flourish amidst great difficulties.

It was in Epiros that the Greek language was created, according to Aristotle. And the music of Epiros has influenced music all over the world for centuries. In 2014, The New York Times magazine published a seven-page article on the music of Epiros, which the author called “the world’s most beguiling folk music.” Last year, a major American publisher, Norton, issued a new book by musicologist Christopher King titled “Lament from Epiros,” an exploration of our musical traditions which it described as so old and so pervasive that “they must be considered part of what makes us human.”

But our achievements are not limited to our culture. While several regions fight to claim Alexander the Great as their own, the one thing certain about him is that he was half Epirotan, because his mother Olympias was a princess of Epiros.

And our glory is not limited to the distant past. An hour’s drive northeast of Ioannina is a small village called Vrisohori, perched way up on the Pindus Mountains. From that village came two brothers whose children would reach America and produce in time, Michael Dukakis, the first Greek-American to run for president of the United States, and John Cassavetes, the great actor and director, who is the founding father of independent films.

But we don’t have to go very far for an example of Epirotes who have scaled the highest mountains of achievement. We have here with us tonight the individual considered the greatest weightlifter of all time, winner of three Olympic gold medals and one bronze, Pyrros Dimas, a proud son of Himara in Northern Epiros.

While we Epirotes can take pride in our history, our culture and our achievements, we cannot forget that our homeland is a divided land and half of our people live in captivity. So we at the Panepirotic Federation of America have made it our primary mission to help and protect them.

Through our lobbying in Washington, our influence with international organizations, our direct discussions with Albanian leaders, and our consistent pressure on Albanian authorities, we have improved the lives of ethnic groups in Albania significantly. We ended the climate of fear that authorities created against them, increased economic and political opportunities for them, and expanded their rights to preserve their faith, culture and traditions. Most important, we have established the principle that American policy toward Albania is determined by Albania’s treatment of ethnic Greeks in the country. What we say and what we do matters in Albania and that is why we have had such a strong impact on the country and why its top leaders have been willing to negotiate with us to improve the treatment of our people there.

Because of our strong efforts on behalf of our people in Northern Epiros, I am seen as a red flag in Albania. At one time I was declared persona non grata – the only American not allowed to enter the country. And even today, when I go to Albania, every major newspaper in the country publishes front page stories questioning why I am there. Yet despite my notoriety, every Albanian prime minister, even the one who declared me persona non grata, has met with me to negotiate better conditions for the Greek minority. They have done that because they’ve seen how hard we fight for our people.

Of course, much more needs to be done because hostility towards ethnic Greeks in Albania is high at all levels of public life. But we at the Panepirotic Federation are well prepared for a long campaign. Even though some of us are reaching the end of our service, younger and stronger members are ready to take over and to recruit others even younger than they are. We will continue the struggle for as long as it takes for our people to feel safe and free.

Zito E Epiros, Zito E Epirotes ton Pente Epiron!