NEW YORK – Koula Sophianou, the Consul General of the Republic of Cyprus in New York, was the featured speaker of the inaugural Conversation with Women Leaders Series of the Association of Greek American Professional Women (AGAPW) on December 4.
The event which filled the Olympic Tower’s Atrium Café with well-wishers, was a beautiful occasion for bidding farewell to the devoted public servant who not only represented her island nation with intelligence, warmth and grace but who never missed an opportunity to promote the cause of justice for Cyprus, to thank the community for its support through the years, and to express her pride in its achievements, most of all, the advancement of Hellenism in America and the preservation of the Greek language.
Sophianou did not know that the Association would bestow upon her an award – but she might have guessed from its acronym – which perfectly expressed the feelings of everyone in the room: a crystal form that simultaneously evokes a living flame and a teardrop.
Dr. Olga Alexakos, the founder and president of AGAPW, welcomed and thanked the evening’s guests, dignitaries and benefactors, which included the Onassis Foundation (USA) Center which donated the space, represented by Penny Tsillas, the wife of its Executive Director, Ambassador Lucas Tsillas.
Dr. Aphrodite Navab, AGAPW’s Vice-President was the MC and moderator of the Q & A that followed.
Sophianou turned the invitation to speak on the topic of public service into an opportunity to honor the people in her life who conveyed to her the essence of public service. Although there were no government officials in her family, through their lives they taught her the meaning of duty.
First and foremost, there is her mother. Sophianou was 1 ½ years old when the Turks invaded and occupied northern Cyprus, including her hometown of Famagusta-Varosha. “Like other people, we lost everything – property, our home, our father.”
Now refugees, her mother found a job and made sure she gave Sophianou and her sister the best possible life – it was simply her duty.
Her maternal grandparents were also her teachers in the art of sacrifice, hard work and dedication – the characteristics of life in the diplomatic service that is masked by its glamorous exterior.
Sophianou said she was drawn to the Foreign Ministry by her desire to solve the Cyprus problem – an admission that resonated with the idealistic youth of many talented people in the room. “At 24 you think you can change the world,” she said.
Over time she learned that the qualities she was born with and which she developed nevertheless enabled her to make an impact.
Among her most important lessons was the importance and power of teamwork, which she illustrated through the co-operation she experienced between her Greek and Cypriots colleagues that led her country’s EU membership and its defense in the face of vicious attacks when its citizens voted against the deeply flawed Annan Plan in 2004.
Sadly, not everyone cares for the injustice and pain on Cyprus. Sophianou’s poignant yet forceful presentations caused people – Greeks and non-Greeks – to care. And to want to fight for justice and freedom on Cyprus.
During the Q & A she urged the women and men in the room to communicate with public officials, the media and their friends, emphasizing both the need for and the ease with which people can gain knowledge in the internet age.
One of the more touching moments came when she noted that she arrived in New York on November 30, 2009 – the day of the feast day of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Cyprus. Sophianou said she felt he was always at her side.
During her tenure her appreciation deepened for the efforts of the community for Cyprus, which she knew from childhood both from news reports of protest marches at the UN and in Washington, and on a more personal basis from the assistance she and her sister received from the Poll family in New York which furthered their education.
Duty figured in both cases. She learned that people like to Polls offered material, and vital moral support, from a sense of duty, and she learned up close as Consul General that members of the community “fight for Cyprus because you think it’s the right thing to do.”
Sophianou urged them to continue and declared “Each one of you is a leader…be informed, reach out, establish relationships…Support Greek and Cypriot artists and musicians and produce cultural events…Lets support each other, and modern Greek studies programs, and give more scholarships to students.”
The audience was aglow. One guest during Q &A said “They lit the Rockefeller tree tonight, and you lit up New York too.”
That’s how people have felt since November 30, 2009.