BOSTON, MA – The Panepirotic Federation of America (PFA) is far from being the biggest Greek-American organization in the country, but for the past two decades it has been one of the most effective, especially in promoting the rights of ethnic Greeks in Albania.
To find out how the group does it, we asked its new president, renowned journalist, author, and film producer Nicholas Gage (Nikos Gatzoyiannis), a series of questions about its methods, policies, and finances. The forthcoming Gage provided us with a wealth of information.
TNH: Let us start with the question, how is the Panepirotic Federation of America doing today?
NG: Quite well, thank you. We are strong financially, active politically, and effective in pursuing our goals. Like most Greek-American organizations, we face the challenge of trying to bring our young people, who were born here and do not feel the pull of the homeland the way we do, but we are faring pretty well there, too. Our current board includes members who range in ages from the early 20s to the mid-70s. One can guess as to where I belong.
TNH: How would you describe the mission of the Federation in the past 20 years.
NG: To help the ethnic Greek minority in Albania, and Epiros as a whole where we can.
TNH: What are some of the things you have done to better the lives of the people of Northern Epiros?
NG: I’ll mention only three because of space limitations. After Communism fell in Albania, the authorities launched a program of intimidation against ethnic Greeks, jailing their leaders and harassing their communities to pressure them to abandon their homes and move to Greece. The PFA sprang into action, organizing an international protest that freed the minority leaders, and persuading Washington to denounce the coercive policies of Albanian authorities. In 1996, I met with President Clinton and persuaded him to call for new elections in Albania. When they were held the following year, the ruling party lost and its leaders knew why. Baksim Gazedede, the then-head of the Albanian intelligence service, went before parliament and declared: “The Panepirotic Federation led by Nicholas Gage is responsible for the fall of our government.” That taught Albanian politicians that persecution of the Greek minority will have international consequences. The harassment ended, the climate of fear ethnic Greeks lived under lifted, and their representatives were even invited to participate in Albanian governments.
Another area where we have had major success is in getting articles about the plight of ethnic Greeks placed in major publications here and in Europe, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Le Monde, the Nation, and Parade, the latter having published a cover story on Archbishop Anastasios by me.
Finally, we have provided financial support, giving more than $800,000 in grants to students, community leaders, schools, organizations, villages, and churches, including $100,000 to Archbishop Anastasios.
TNH: What have you done for Southern Epiros?
NG: The Federation has made equally strong efforts to help there as well. During the administration of Constantine Mitsotakis, PFA leaders urged him to devote more resources to the region to end its isolation. As a result, he went to Epiros and announced a series of infrastructure projects that included expansion of the port of Igoumenitsa, regional roads and bridges and the Egnatia Highway, which extends from the port to the border of Turkey, some 684 kilometers. It is no accident that the biggest highway in Greece extends across the center of Epiros, once the forgotten region of Greece. Mr. Mitsotakis has stated in speeches and interviews the important role we played in persuading him to authorize the construction of the longest highway financed by the European Union to date.
Currently we support a program at the University of Ioannina that allows students from Epirote families here to spend the month of July at the school studying, free of charge, the Greek language and the history and culture of Epiros. That not only helps young people learn about their ancestral homeland, but also supports jobs for Epirotes at the University.
TNH: How do you finance all these efforts?
NG: Through contributions from our members and chapters and donations from supporters, some of whom are not Epirotes or even Greeks. In the past 20 years, besides fees and dues collected, we have raised more than $500,000, have donated some $800,000, and still have more than $800,000 in reserves.
TNH: How were you able to do that with only $500,000?
NG: By investing wisely. We were able to triple the original money raised by investing a portion in annuities, bonds, and stocks. I know most organizations like ours keep their funds in bank accounts earning less than 1 percent, but the big foundations make judicious investments in the markets to replenish their contributions and we have followed their example, with great results.
TNH: How would you describe the situation for the Greek minority in Albania today?
NG: Much better than before, but Albanian leaders are dragging their feet about passing legislation expanding the rights of all minorities in the country that the European Union has urged them to enact. We intend to do all we can to persuade Washington and Brussels to press them to comply.
TNH: What other goals does the Federation have?
NG: To bring Epirotes closer together wherever they may live because the world is becoming a global village more and more. A decade ago we took the lead in creating the World Council of Epirotes Abroad to connect all of our compatriots around the globe, and we are holding our third convention in Ioannina from July 24 to 27.
TNH: Do you have the feeling that Greek-American organizations are withering and, if so, what can be done to revive them?
NG: Unfortunately yes, they are withering because the Greek-born members that sustained them are dying out. The only way to revive them is to get young people to join by speaking more English at meetings, employing social media to connect with them, listening to their ideas, and turning over leadership positions to them.
TNH: Have you done that at the Panepirotic Federation?
NG: We have tried. I served as president for four years in the mid-1990s and then I refused to run again so that new people would have the chance to lead the organization. Younger people have joined, but not in the numbers we hoped for. At our last convention, the six previous presidents attending pushed me to take over again because I was born in Greece but grew up in America so I could serve as a bridge for the generational transition we need to achieve. I will do my best over the next two years and then take my leave.