Annual AHEPA Excursion More Important Than Ever

ATHENS – The annual AHEPA Family Leadership Excursion to Greece, Cyprus, Constantinople, and Israel, is now underway, more important than ever given the war in Ukraine, the lingering pandemic, and looming threats from Turkey to Greece and Cyprus. The National Herald caught up with the delegation on in Athens on April 5 for an interview with Supreme President Jimmy Kokotas and Daughters of Penelope Grand President Kathy Bizoukas.

The delegation arrived a few days before scheduled meetings with top Greek officials and were able to travel to places like Kalamata, Nafpaktos, and Patras. In Santorini they established a new chapter – it is remarkable that Greece now has 49 – and they went to Alexandroupolis for the opening of the AHEPA museum.

Ahepans meet with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. (Photo by Constantine S. Sirigos)

In the official meetings, beginning with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Kokotas said “we conveyed to them what we can do, to advocate for Greece. We have a good relationship with his office. He knows what we do and what we are about, that we are on Greece’s side and that we are an asset.”

Grand President of the Daughters of Penelope Kathy Bizoukas, who has roots in Northern Epirus, also spoke about the importance of the annual trip. “We stand for Hellenism and our culture. The Excursion is important “so that we can bridge America to Greece and learn what is going on.” It’s a dense and intense schedule, and she noted “its been overwhelmingly wonderful – and exhausting.”

President of the Hellenic Republic Katerina Sakelaropoulou meets with the AHEPA Delegation. (Photo by Constantine S. Sirigos)

Events outside the East Mediterranean have a higher priority this year than usual – although they are often connected with Greece’s national security concerns, and such is the case with Ukraine. Kokotas said, “we talked about how Greece’s continual support of Ukraine is a showing of strength to the world. Where some people might have been hesitant to make a decision, the Prime Minister has chosen to help. He put himself out there to be criticized but he has chosen to be on the right side of the argument, which is admirable.”

The AHEPA delegation met with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias on April 4 in Athens. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press office / EUROKINISSI

Kokotas emphasized the importance of the recent deepening and broadening of the U.S.-Greece relationship, especially regarding the port of Alexandroupolis, which has become ever more important in the context of Ukraine. It is valuable for the United States – “the airport is also a great asset. It’s bigger than most people realize… and it’s definitely an investment in Greece’s future security. I would hope that the world” – especially Turkey “will realize this is a new ‘red line’ right from Alexandroupolis to the North. It is very strategic,” he said.

Thoughts of Ukraine are never far away, but Kokotas remains hopeful, notwithstanding the horrific images throughout the day, “that maybe – maybe – the two Orthodox countries” will find a way to stop their war.

He said, “we met with Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and applauded him for his courageousness” leading the humanitarian mission to Ukraine. “That is another sign of strength and boldness and solidarity.” Spotlighting the need for more work by Greece and the Greek-American community regarding the media, he said “I wonder what kind of press it got in America. I hope it got good press.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with the AHEPA delegation on April 4 in Athens. Photo: Yiannis Panagopoulos/ EUROKINISSI

On the U.S. Congress front, he was pleased to learn during the meetings that Congressional delegations will be visiting Greece.

During discussions with Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos the delegation expressed their satisfaction with the efforts Greece has undertaken to upgrade its national defense with arms purchases and by expanding its relationships with friendly countries. There were also visits to the Greek Parliament and Minster of Health Thanos Plevris.

100th Anniversary – Looking to the Future

Kokotas and Bizoukas emphasize the importance of continuing and boosting AHEPA’s youth movement while the former noted, “we have been hamstrung the past two years due to the pandemic. But the Youth is the future and we must do everything we can to address it. The world has changed and there are constant forces trying to pull them away from and distract them” from their Hellenic heritage and values. Nevertheless, he said AHEPA “could be and very well should be” the supreme networking organization for Greek-American young professionals.

He spotlighted AHEPA’s Journey to Greece, an “Immersive summer program that takes young students on excursions throughout Greece in order to learn about, appreciate, and celebrate Greek society and culture,” according to ahepa.org.

“We have reversed our role in a sense – years ago we helped Americanize the Greeks, now we are Hellenizing” their grandchildren – and their non-Greek spouses and in-laws given the 90% intermarriage rate. “We are also prepared to support other organizations’ program as we further develop our own. Anything you can do for the youth must be done,” he said.

“We had a lot of different ideas two years ago before the pandemic”, but Kokotas won’t let that time go to waste. “It looks like I will be running again” for Supreme President, so that he can build on what his team learned during the pandemic.

“The next steps regarding U.S.-Greece relations are to continue the advocacy and to convey to America that Greece is one of the greatest allies it could have. We are here now to renew friendships and relations. It’s important work but it’s also a morale booster for everybody.”

In the States the Order is moving forward now. “We are urging all our chapters to begin having networking events right after Easter and again in the Fall. There is a great pent up demand for people to socialize and we want be a part of that, and celebrating AHEPA’s 100th anniversary, it is a perfect opportunity for member to play a bigger role” in the organization, he said.

President of the Hellenic Republic Katerina Sakellaropoulou met with the AHEPA delegation on April 4 at the Presidential Palace in Athens. (Photo: Tatiana Bolari/ EUROKINISSI)

After the interview, their next meeting was with the tourism minister Vassilis Kikilias. “Obviously we can play a great role in tourism, given the number of people we represent. We played a role last year, bringing our Supreme Convention here and we hope to contribute to a record setting year – as long as things don’t get worse with the war.”

The potential is great, but not only for more Greek-Americans to come. Ahepans can bring their non-Greek friends to visit their islands and regions. “We also have a role in introducing 2nd and 3rd generation Greek-Americans who have never been to Greece to its culture and history,” he said.

In closing, Kokotas said he is very pleased and proud that AHEPA Hellas has gotten stronger, including Daughters of Penelope chapters.

Finally, TNH asked Kokotas about his unique parish back home, the Church of The Three Hierarchs in the heart of Brooklyn where Greeks, Georgians, Russians, and Ukrainians worship together – the latter at their own Divine Liturgy. “It should be the poster child of the idea that if people put their faith and God first, everybody could co-exist and get along and have our priorities straight,” he said, adding, “it’s a unique parish. I don’t think its been copied anywhere. Fr. Eugene Pappas” the Head Priest “has kept people together.


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