NEW YORK – Dimitris Triantafillis spoke to The National Herald in an interview which appeared in the Greek-language Periodiko. He spoke about his life and fulfilling the American dream, from the misery and struggles of the Occupation during World War II and then the Civil War to an ‘illegal’ journey to New York. Years of hard work followed and then he started his own business, Otto’s Service Station, in Bayside, Queens. Gradually, everything went his way, after he had married his wife, Georgia (nee Kitsiou), with whom he has four children, a son and three daughters, Constantine, Zoe, Andreana, and Christina.
Today, his children are grown, married and have children of their own, for a total of nine grandchildren and a 10th one on the way. Triantafillis in looking back at his life’s journey hopes to leave an example as a legacy to the younger generation.
His message to the younger generation: Work hard and step up to the challenge at the right time.
Triantafillis was born in Megalo Chorio in Evrytania, in the Gavros settlement in 1939 to his parents, Konstantinos and Zoe Triantafillis who gave him two siblings: Maria Panopoulou and Ioannis Triantafillis (d. 2000). He arrived in the United States in 1963 and served as Secretary and President of the Evrytanian Association of America “Panagia Prousiotissa” and is now an honorary member of the board.
TNH: What do you remember from the years of the Occupation and the Civil War?
Dimitris Triantafillis: There are shocking moments, both during the Occupation and during the Civil War. They told me that when I was three years old an Italian came into our house and tried to rape my mother. My grandmother, me and my sister who was still a baby were there. An officer finally came and at the last minute, slapped the soldier and told my mom to lock herself in the room. In the Civil War, the guerrillas had targeted my father and we had to leave to escape. It was the time when you could lose your life over nothing. My mother tied sheets together and threw them out the window at the back of the house. We climbed down from the sheets and left Karpenissi.
TNH: When did you leave the village and how was the idea of ??going to America born?
DT: During the Civil War, I attended five different elementary schools and the Karpenisi High School. Then I went to Athens, where I worked in the mornings to catch up and in the evening went to the Lyceum Night School. I worked various jobs in Athens and I did my military service in the army and then tried to leave for America by any means. That was the economic situation in Greece. We had to leave, we couldn’t live there anymore.
TNH: When did you finally leave?
DT: I took out a nautical booklet and shipped out. I had a guaranteed 10,000 drachmas from my military service. By boat, I traveled all over the world in order to come to America, as my sister was here. I had a problem when the ship I was working on was forced to return from Albania to Piraeus in May 1961. I had a problem because I was already disobedient, having been invited to Corinth in January of that year. I was fined for failing to show up properly. From Tripoli, I moved to Nigrita. I was fired in July 1963, and then I worked with an agency that helped me come as a tourist after a month. I had stated that I would visit my sister.
TNH: How did you manage to stay legally? Of course, that was a different time…
DT: I was getting an extension on my visa every three months. Then I met a lawyer dealing with immigration. My sister sponsored me. I had told the American Embassy in Athens that I was married, so that I could leave. It was something they discovered was not true, and when I went to Court, I used the argument that I was in fact engaged and misunderstood by the U.S. Embassy officials. I got my visa after five years of residence and later I became an American citizen. There were other kinds of difficulties in those years, as no more than 1200 people could legally come from Greece to America. But it was common practice to jump ship or come as tourists, as I had come. When I came here my sister and my late brother-in-law, Haralambos Panopoulos, supported me in my first steps. I’m grateful to both.
TNH: What was it like in those early years in America?
DT: A lot of the money I earned was spent on the process of getting an extension from immigration authorities. I started as an assistant waiter in restaurants. Then I became a waiter and then worked in the fur industry. Later, I opened a service station with my late brother, who was an experienced car mechanic in Greece. So I continued. We opened the business and managed it.
TNH: How did you meet your wife?
DT: I married Georgia in 1971. I met her in Greece when I came to visit in 1969. She is from Agrinio, but her mother was from my village. My parents knew her because she went often to Messolonghi and Agrinio. One of my cousins ??was the one who introduced us. Within 16 days we got married!
TNH: Did she agree with the idea of ??going to America?
DT: Most young women then wanted to leave for America. Young men like me went to Greece, got married and returned here. The job of growing tobacco, there in Agrinio, was the worst agricultural job at the time. She was a martyr. My wife would have gone anywhere to leave Agrinio to escape the tobacco.
God, Saint Demetrios, and Saint George blessed me with Georgia as my wife. She played and plays an important role! Thank God for that. Family life here was difficult. While working hard, we were able to raise and educate four children, who today have good jobs, are married, and have raised families. We have been blessed with nine grandchildren. My son has four children, my first daughter has two, and my second daughter, three and the youngest is now pregnant with her first child. I also want to emphasize that my son’s wife, although Catholic, was baptized Orthodox. Like my last daughter, who married an American, he was Protestant and became Orthodox. All of my grandchildren were also baptized into the Orthodox Church. I am very happy about that. In fact, some years ago, I went with my daughter to Albania to baptize an Orthodox child of a Christian friend of ours who was married to a Muslim.
TNH: Your religion is important to you. What is your relationship with the Greek Orthodox parishes here in New York?
DT: At the Zoodochos Peghe Church in the Bronx, I was never on the Parish Council but I was always there. My relationship is focused on St. Nicholas in Flushing, where I have been an active member there for many years. As you know, in the baptistery of St. Nicholas, there is the icon of Panagia Prousiotissa, a copy of the image that is in Prousos of Evtrytania. I also closely follow Greek national issues, and I have participated in many demonstrations.
TNH: How much have things changed since the time you were raising children, now that your grandchildren are growing up?
DT: At some points, it was better then, we didn’t have anxiety as we have now with all these developments in technology. In the past, life was not so financially depressing. The wife could be a stay-at-home mom, now both have to work to make ends meet.
TNH: What is your relationship and connection to your homeland?
DT: First of all, from the first time I came here, I got involved with the Evrytanian Association. My brother-in-law was president, and I was an assistant secretary from the beginning. Then secretary and later I was president for many years. I visit the village, though my parents have been dead for many years. Of course, most of my interest is here, since we have our children, grandchildren, and our home. Our life is here.
TNH: What is the book in which your personal story is written?
DT: It’s a book called Homeward Bound – Our Stories. There is a Megalochoriton Association in Washington that was founded in 1974. I am one of those who kept the minutes and helped to draft the charter. Most are from the Megalo Chorio. They are immigrants and friends. At the initiative of Treasurer George Passes, we decided to write our story, about 40 people are in this book. It was undertaken by Mr. Passes, who is a professor. It is written in English for our children and grandchildren to read. We tell our story, how we came from Greece and what we have accomplished here.
TNH: What is the most important aspect of your story?
DT: Most importantly, I was able to come to America. I always tell my children and young people to thank God because they were born in this country because it is, compared to other countries, the land of professions. The way we came here, what we sought and what sacrifices we had to make, I consider it a blessing from God.
TNH: In America, you went through, as you mentioned, several stages: an assistant waiter, a waiter, and then, owning your own business. Young people today, in more volatile times, are wondering if they should take the risk and dare to do more, at a time when there is always the threat of failure…
DT: They need to take the extra step. We should always be optimistic, no matter if things go badly, I think every obstacle is for the good. We should always try not to be disappointed and always do our best. I also give this advice to my children. The most important thing is to have love and harmony.