Haralambos Kambouris – Media Slowly Appreciating Greek-American Achievement

December 20, 2022

SALT LAKE CITY – There is a treasure trove of Greek-American history still waiting to be uncovered, important elements of the history of both America and Hellas, tales of pain and struggles and joys and triumphs. A small amount has been written about, mainly by their fellow Hellenes, but some of it catches the eye and tug at the hearts of American writers, who ironically are the ones who inform some Greek-Americans about the roots of their own communities.

A recent article written by Wes :Long for Cityweekly.net is titled ‘How an early member of Utah’s Greek community rode waves of change to the mines of Bingham Canyon and beyond.’

The author begins with a poignant and knowledgeable introduction: “Leaving one’s native soil for distant shores places immigrants in a vulnerable position as they begin a lifetime of adaptations and adjustments. One never knows if they will thrive in their new home and if they will ever see their loved ones or homeland again. It’s a human saga that continues to play out for innumerable people to this day. Some make this momentous leap of faith as an act of survival, others for adventure – all for the prospect of a better life.”

Long then shines the light on a particular immigrant long ago: “For one man by the name of Haralambos Kambouris, his journey from central Greece to America in the early 20th century was intended as a temporary exile from his beloved patritha – or “fatherland” – for the good of a family he left behind. He followed a winding path to his ultimate home in Utah, where he both found and helped establish an enduring community of Greek Americans, but his tale is also one of desperation and faith, of grinding labor, of love and of the sweeping streams that carry us to strange new lands.”

The “ghosts of the world” had groaned, Long notes Kambouris would later write about the economic and political upheavals that drove immigration at the turn of the 20th century causing “a great wave” of movement…the earth has been transformed, and I ride the wave to survive.”

“Contemporary accounts, interviews with his descendants and Kambouris’ own words—preserved through an autobiographical diary and stage play that Kambouris wrote shortly before his death – offer a glimpse at the waves of immigrant stories that preceded and continue to play out all around us,” Long informs.

The story, fascinating to Long, is very familiar to most Greek-Americans and many Greeks in Greece, if only in outline. In the beginning…”about an hour northwest of Athens” in “the Greek city of Thebes…. Haralambos, or ‘Harry’, was born to Konstantino and Konstantina Kambouris in 1891. The only son in a family of five daughters. “Before he himself could marry,” he had to help his sisters gain dowries. “This was a burdensome duty given Greece’s political turmoil and major crop failure,” Long noted, and continued, “Harry may very well have heard the letters that were read aloud in local coffeehouses from Greeks in America who had found work on rail lines and in factories. Many of his peers were following suit and crossing the ocean for Ameriki. An idea formed; he would spend a few years in America to support his family and then return.”

Long was impressed with dialogue “in the play written near the end of his life,” where “Kambouris provided some particularly revealing dialogue about the tension his family likely experienced over letting him embark on the journey.”

A father says to his son: “If you leave and your luck doesn’t turn out as you hoped, then what will we do … without any help during the years you are gone?”

The mother adds: “You want to go to America, to that big hole in the ground that swallows the mother’s children, and they never see them again. The strange lands have eaten many young men, and you think I’m going to let you go and become one of them. For sure, I will go crazy.”

In his case, “with six of his fellows, Kambouris departed for America in August of 1912. At the rail station, as he recorded in his diary, Harry’s group received gifts from local mothers to pass on to their own sons in America. Parents wept for their children, and friends for their friends. His mother embraced him and gave him a handkerchief containing a five-drachma coin and a sprig of basil, a token of Christian love,” Long wrote.

“The train started moving,” Kambouris wrote of that day. “A shout went up from the crowd – farewell! We answered with shouts and waving our handkerchiefs.”

In the United States, he and his companions “were unable to locate the person they sought for work. But they connected with a labor agent who was in need of people for a rail crew…Unlike the white crews – which had separate cars for their sleeping, cooking, and eating quarters – Kambouris’ Greek crew slept, cooked, and ate in a single, cramped car.”

Life for immigrant laborers, on or off the railroad, was rough. “Ah!” Kambouris lamented in his diary, “I am tired, I have no more strength. I shuffle about like a leaf in the wind. And I wish for rest, and I want calm … Neither am I able to live, neither to die…For me, the lilac of life has withered… And at the time of death, I wish to let out a shout: A Greek in America should never set foot!”

Long turned the page to the next chapter: “Flashing before his view in these dark days came a few sparks of hope. It was in February of 1915 when Kambouris received a letter from a friend advising him to come to Bingham Canyon, Utah, where he would find better paying work with the mines rather than the railyards. Weary and disillusioned, Kambouris had his doubts, but he followed the suggestion.”

Kambouris would find that, “working conditions at the mines and smelters of Utah were no less dangerous or cruel than those of the rail-yards Kambouris had left – but in faraway Greece, a mail relationship with a woman named Dimitra “was developing into a mutual attraction, although neither had yet met the other in person. ‘I shall always hold a liking for you,’ Dimitra wrote him, ‘until fate brings it [the engagement] right…’ When he received word that Dimitra’s family had approved the engagement, he was ecstatic…By 1919, Kambouris was able to save enough money to bring Dimitra over to Salt Lake, and they were married in the old Holy Trinity Church that year.”

The economy went through ups and downs, “Utah’s Greek population, however, had found some stability during this period, with births on the rise and many former mine and rail workers leaving the industry to open shops or raise sheep. They drew the ire of local nativist movements like the American Legion and the Ku Klux Klan, and were still called ‘dirty Greeks’ by locals, but they were flourishing as they had never done in this state before.”

Harry himself, returning to copper mining, “was almost killed in a cave-in with his crew. After this he decided to go into business for himself,” his son Konstantinos H. Kambouris said.

“After opening a shoeshine and hat-cleaning service at 236 S. State in downtown Salt Lake City, Kambouris had found some economic stability, and life was becoming better,” Long writes, “and while business could be slow, it opened up time for him to pursue more of his creative interests, such as poetry and playwriting. Many of these works await rediscovery and translation at the Marriott Library’s Special Collections at the University of Utah, still in the formal Katharevousa writing style.”

In the local Greek Orthodox Church he served and as secretary, then he was president of the GAPA organization. “It was under the aegis of GAPA that many of his plays were performed for the local Greek community, Kambouris often directing or acting in them himself,” Long said, and Kambouris’ son adds, “they would put plays on in the church hall and … have a party…Everybody would come … and they had a lot of fun when they would dance and sing.”

According to Long, “Harry and Dimitra Kambouris never became wealthy or powerful in this country, and yet, the leaps of faith made by these humble people and the love they had for others continue to have a ripple effect upon their descendants today.”


(Material from Cityweekly.net was used in this article)


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