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Society

Marianna Vardinoyannis Awarded 2020 Mandela Prize, Speaks with TNH

August 22, 2020
By Aris Papadopoulos

ATHENS – Marianna Vardinoyannis, Greek philanthropist and world advocate for human rights and the protection of children’s health and welfare, is a Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO since 1999, founder and president of the Marianna V. Vardinoyannis Foundation and of ELPIDA Friends’ Association of Children with cancer.

Synonymous with charity and volunteerism and who with her activism has contributed so much to the image of Greece abroad – disproportionate to her size – Vardinoyannis was honored with one of the greatest awards in the world.

Only bestowed to two people every five years, the United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize aims to recognize the achievements of those who dedicated their lives to the service of humanity as guided by the purposes and principles of the UN, while honoring and paying homage to Mandela's extraordinary life and legacy of reconciliation, political transition, and social transformation. It was first awarded in 2015.

The 2020 Prize was awarded to Mrs. Vardinoyannis and Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté of Guinea, selected by the UN selection Committee which was advised by a group of eminent persons, as announced on July 26.

The award ceremony was broadcast live internationally through the UN web platform. And, of course, Mrs. Vardinoyannis accepted it with modesty and dedicated it to the Greek people, who, as she says, always support her work.

The National Herald, a constant observer of events that highlight Greece, knows the great and continuous efforts of Mrs. Vardinoyannis, and spoke with her about the award and her life, although she rarely gives interviews.

We got to know, in this interview, a little more about the woman, the wife, and activist Marianna Vardinoyannis. The person and her determination. And she responded knowing what Diaspora means. Besides, she has proven how much she respects and loves the Greek community.

TNH: Mrs. Vardinoyannis, let's start with the simple question where do you find the energy and the disposition to be so active? Motherhood, Children, Culture, and Women are at the top of your list of causes and you participate in so many associations and institutions that one can hardly keep track … What motivates you?

Marianna Vardinoyannis: I had the good fortune to grow up with a generous mother, a person stood out for her love of her fellow human beings. She, with her behavior, gave me the first lessons of support for others and giving back.

I take it for granted that you share with your fellow human beings the blessings that God has given you, that you give back from the gifts of life. This is how I grew up, learning from a very young age that it is a great gift to receive, but even greater to contribute.

Meeting my husband Vardis, who is my source of inspiration and support, but also the moment I held my first child in my arms, are also crucial milestones in my life, which shaped me as a person and pushed me to open my heart and my embrace to ease the pain of my neighbor.

TNH: You have also written a book, Labouring with the Challenges of Female Identity: Insights into Minoan Society. Is writing your hidden side or was it motivated by your love for archaeology, as you have stated to Vassilis Vassilikos?

MV: I loved art, culture, and history from a very young age. As an elementary school student, I remember listening carefully to the words of our teacher when he spoke to us about antiquity and the culture of our country. Since then, I believed in myself that I would study Archaeology. However, at a very young age, when I was still a student, I met my husband Vardis, who was then a Navy officer. I followed him on his missions and studied Economics abroad so that I could also contribute to the needs of our family. But I never gave up on my childhood dream. So, after my children had grown up, and I already had grandchildren, I studied Art History and Archaeology.

The book, Labouring with the Challenges of Female Identity: Searches in Minoan Society, is my dissertation. I would not say that this is a hidden side of me, but rather the realization of a lifelong dream.

TNH: While you are accustomed to receiving awards, what does the Nelson Mandela Prize mean for your legacy? You dedicate it to the Greek people who always support you as you say, but the truth is that you support the universal ideas and proudly represent the Greek people. Is it an award that is an international seal on a lifetime of great work or a spark for future efforts?

MV: Recognition by the United Nations is a great honor. This award is given every five years to two individuals from around the world. The name it bears is of one of the most important people of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela, and shows its importance worldwide. The emotion is great because I feel that in my receiving the award, my country and all the Greeks all over the Earth were awarded, a generous people who have been characterized over time for their contributions and support to their fellow human beings who are suffering. I dedicated the award to the Greek people because the Greeks stand by me every step of the way, supporting my work.

But beyond the great emotion, this award is also a great responsibility. I do not forget the words of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Antonio Guterres, during the Award Ceremony. Addressing me and the other award-winning Dr. Morissanda Kouyate, an iconic figure in the struggle for women's rights, Mr. Guterres called us "worthy successors to Nelson Mandela's work.”

At that moment I pledged myself that I would not stop fighting in the footsteps of the enlightened Nelson Mandela, trying my best to contribute to the creation of a better world for future generations.

TNH: Above all, you are a companion from a young age with Mr. Vardis I. Vardinoyannis. Being so active, does he complain that he does not see you enough? What role does he play in your daily life after so many years?

MV: My husband is a man who throughout his career, puts above all else, contributing to the homeland and to society. He is always by my side giving me strength, inspiration, valuable advice. He and our children and grandchildren are for me the most precious things I have in life. All I asked of God was to have a loving family and I feel really blessed for it.

Vardis never complained. On the contrary, he is proud and happy with my efforts. Of course, I have to tell you that because for me the priority was and remains my family, I never deprive them of time, I sacrifice my own personal time trying to balance everything.

TNH: Taking stock of your efforts, is there something you would have liked to do but could not? (Although it sounds funny with all that you have done) …

MV: So far, I have achieved everything I set as a goal in my life. I am a person of action, not of words. In my life, I never said “I will do this,” and left things for the future. I never stop working and setting new goals. But even today, after 30 years of hard work, there are many things I still feel I have to do. As long as there is misery, war, poverty, disease around us, I will not stop fighting. I feel that it is the duty of every person to do the best they can to build a better tomorrow together. We owe it to our children, we owe it to the younger generation.

TNH: You often travel abroad and come in contact with expatriates. In fact, you have been awarded by The Hellenic Initiative and the former Archbishop Demetrios of America. What does the Greek community living abroad mean to you?

MV: The Hellenism of the Diaspora is for me one great Greece. A Greece that inspires, with our capable and worthy compatriots, Greeks who nurture immense love for our country, while at the same time having the power and influence to promote critical issues in international decision-making centers. In recent years, in fact, due to the economic crisis, the number of Greeks living and working abroad is even greater.

Speaking, in my travels, with Greeks abroad, I feel very strongly their need to be close to the homeland and to contribute in any way they can. But I also feel how much they miss Greece.

It may not be well known, but I too have spent some time in the United States when my husband was an officer and had to work there. I was very young then and I missed Greece a great deal. I know the pain of our expatriates, I also know the bond that Greeks acquire between them when they live in a foreign country. Throughout my efforts, I always maintain close ties of cooperation, contacts, and friendship with the Greek community. United, we Greeks are always stronger.

TNH: Finally, in your opinion, what is most valuable in a person's life?

MV: In these difficult times for humanity, with the pandemic creating a new reality for all, I feel that the important things in life for all of us have emerged. The value of human life and health, the importance of the family that is a refuge in all difficulties, and, of course, the value of human support without borders and without discrimination. We are all together in this. And I hope that when this crisis is overcome, these lessons will remain alive as a legacy we have acquired in a very difficult way.

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