“So that we can leave a trace of peace and humanitarianism in the world” is the reason UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Marianna V. Vardinoyannis continues to work as hard, she tells TNH in an extensive interview.
The president of the “Marianna V. Vardinoyannis Foundation” will be honored in New York City on December 8 with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights & Justice Center’s Ripple
of Hope Award.
Mrs. Vardinoyannis relayed to TNH the responsibilities of a civilized community with regards to the current refugee crisis, the importance of the ideals of democracy, and of justice and equality, which she believes endure in present-day Greece, and also the courage and strength she receives to carry on her work from the parents of the patients at The First Oncology Hospital for Children in Greece ELPIDA (HOPE).
She discussed the assistance and solidarity of Greek-Americans vis-a-vis the Foundation, her fond memories of the teachings of her own parents, and the years of exile on Amorgos endured
by her husband, Vardis. She elaborates on the lessons of humanitarianism she learned there, refers tenderly to her family, and discloses which of her dreams remain unfulfilled.
NH: What does it mean for you to be honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights”Center and in particular with the Ripple of Hope award, which has been conferred to important personalities reflecting Robert Kennedy’s passion for equality, justice, human rights, as well as his faith, that we should all emulate in order to “render more noble the life of this world”?
MV: The honor is very great for me because the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center has been fighting consistently and wholeheartedly for human rights. In fact, this is not only with regard to having them implemented, but also for the education of the new generations in the concept of human rights and the importance of their recognition in the modern civilization. The paths of our foundations are crossing frequently and it is very important and a great honor for me that the Ripple of Hope Award is conferred upon me on December 8, especially in fact at a moment when my foundations has undertaken a major initiative in Greece, the creation of the program WE CARE for the vaccination and the provision of medical treatment to refugee children, which cross the Aegean by the thousands under horrible conditions and risking their lives in order to seek their hope. Looking at the innocent eyes of these children one does not need more than half a minute to read the entire list of human rights that are being violated, at the great responsibility, in the end, of the entire “civilized” community.
TNH: Also, this year in another yet critical time for Greece, you will be honored along with other important people like Tim Cook, Roger Altman, and John Lewis. Do you feel that the honor to you is a chance of honor as well for our tormented country, a chance to highlight the ideals of democracy, justice, equality, which were born in Greece, but seem to have been forgotten in it?
MV: Certainly, any honor to my person, or to any Greek man or Greek woman is an honor first and foremost for our people, since it highlights the values and the quality of these people, which despite the difficulties it suffers stands tall with the head held high and in fact demonstrating a sense of solidarity to those that more needy than itself, with such an outpour of soul and self-sacrifice that is being talked about all over the world.
We the Greeks have always demonstrated in our long history that when the circumstances dictate and using our fighting spirit as our weapon, along with togetherness and being all of one soul, we put our disagreements aside, join our hands, and win the battle. Because it is not the size of a people that is important but it is the courage, our pride and our soul. And all of these are in surplus in Greece.
Because of this, I disagree that the ideals of democracy, justice, equality, and all of the rest are forgotten in Greece. Simple people in our homeland express these in their daily lives, within the family, and in all of their relations.
At the same time, every award increases the sense of responsibility and multiplies the obligations of the recipient, because they are obligated to honor, with their personality and their actions, not only their homeland, but also those who honored him.
TNH: Since 1987 and the International Humanitarian Award, which you received in the United States, you have tied your life to a noble zeal of offering to society. You have been honored by domestic and international organizations; you have helped thousands of people and especially children. What is the word that you would want to accompany you when there is reference to your name?
MV: What really touches me, what gives me strength and courage, makes me feel vindicated for the work to which I have dedicated myself all these years, is the characterization I was given once by the mother of a sick child. “You are Marianna of our heart” she had told me, and she made me feel so emotional. I consider this to be the most important accolade ever conferred on me. For me the most precious thing is the smile and the love of the sick children and their parents, especially the smile of those who, having been healed now they embark on a new life, they study, become scientists, artists, athletes…they have their own families, children of their own, but they don’t forget the children of hope, ELPIDA they come back to us in order to help us.
TNH: When and how did you make the decision to become active with the Foundation for the Child and Family, which was renamed the Marianna V. Vardinogiannnis Foundation and the Association of Friends of Children with cancer ELPIDA? What is your relationship with the children?
MV: The children are the future and hope of our world. They are at the center of my heart and my thoughts. Starting from my own children and continuing with the children of all the others, I believe that they are the most precious thing we have in life! They are the continuation of life itself and the future of mankind.
With regard to my decision to become active through ELPIDA and the Foundation of the Child and Family, my deepest motive has been and remains to be the conviction that life is worth only when it is useful. This is what I’ve always been hearing in my home and it is a principle that I share with my husband, Vardis. I had the fortune to have a mother who was a role model for me early on in my life and she taught me the meaning of helping others. As I was growing up, a need was created within me to offer whatever I could to my fellow man. And this need became even more pressing, and it transcended into will and resolve, through motherhood and from the supreme love that every mother feels for her children. Thus, in 1990, when I found out that there were no bone marrow transplants performed in Greece on sick children running the risk of losing their lives, we founded ELPIDA. At the time, the only possibility for a child to heal was to travel abroad, a fact that presumed a very high financial cost both for the family and for the state. The worst thing though was the time lost, a fact that was like a clock counting down for the treatment and health of the child. Today, 25 years later, thanks to the struggles and work of ELPIDA, no child needs to travel abroad in order to have a bone marrow transplant.
Through ELPIDA we have been able to save the lives of over 800 children from Greece and the neighboring countries, while the Oncology Hospital for Children (Children’s Oncology Unit Marianna V. Vardinogiannis – ELPIDA as is its official name), which ELPIDA created in its entirety and donated it to the State in 2010, deals with success with nearly all of the cancer incidents with children in our country. The Foundation was established in 1997 with the objective of being active in all of the sectors related with childhood and the family – the rights of the child, its protection from abuse and exploitation, protecting children during war conflicts, educating them, etc.
TNH: How did you feel when you finally cut the ribbon, following years of efforts, at the first Oncology Hospital for children in the Balkans, and how do you feel even today when you make rounds in the corridors and wards of the Hospital? Is there anything new that you and your associates are preparing and how could the Greeks Abroad support this effort?
MV: Every time that a project is completed I feel blessed by God who enabled me to see the vision become reality. My joy gives me wings and strength to continue the good fight, to make the next step. I feel the need to embrace all of the children and their parents and comfort them and tell them that everything is going to be all right.
At this time we are moving forward strong with the fraternization program with major pediatric hospitals abroad, which we started 3 years ago with a view to the exchange of scientific knowledge and combating cancer in children, which we believe can become a platform for piece, friendship, and cooperation between the people. We have been collaborating already with Johns Hopkins and Philadelphia in the United States, with the SickKids of Canada, as well as with the greater pediatric and oncology centers of England, France, the Netherlands, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Serbia, Qatar, etc. Next, we are planning the develop the first National Center of Transplants for liver, lungs and kidneys for children, in Greece, as well as he development of Center of Excellence for specialized research on neoplasia cases. A great satisfaction, but also great prospects in the field of Bone Marrow transplants in our country, has been for us the touching response with which the foundation of ELPIDA was met by the public, the Bank of Volunteer Bone Marrow Donors Vision of HOPE, in order to establish a great pool of volunteer Bone Marrow donors with a view to the possibility of finding graft in our country for anyone who needs it. Already, within the year and a half of operation of the Bank, to compatible donors have been found and 2 human lives have been saved.
The Greeks abroad have always shown their significant support to Greece during very difficult times and when it comes to children they always show a special sensitivity. They are our valuable supporters in our work and they’ve always been by our side each one the way they can.
TNH: You frequently refer to the past and how one should honor the past. With regard to your childhood, in Ermioni, what is it that you remember more intensely from that time? What have you kept and honored in the form of advice and role model from your parents? And what is it that you kept from your first discussions with your husband, at a time when things were difficult and you were following him in the United States, Greece, England, and in Amorgos?
MV: I grew up surrounded by a lot of love and affection. My childhood was a very happy one and its memory works like a soothing factor in my soul when I go through hard times. I kept everything that my parents taught me, but above all else, I remember what my mother used to say to me often: “Give your children wings and roots. Wings to fly, and roots so that they will return to you!” And I was fortunate to be able to share the same values and standards with my husband. I ask his opinion for everything and I draw my strength and inspiration from him in order to move forward with anything I do.
Regarding the locations that you mentioned, where we had to live certain periods of our lives, I keep deep into my heart the island of Amorgos, where my husband was exiled during the dictatorship. It was there that I learned a lesson on giving and solidarity, which was unique; something that I keep unchanged in my soul. I was a young girl then, my third child had just been born, I was divided among my beloved children that I would leave behind and my husband who was alone in that distant island and I would leave him in tears. I will never forget the kindness of the people there, their selflessness and their solidarity. Every morning that I would wake up, I would always find in my window a glass of milk, some flowers or hot bread. It was the embrace that was telling me “have courage, you are not alone, you have some people who care about you.” It was there in Amorgos where I learned my greatest lesson in humanity and I shall never forget it.
TNH: In relation to Greece – its own past, historical and cultural – as a Greek citizen, but also as a candidate Doctor of Archeology in the University of Sheffield of the United Kingdom, do you believe that several politicians and citizens failed to honor that past? That they only exploited it, but did not cultivate it, resulting in the country reaching its current state of crisis, not only a financial one but also one of values?
MV: The crisis of values is a global phenomenon and the roots of that is the fact that we as people have highlighted as the number one value, money and wealth, to the point that it touched the limits of bliss. The concept of “well-being” acquired a totally different meaning than the one in the past. It made the differences between social classes greater, being contemptuous of the substance and real meaning of words “human being.” The “neighbor” – in the broad sense of the word – became a point of competition instead of a point of companionship and synergies which had been before. I agree that our history and tradition bring us back in order, because everything has been repeated in the past. How many of us, however, are taught from the past? That is why it is very important that we give our children a real education: a modern one, on the one hand, but a deeply “Greek” one on the other hand.
TNH: What does the man in your life, Vardis Vardinogiannnis, mean to you and what does your family mean to you?
MV: My husband is everything to me. He is my mentor, my companion, my inspiration, and my strength; he is the role model of my children. He is a patriot, deeply philosophized and a humanitarian. Having him by my side to advise me with his judgement and his sensitivity I have reached the point where I am today. I owe him everything. Our family is our whole life. Our shelter and our starting point. We are especially touched that our children also are following their own way, both at the family as well as at the professional level, but they are always close to us. And they support all of my initiatives; something that makes me feel all the more stronger in order to take the next step.
TNH: What do you say to your own children and grandchildren about Greece and about life in general in our days? How long do you spend with them and what are your favorite hobbies?
MV: Our children are Greek above all else and they are trying to make their own children “Greeks” as well. What we have always told our children and repeat to our grandchildren about Greece is for them to try and understand the uniqueness of our country, what mankind owes to this country and all of the human values that originate from our civilization. Not only to feel proud to be Greek, but above all to realize the great obligations that such an origin creates for them. Besides, we believe that the word “obligation” must be prevalent in all of our behavior, because life is first of all “an obligation” and then “a right.” With regard to the time that I spend with my children and grandchildren, I try to make it as long as possible, to the extent that they can also be available for us! Thank God we are the sort of families that get together on every opportunity! On Sundays, during celebrations, and on holidays. We are, fortunately, what we call a “traditional Greek family.”
TNH: If I may, what makes calms Marianna Vardinogiannis after a tiresome day and what is it that it can upset her? What dream of yours…remained a dream?
MV: Reading, music, and painting are the hobbies that relax me during my personal time. As to what upsets me, these are what upset all the mothers in the world. The most important is violence in all of its facets and especially the effects of violence on the safety and prosperity of the children. It helps a lot though if we do not stay idle in the face of it. We have to do something in order to change things for the better. Besides this is the content that the late Robert F. Kennedy attributed to the term «Ripple of Hope». He would say: “few are the ones who will know the greatness of changing the flow of history. But each one of us can fight to change a small amount, a small part of the facts. From the entirety of these actions the history of our generation will be written in the end.” I am obligated to admit that I am one of the fortunate ones that life offered them much more than what they dreamed of, as what I wanted was a good family. And for this I am grateful to God. I hope that the time will come when the big dream for a world of peace, justice, health and love for the children, will start becoming a reality day by day!
TNH: You mention frequently that “hope is a very strong word. A very substantial concept. It conveys optimism and comfort, expectation and yearning, a positive though for the present and the future.” Is there, do you believe, hope that soon the causes will be eliminated that lead millions of people from the Middle East to be uprooted from their homes, travel under harsh conditions, risking their lives frequently in the Aegean Sea? What do you say to the important people you speak with, especially abroad, about these refugees and more specifically about the children? What are your thoughts and feelings?
MV: The feelings that prevail inside me, when looking at the plight of these uprooted people from their homes, are sorrow, agony, indignation, but I try to put all of these aside and to focus on the thought: What can I do for them? As I have already mentioned to you, on the initiative of my Foundation and in cooperation with the Central Association of Greek Municipalities, the Children’s Hospital Agia Sophia, the Medical Association of Athens, and the Charity Organization of the Holy Archdiocese of Athens Mission, the program WE CARE was developed, which provides medical and material aid. Our program is evaluated by UNESCO as a pilot program of collaboration of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with Municipalities and it is intending to promote this throughout Europe via the European Federation of Cities.
I hope and fight so that we can leave a footprint of peace and humanity in this world.