ASTORIA – Greek Independence Day was celebrated a little early this year as Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, New York State Senator Michael Gianaris, Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, and New York City Councilmember Costa Constantinides hosted their annual commemoration on March 23.
The event was held at the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York’s Stathakion Center in Astoria and honored four Greeks for their important contributions to civic life and to the Greek-American community in the United States and Queens. The honorees are: the Consul General of Greece Konstantinos Koutras; the Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas; the Founder of the Association of Greek American Professional Women (AGAPW) Olga Alexakos; and Astoria public school teacher Despina Galatoulas.
The free community event was part of the longstanding tradition of celebrating Greek and Greek-American culture in Astoria and featured traditional Greek food and a performance by the students of the P.S. 85 Immersion Program. The youngsters, some in traditional Greek costume, stole the show, singing a traditional song about the Greek War of Independence and then dancing a tsamiko and a kalamatiano.
Senator Gianaris gave the welcoming remarks, noting that Astoria is the greatest Greek neighborhood outside of Greece. Rev. Msgr. Fernando Ferrarese, Pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Astoria gave the blessing since the Greek clergy were presiding over services for the Akathisto Hymno that evening. He noted that his family is from “Calabria, which used to be Greece,” so he felt at home at the celebration of Greek Independence.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz led the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, while Anna Maria Fazio, the recently crowned Miss Greek Independence 2018 sang the Greek National Anthem.
Honoree Nassau County DA Madeline Singas began her remarks with greetings in Greek, noting that she grew up in Astoria. She added that she is proud as a first generation Greek-American woman to be able to represent the community and also feels good about the future when she sees so many young people participating in the celebration of Greek Independence. Singas wished everyone a great Greek Independence Day and Kali Anastasi for those celebrating Easter.
Katz praised her fellow elected officials for their work in the community, noting that Gianaris has the hardest job in Albany, and Assemblymember Simotas and Councilmember Constantinides are also doing great work. She also noted the efforts of others also present at the event including Community Board 1 District Manager Florence Koulouris and Petros Galatoulas, Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York President and father of honoree Despina Galatoulas. Katz impressed the audience when she said in Greek, “Long live Greece!”
She then presented the citation to Consul General Koutras, thanking him for his efforts. The Consul General spoke about the historical importance of Greek Independence Day, noting that the first words of the Revolution were “Freedom or Death” on March 25th 1821, adding that only a small part of Greece was liberated after 9 years of fighting and it took years longer for the other areas to be returned to the nation, and many fought and died for freedom. “We are very proud we are Greeks,” he said, “we are very proud to be celebrating together with you, and proud of the philhellenes who traveled at that time to join and fight in the Revolution.”
Assemblymember Simotas noted how proud she is of the community, adding that most of the P.S. 85 students who performed at the event were not Greek, and yet the love of Greece shows in their faces and in their performance. Simotas then presented Dr. Olga Alexakos with the citation for her efforts promoting networking, mentorship, and collaborations for professional Greek women, founding AGAPW and internationally with ALLILONnet. Simotas pointed out that when she began her run for the Assembly, Alexakos was one of the first to help and support her campaign. Alexakos was visibly moved, noting that she is an immigrant and in Astoria the immigrants live with a love of Greece. She thanked the elected officials present, Consul General Koutras, Consul of Greece Spyridoula-Ioanna Zochiou, Ioanna Giannopoulou- CosmosFM Director of Operations who will be honored by AGAPW on March 27 as the Greek American Woman of the Year, and Nancy Papaioannou- Atlantic Bank President, who has been such a loyal supporter of the community and an inspiration.
Councilmember Constantinides noted how proud he is of his heritage, thinking of his own family’s story, how his grandparents came from Cyprus, his grandfather washed dishes and his grandmother was a seamstress, working hard for a better life for their children and grandchildren. He presented Despina Galatoulas with her citation, pointing out that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in terms of being civic-minded. Despina Galatoulas said that she is proud of her Greek heritage and being born in America, adding that she was taught by her parents and at St. Demetrios School to keep the light of Greece lit though we live outside of the homeland. She thanked her parents and her 97-year-old Yiayia who was present though she was only recently released from the hospital.
Katz then presented a citation to the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York which was accepted by this year’s parade chairman Nancy Papaioannou who expressed her thanks, observing that Greece is always in her heart. She added that March 25th is a double holiday- the Annunciation and Greek Independence Day, and she hopes to see everyone at the parade on April 22.
Demetrius Kalamaras, Esq. gave the closing remarks, speaking about Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish military engineer and hero of the American Revolution, among others. Kosciuszko was educated in and influenced by Greek ideals and his personal hero was Timoleon of Corinth who defeated the tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily.