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Politics

Sam Chekwa, a Passionate Greek

August 26, 2019
Matina Demelis

Throughout the interview with Sam Chekwa, I hear the word Greece constantly. As he talks about Greece his face is shining. It all started when he was a little student in Nigeria and a book fell in his hands. Antigone of Sophocles, translated into English.

From that point, his life changed. His love for this country and everything about her never stopped. When he was 18 he moved to Greece to attend college and learn the Greek language. Then he moved to America where his siblings were living and he opened a Greek bookstore, in the most Greek neighborhood, Astoria.

Sam Chekwa moves everybody with his Greek heart. If he were a politician, he would surely excel!
As we said, his first relationship with the Greek language was through Sophocles. That book changed his life.

“It took me a while to realize that the author was Greek because all the books that fell in our hands in Nigeria were written in English. I considered this book superior to Shakespeare. It spoke to my heart, to me. At such a young age, I was about 10 years old, I could discern what was coming from England and what from Greece.

Greece speaks to the soul of every person. There is no one who is breathing in this world and has not been influenced by this country, though few people express it like me, every day. It is a creative country, where the basis of its literature is human beings.”

A JOURNEY OF SOUL AND BODY

Sam turns 18: He leaves Nigeria and makes the journey of his dreams. He decides to study in Greece and learn the language. Initially, he will study literature in Thessaloniki “which was my soul,” he says.

But a teacher advises him to choose a field that will offer him a better job. “I remember her words: ‘If you want to survive you have to do something more practical. So, I chose dentistry and did that job for 12 years. Then I got into business.”

His next trip was to be to America, where his older siblings were living. “I was left behind as the youngest child. I never really wanted to come to the U.S. I wanted to go and learn Greek. I chose my own destiny. Greece was calling me, its literature, its history, its culture. When I finished my studies in Nigeria I went to find them, and finally stayed.”

In 1990 Sam made a big move. As a genuine philhellene, he decided to open a bookstore in Astoria. The majority of the books were Greek editions. From literature to school books, dictionaries, history and more.

“What I should have done, but couldn’t, was to help dedicate a building to Greek literature. That was my goal. When the bookstore closed, most of the books were sold, but some I still sell on the Internet. If I had a second chance and I could find a place again in Astoria, I would open it again! We have been training a lot of Greek-Americans since 1990, when the bookstore opened”!

It was huge store and a large section had Greek books. The customers who weren’t Greek were asking me, ‘what is all that?’ I would tell them, ‘this is my way of honoring Greece.’ I still have this dream of Greece. When I see young people leaving this place I get upset. We say ‘Greece never dies.’ I believe that now that new people taking over, we have to give them ideas. And I say: where are the Greek schools that will shape children’s minds like I did on my own? Everything needs to be accomplished through programs by people with dreams for the future of the country.”

A big fan of Sophocles, Kazantzakis, and from the new generation, George Polyrakis, Sam remembers: “When I first read “Christ is crucified again” from Kazantzakis in English translation, I couldn’t understand it. Years later, I read it again and I realized that this man was a philosopher, not just a writer.”

Asked how easy it was to learn a foreign language such as Greek and to be able to read its literature, he said, “learning Greek was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So, hard that I wouldn’t let my kids suffer so much. My children have not been able to learn Greek, since my wife is American. But they understand what I say when I talk with my friends.”

Sam often returns to his homeland as he maintains a close relationship with his roots. Almost every two months he visits Nigeria where he does business. Also, he teaches Greek there!

“There is a school in Nigeria where children learn Greek. This has been happening the past 17 years. Whenever I go there, I teach them. A few days ago, a teacher called me and asked if we will continue this upcoming year with the lessons. I replied ‘of course we will.’”

Sam said, “when you influence a child’s mind it will always look to you for guidance. In Greece, this is not happening. Greece during the last 20 years has been looking only at herself.” But Sam believes the country has a unique and important mission.

“She has to be the home of all the people of the world, she must be open and accept people. We are trying to open some schools in Africa but we can’t bring in a teacher. There has to be a system, for example after you study Greek literature at university in Greece and become a teacher, we can send you to South Africa for five years to teach Greek in a school. These 20 students that you will teach, they will always ‘look’ to Greece. It is a language spoken all over the world because the language of education is Greek.”

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