The National Hellenic Society (NHS), an association of Greek American leaders, visionaries, and philanthropists, is at the forefront of efforts to keep the next generation of Greek Americans engaged with Greece and their heritage.
NHS has been organizing the signature Heritage Greece Program, a two-week cultural and educational immersion odyssey for accomplished Greek-American students to Greece.
NHS Chairman Drake G. Behrakis, a second generation Greek, tells Greek Reporter that “our focus is to maintain Greek culture for the next generation.”
“Many of the students have never been to Greece. We offer them the experience of going to Greece and connecting with Greek students at the campus of Deree.” Deree, also known as the American College of Greece, is located at Agia Paraskevi, a leafy suburb in north Athens.
The goal is to reconnect the participants with their heritage, roots, language, history, and traditions. They have a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore their culture, as well as to identity and learn about the ancient past within the prism and context of modern Greece.
“They are interacting daily with Greek students. This helps in making them understand better the Greek culture and their peers in Greece. They go out together, they eat together, they shop together, they learn the everyday experiences of living in the country,” Behrakis says.
Greek-American students bear a portion of the airfare costs to and from Athens, while expenses including tuition, transportation, meals, and other related costs are borne by the NHS. Students learn language skills within the context of modern Greece and travel to important archaeological locations and museums.
“We have sent over 500 students to Greece, we look to expand because there is great demand,” Behrakis notes.
“There is something special about going to the country and experiencing what the country has to offer. The ancient sites, the history, the cuisine, the landscape, a lot of things that people at a young age may find appealing when they go to Greece,” he adds.
National Hellenic Society Expands trips to Greece
Behrakis, born in Massachusetts, is one of the most influential proponents of Greek education in the United States. His spouse Maria Exarhopoulos Behrakis, a first-generation Greek, is a trustee of the American College of Thessaloniki. The couple have established Endowment Funds & a Professorship at Boston College.
Behrakis and the NHS are constantly looking for ways to expand the Heritage Greece Program. He tells Greek Reporter that starting in the summer of 2022, the Greek-American students would also be able to travel to regions where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. “This will be important element because we want to connect the ancestry dots for them. They will be able to find out where their pappou or yiayia came from.”
He adds that the NHS plans to launch a similar program for young professionals. “Couples that have never experienced Greece could bring their family to Greece.”
Behrakis, an admirer of the Israeli model where Jewish American organizations are sending thousands of students each year to Israel, says opportunities for engaging young Greek Americans with their ancestral homeland are enormous.
“We can organize different types of trips,” he says. For example, young people who want to do sailing or hiking can do these activities in Greece. If they want an art or cultural trip they can also do that in Greece.
“It is a question of how you find the right operators in Greece to do that. That is part of our bigger goal to create different types of experiences for young Greek Americans and Greek Canadians as the NHS has now expanded its activities into Canada.”
Biggest challenge is to maintain engagement with Greece
For Behrakis and the NHS, the biggest challenge is when the program ends. “When people return back to the US and continue their everyday lives the biggest challenge is how to maintain, how do you sustain that feeling they just had.”
He tells Greek Reporter that the NHS is trying through its membership organizations to mentor them and involve them with Greek organizations in their local community.
“We try to keep them engaged, to keep them abreast of what is going on in our organization, and their local community. We had really good success.”
He notes that times have changed since he was young when his entire community was his family, his friends and the church. “I realize that with time we become more Americanized. Now in the 21st century most of the marriages are mixed marriages, so inevitably people lose a bit of their Greek identity.”
Behrakis says that he is an optimist, that he believes that it is not too late to reverse the trend. But, he stresses that a “unity of purpose” is required by Greek American organizations and the Greek state.
He notes the recent decision by Princeton University to remove Greek and Latin requirements for Classics majors. “Where was the diaspora?” he wonders.
“The problem is that we all mean well, but we do not act as a team. When there is a natural disaster like the devasting fires in Mati or Evia you see organizations making efforts to raise money, but on things like education which will have an impact for generations there is no joint action.
“We need a united front among the organizations and the church when a Princeton-type situation happens. We need to you immediately respond to it and make them think twice. There is a response but it is usually fragmented,” Behrakis says.
The NHS, which was established by a group of dedicated Greek Americans each a leader in their respective fields, is implementing several other programs beyond the Heritage Greece Program.
It recently bought the rights of Cliffs of Freedom, the historical drama movie set during Greece’s War of Independence, which now streams on major platforms, such as Amazon Prime, Apple, and Google Play.
“Although we do not expect to make money from the movie, we believe we can use it as an example to show the importance of the Greek War of Independence and talk about different themes in the movie that resonate with a 21st century audience,” Behrakis says.
Behrakis hopes that the movie could follow on the success of the NHS collaboration with National Geographic of the series, The Greek Guide to Greatness.
That series “was very critical” in promoting ancient Greek culture to a wider audience, Behrakis says. “It took major themes such as athletics, poetry, theatre, democracy, everything that originated in ancient Greece, and showed how they are still important in today’s society.”
The NHS is organizing every year its Heritage Weekend & Classic. This year it will be held at the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas between 7 and 10 October.
“Heritage weekend is bringing people together to celebrate and engage and build plans for next year. It is not necessary a fund-raiser. We try to bring important issues to our membership,” Behrakis says.
He reveals that at the Heritage Weekend, a new food program will be launched by the NHS at the University of Las Vegas. Greek American chef Diane Kochilas will launch a culinary program on Greek and Mediterranean food and diet.
“This is very significant because it will bring Greek diet to a modern American University,” Behrakis says, and adds that the NHS is exploring a similar program with another university.
Watch below a recent video of Drake Behrakis discussing the future of Greek Diaspora: