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Time For the Greek Diaspora to Talk to Each Other

San Nicola Greek Orthodox Church in Trieste, built in the 1790s, is a key Diaspora Greek Center. The Greek Diaspora then knew how to get things done. Credit: Alexander Billinis/Greek Reporter

Most of the time when I talk to other Diaspora Greeks, it is in Greece itself. We all talk via Greece but not amongst ourselves. This is a mistake, says the Greek-American writer, author, lawyer, and university lecturer, Alexander Billinis.

By Alexander Billinis

Okay, my title probably seems obvious, but think about it for a moment. Do Greek- Americans coordinate and communicate with Greek-Australians? What about with Greeks in Germany or elsewhere in Europe, the ex-Soviet Union, or Latin America? Do we talk to each other, or does Greece talk to us?

Aside from some overlap between Greek-Americans and Greek-Canadians, most of the time when I talk to other Diaspora Greeks, it is in Greece itself. We all talk via Greece, but not amongst ourselves.

This is a mistake.

The first thing to say about the Greek Diaspora is that it is very diverse and at multiple stages of assimilation. One hears numbers such as three, five, or ten million Greeks abroad, almost implying that a population the same size as the Greek state is actively “waiting in the wings” to engage on behalf of the Greek Motherland.

This is clearly not the case. There are no doubt millions of people of identifiable Greek origin in various parts of the world, most specifically the Black Sea region of the former Soviet Union, and scattered throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, together with the large-scale, twentieth-century migrations, most specifically to the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, and parts of Latin America.

Having said that, the vast majority are very much assimilated in their host countries, particularly in North and South America. These Greeks are “hyphenated Greeks,” with high intermarriage rates and this is also increasingly the norm in Australia. In parts of Europe, proximity to Greece and varying host country policies to immigrants have kept the Greeks at least nominally more tied to Greece, though here too intermarriage and economics have kept these Greeks abroad.

The cultural gap between Greek Diaspora and Greeks in Greece

There is, further, the often vast cultural and experiential gap between Greeks abroad and those in Greece which makes Greece often feel like a foreign country. One might live in Chicago or Melbourne and be completely ensconced in a Greek community, speak the language, follow the customs, attend Orthodox Church services, study Greek history, and still have little idea of the euphemistically termed Elliniki Pragmatikotita, or “The Greek Reality.”

This dichotomy, by the way, is as old as the Greek state itself—older in fact, as the Diaspora Greeks from the Russian and Austrian Empires struggled with native captains to create the Greek state, and then at times found themselves legally disadvantaged to the locals. The Diaspora Greek Ioannis Kapodistrias, with a resume that included service as the Russian foreign minister, met the service end of a local Greek’s musket for his efforts.

It is little surprise that the nascent Greek state witnessed an emigration of about ten percent of its population in the first couple decades after independence, mostly to the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. The Greek merchant and shipping class which played a key role, particularly as privateers, in defeating the Ottomans quickly found that the Greek state possessed many of the institutional and cultural failings of the Ottoman predecessor, and they therefore kept one foot (and sometimes both) out of the country.

These Diaspora merchants and shippers were often tied to one another by kinship and regional (usually island) background, and they communicated and collaborated across continents and countries for business and cultural activities.

Diaspora merchants existed before the Greek state

They did not wait for the Greek government to organize them or to direct them; they existed before the Greek state and played a fundamental role in the founding and funding of the state. They were willing to die for Greece, as generations of Greeks resident in Egypt did so, much like the Russo-Greeks and, later, Greek-Americans, but they were not willing to live in Greece.

Their role was vital and often forgotten, though it is hard to forget the Battlecruiser Averoff, named after the Egyptian-based Greek, whose testament financed its purchase.

In the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Greeks flocked to North and South America, Australia, and parts of Western Europe. Most of these Greeks, in partial contrast to the merchants of the past, were poor peasants from small villages; yet, they also had the same quest for economic and cultural agency of the previous Diasporas.

They became successful and loyal Americans, Argentines, Canadians, or Australians, but they did not forget Greece. They sent money home and returned when their country called them to arms, or in the case of Greek-Americans, raised huge sums of money for Greek War Relief and for American War Bonds.

The Greek-American organization AHEPA raised more war bonds than any other US organization in the Second World War, a heritage the current custodians of AHEPA would do well to remember, but this is another story for another time. And yet…

Diaspora groups guided by Athens

Today, we often look inward as Greek Diaspora, focused on local events, or act as a spoke in a wheel based firmly in Athens, guided by Athens—and for Athens. Advocacy organizations abroad are all too often guided by the Greek government and are loathe to “go against the Greek government,” as one Washington-based advocate told me.

Funny, I thought that citizens were supposed to criticize their government to effect change, and besides, the organization in question was not an arm of the Greek foreign service. This attitude is a mistake.

In the past, the merchant/shipping class did not make this mistake because they knew all too well that Athens might have very short-term political interests in mind rather than the long-term interests of both nation and Diaspora. They were willing to give in times of need but unwilling to be dictated to by bureaucrats in Athens with horizons often far narrower than their own. This healthy skepticism served the Diaspora—and often enough, Greece herself—very well.

Many of us, myself included, are Greek citizens, and proud of it. However, we are also Diaspora Greeks, with different interests, goals, talents, and opinions, and far too often, we only talk to Greece—or rather, Greece talks to us. It is time, like the Greeks of the past, that we talk to each other: Chicago to Melbourne, Düsseldorf to Buenos Aires, London to Odessa. I don’t know how many of us there are, but we are enough.

Remember too, that in the 1820s, a number far fewer accomplished a miracle.

Remember too, that Greeks from 1970 to the present day own the largest merchant fleet—and this happened because of Greeks all over the world rather than because of—and in fact, in spite of—the Greek government.

It is time that we start comparing notes and not be given notes by Athens.

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