While the eyes of the world are on Greece, where the Summer Olympic Games are in full swing, today on New American Voices we’ll focus briefly on Greek Americans. Our guest today is Sotirios Kospanos, who immigrated to the United States eight years ago and now is actively involved in Greek American affairs.
Like most Greek Americans, Sotirios Kospanos is proud that the Summer Olympics are being held in his native country.
“The Greeks did a lot of hard work, as far as preparing the Olympics. They spent more money than the last two previous Olympic hosting countries. And I would say they confronted heavy criticism from the U.S. media, British media and other media regarding the preparations, but they did a great job on all levels. Everybody is satisfied. You know, the Greeks are very welcoming. They have beautiful scenery. I know that everybody will remember these games.”
It has been part of Mr. Kospanos’ job to keep track of what the international press wrote about Greece’s herculean efforts to have everything ready in time for the Olympics. As administrative assistant at the American Hellenic Institute in Washington he monitors the media to see what it says about any and all issues relating to Greece and Greek-American relations. He also follows developments at the White House, the State Department and in Congress that might effect the Greek-American relationship – the main focus of the Institute’s activities.
“The American Hellenic Institute is a non-profit organization that works to strengthen the U.S. relationship with Greece and Cyprus. We organize business networking meetings, conferences on Capitol Hill, we lobby for Greek interests and Cypriot interests. We try to organize and bring together the American-Greek community from around the States.”
Sotirios Kospanos became involved with the American Hellenic Institute a year ago, while studying for a dual degree in political science and international studies at Northern Kentucky University.
“Basically everything started through the internship that I was awarded through my school. My placement was here with the American Hellenic Institute. My assignment at the time, last year, was lobbying for the Greek interests and for some legislation that involved Cyprus, and Turkey and Greece. I had a great experience exposing myself to the political scene, and after that, when I graduated in December I was hired back to work here at the Institute full-time.”
Mr. Kospanos, who is thirty-one, had a whole different career before coming to the United States. He grew up in Thessaloniki in northern Greece and joined the military, eventually becoming a sergeant in the Greek Air Force, assigned to patrolling the borders of the Aegean Sea. On leaving the military he wanted to travel to see the world, but got only as far as the United States. He decided that he wanted to stay, learn English, and attend college. At first, he says, he had some trouble adjusting.
“Of course, it’s different from what you expect. It’s a cultural shock, that’s the best way to describe it. But what helped me to go through all those differences was the community, which is very united through, of course, the Church and organizations like the Institute. That’s how I ended up blending even better and getting more aware about how the Greeks live here in the United States.”
The Greek community in the United States is indeed a large and well-organized one. The 2000 census lists 1,153,000-plus (1,153,307) Greek-Americans, with the largest concentrations in New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Florida. There are numerous Greek-American organizations, and a directory of Greek-American businesses would be half a meter thick. Sotirios Kospanos points out that while Greek immigrants often did go into business, there are Greek-Americans in many other walks of life.
“Like every ethnic group that came to this country, the Greeks pretty quickly developed some earnings, and immediately they opened their own businesses, so for instance you have many restaurant owners. So it started from there. But some people got more education, and so you have many professors, you have many politicians, you have people in many different sectors of society who come from the Greek culture.”
A major unifying factor for the Greek-American community is the Greek Orthodox Church – and not only because of its spiritual, religious role.
“Here in the States the Church stages the Greek schools, so when the people attend the church they also bring their kids to go and learn the Greek language and also the customs. You see, it’s like in ancient times – the church is unified with Greece and Greek culture.”
Sotirios Kospanos says that Greece and Greek culture have become a topic of considerable interest among his American friends, as well, thanks to the Olympics. He believes that the Games, although only a two-week event, will have a long-lasting affect.
“Everybody talks about the Greek Islands and Athens and everybody likes our culture, since we’ve been the pioneers not only in history, politics and science, but also we have a unique location, blue water, blue skies, very clear, very clean. Because of these Olympics, and I do believe they did a well-done job despite the criticism, I think it will rejuvenate the entire international community’s interest in going to Greece and seeing where Western civilization started.”
The New American Voice of Greek-American Sotirios Kospanos