Growing up the child of Greek immigrants in Clearwater, I recall being embarrassed at times, feeling different than other kids. But I came to view my experiences at Greek school, Greek dance class and volunteering in the Greek Orthodox church as things that shaped my life for the better.
Thankfully, I came to realize that being part of an immigrant community was nothing to be ashamed of. I had a culture and identity that also carried the story of where my ancestors came from, and what they went through. Of course everyone has this, but we can often lose sight of it as we assimilate into the dominant culture we live in.
We must regain a focus of who we are and where we came from, because this is how we are best able to recognize that same humanity in others.
I say all of this now because I believe Greek-Americans of Pinellas County are in a unique position. Our home community is also home to a sheriff, Bob Gualtieri who, I believe, has a harsh stance on undocumented immigrants. He is credited for the push to increase collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE across the country, as the Tampa Bay Times has covered previously. Even if it hasn’t happened in Pinellas, these policies encouraging ICE involvement have resulted in human rights atrocities, including for people who have not been convicted of criminal charges. Prolonged detentions and deportations have often separated parents from their children.
This creates a climate of fear and criminalization among hard working people in our community. Greeks in this country should know this all too well, as we have a history of our own as immigrants and refugees. It’s the reason our grandparents formed AHEPA chapters all over the southern United States.
In the 1920s, the KKK harassed and threatened Greek-Americans, whom they viewed wrongly as a threat to their jobs and culture. A generation later, many Greeks would leave their homeland as refugees amid the violence of civil war and the repression of a military dictatorship.
Many of the undocumented immigrants in Florida today have also faced similar circumstances that lead to political and economic hardships that caused them to leave behind people and places they loved in search of something better. They deserve the respect and dignity that we would have wanted for our parents and grandparents.
Just five years ago, Greeks on the island of Lesvos made international headlines for their humanitarian effort to assist people from neighboring countries fleeing war and desperation, literally rescuing children from sinking boats.
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I thought of that news recently, while looking up into the painted cathedral of the newly rebuilt Holy Trinity church and listening to a sermon about welcoming foreigners. As Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, said while meeting with the Catholic Pope Francis in 2015, “Hospitality represents a concrete example of love for our neighbor and the way all Christians should live their lives. … At this historic time and with the way the refugee crisis is developing, those people who can exercise influence have to work in this spirit.”
Greek-Americans voting in Pinellas County should be thinking about these things — honoring our cultural legacy as immigrants as well as out spiritual commitment to hospitality — when they cast their ballots.
Panagioti Tsolkas is a volunteer with FLIC Votes, a political advocacy effort that is a sister organization to the Florida Immigrant Coalition.