New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Alexandros (Aleco) Haralambides, who succeeded Eugene Rossides, Founder and President of the American Hellenic Institute (AHI), as President of the AHI in February, 2009, spoke with the GreekNews on the evening before his departure for Cyprus and Greece with the AHI last week. He expressed optimism that the AHI will make progress in conveying its message on several Hellenic issues in Washington, DC, and also shared his views on Greek American involvement in Hellenic issues and the perpetuation of Greek heritage in America. A 3rd generation Greek American born to a Greek American father and Cuban mother, Mr. Haralambides speaks Greek and Spanish fluently and identifies equally with American and Greek culture.
Some of Haralambidesʼs observations are an important wake-up call for the Greek American community, however, the new President of the AHI offers encouraging suggestions for significant solutions to the problems he cites.
GN: How can the Greek American community be energized to become more politically active? Even at the time of the junta, there was apathy about Greek issues in many parts of the US.
AH: Apathy and indifference are our greatest obstacles. I find it very frustrating when Greek Americans fail to understand the importance of our issues. I firmly believe that Greek America’s failure to act today could ultimately play a part in the demise of Hellenism and the demise of Greece and Cyprus.
People need to realize that Greece isn’t just a vacation spot where you can see some ruins and get sun. Greece is the linchpin of modern Hellenism. Unfortunately, Greece has a birthrate that is not sufficient to sustain the current population levels and over 10% of the current population is made up of non-ethnic Greeks.
If Greek Americans fail to stay involved and if we fail to maintain our identities, ethnic Greeks will eventually disappear—it may take a while, but it is a real possibility down the road. It would be a shame to let the efforts of our forefathers go to waste.
GN: What would be a good way to get Greek American youth more involved in the political process and the endeavors of the AHI?
AH: I think visiting Greece is critical. AHI is implementing a program this summer where we are hosting a group of Greek American students in Greece and Cyprus and showing them the inter workings of government and foreign policy. These types of programs are wonderful.
You may be surprised to know that Greek language immersion programs really help to foster ties with Greece and Hellenism. If young people care about Hellenism, they will get involved in the political process. I have firsthand knowledge of the effects of Greek language immersion programs through Archimedean Academy in Miami. It’s amazing to see the enthusiasm of the students — both Greek and non-Greek — when it comes to Greek heritage.
GN: You have said that your father instilled in you a strong sense of pride in your cultural heritage; your mother converted to the Greek Orthodox faith and learned to speak Greek and learned about Greek culture. What guidelines can 3rd generation Greek Americans who do not speak Greek and are not able to travel frequently to Greece follow to accomplish, with their children, what your parents did?
AH: I think the ideal scenario would be to open schools like Archimedean Academy all over the country. By the way, it was my father’s dream and his intention to create a Greek language school for precisely this target market—3 + generation Greeks who do not travel to Greece and who do not speak Greek.
Today I speak better Greek than my father, and an integral reason was that my parents simply placed a great deal of emphasis on the Greek language. In fact, I would argue that it’s easier than ever to learn Greek because there are fewer social barriers to being ethnic, and the Internet is a wonderful tool. But another byproduct of schools like Archimedean will be the availability of a wealth of Greek language tools.
Believe it or not, at the present time a Greek language text series for teaching Greek to non-native speakers, does not exist at the K-12 level. Isn’t this shocking? Through the efforts of Professor Damanakis at the University of Crete and through the efforts of Archimedean and other Greek schools, I think a Greek language text series will soon be in print for everyone to use.
GN: The Archimedean Academy for Mathematics & the Greek Language seems to be an astounding effort. What are the benefits of the school?
AH: The benefits and accolades are too numerous to list, but the following are some highlights: Archimedean opened in August 2002 and currently has over 700 students, with only about 8% being Greek/Greek-American. Archimedean teaches all of its students using Greek language immersion, which means that the students are taught in Greek. Some of the math curriculum, for example, is taught in Greek. Most important of all, since it’s a charter school it’s free for all students. In other words, the State of Florida is paying for all of these students to learn Greek.
In the 2nd year of the school’s existence, the students have scored 1st or 2nd in Math in all of Miami-Dade County (roughly 3 million residents). In fact, I don’t think the school has fallen below 3rd on the math portion of the state exams.
As it turns out, the mix of the Greek language and strong math skills has been an excellent formula. We have a waiting list of over 600 students. Our middle school (grades 6-8) is ranked 3rd in all of Florida. Our elementary school is not far behind. Our students have always finished in the top 3 in science competitions. Every year, a large number of our students will take the “Elinomathia”– which is an international Greek language proficiency exam. Last year we had 20 students take the exam and 11 passed, with one young lady receiving an excellent score, “arista”. Amazingly, not one of these students was Greek or Greek American. This year we had over 40 students take the elinomathia, but the results aren’t in yet.
GN: What locally and national Greek organizations did you belong to when you were growing up in Miami, Florida?
AH: Well, I was an alter boy at St. Sophia in Miami. Goya, Sons of Pericles, AHEPA and eventually I got involved with AHI.
GN: Your paternal grandparents were from Brusa, in Asia Minor. You have visited Greece all your life and spent time there. In what part of Greece? Do you visit relatives?
AH: I always visit Athens and spend time with my extended family and friends. But I like to visit different areas as often as possible. Three years ago my wife and I took an impromptu side-trip to Turkey and we visited the theological school in Halki. We arrived late and I was able to coax the doorman to let us in after I told him we traveled from the U.S. to visit the school. To our delight, His All Holiness Bartholomeos was there and invited us to his private office. This was an amazing experience and it was amazing to experience our Patriarch’s humility—there was no “pomp and circumstance”.
GN: Do you have relatives in Cuba?
AH: We have no relatives in Cuba. Unfortunately, Castro stripped my family of its rights and their livelihood and they all came to the United States in the early 60’s. My maternal grandfather was a native of Santander, Spain and he had no relatives in Cuba. So we really have no ties in Cuba and my mother, like many Cubans, has no intention of returning. It’s just too painful for her. But I had a strong curiosity and I wanted to see the conditions in Cuba with my own eyes, so I went to Cuba in January 2004 with the delegation of the Patriarch who visited Cuba for the re-opening of a Greek Orthodox church in Cuba.
Aleco Haralambides and his wife Vicki (Vasiliki), (née Houreas), have a 16-month old daughter, Eleni.