By Effie Lekkas
Upon reflection, the summer of 1974, following the illegal and brutal invasion of Cyprus by Turkey on July 20, 1974 found a Greek and Cypriot American community under siege and in full crisis mode. Emotions were raw and intense- a frantic sense for the need to act and offer assistance immediately and a need to respond, at the highest levels, to this horrific and unspeakable cataclysmic event. Also, although many of us had been disappointed and dismayed by the US government and its role in Vietnam and elsewhere and by the ongoing Watergate fiasco, the Cyprus invasion and occupation, infinitely magnified these bitter feelings, leading to anger and frustration, since the betrayal by our government was now personal and had directly hit home. We felt perplexed and torn, in light of this supposed beacon of justice, human rights and rule of law that the US represented and its unwillingness to act, as well as its involvement and complicity in the first place.
From July 20, 1974 we were a community consumed by this injustice and crime against our sisters and brothers in Cyprus and desperate to act. Each day, we were glued to our radios at home, work, in our cars waiting for Tina Santorineou’s Sounds of Greece program on WEVD, 1050 AM, to begin, and would race to our local newsstands with urgency, to buy a copy of Ethnikos Kirix, so as to find out the latest news and developments in both Cyprus and Greece and to await for directions on how to proceed and mobilize.
Indeed, the Summer of 1974, saw and recorded many firsts for the Greek and Cypriot American community. It was the first time our community, 50,000 strong from all over the United States and Canada, had set foot in Washington, DC. The only other occasion any of us had ever been in such a crowd of fellow Greeks, was at the Greek parade on 5th Avenue, where each year we marched with our topika somateia, proudly displaying the costumes from our specific regions in Greece and Cyprus, and proudly marched as Cretans, Chiotes, Cypriots, Lakones and so on. However, at the August 1974 demonstration in Washington, DC we all marched as Greeks, Ellines, where our ethnic and regional pride, was now overtaken by ethnic unity and an emotional loyalty and empathy, because as Hellenes, we had been confronted, once again, with one more attack on Hellenism, and most importantly, by the same historical and common enemy, Turkey.
In DC, it was also the first time any of us had seen or heard a US Congressman up close,
namely Benjamin Rosenthal from Queens, a great philhellene, who pledged his support towards removing the Turkish troops from Cyprus and to secure emergency relief aid to the Cypriot people. I also remember how emotional people became and the loud roar at the sight of the large Armenian Contingent that had travelled to Washington to join us in solidarity to our cause and was the beginning of coalition building with the Armenian Americans. One more memory from that day in Washington, DC, is how impressed so many of us, as first time visitors to our nation’s capital, were to see the Hellenic classical architecture featured in so many federal buildings.
The summer of 1974 was also the first time many of us in the tri-state area had protested in front of the UN; 18 demonstrations in one year. One of the first demonstrations was led by the late Chairwoman of the Cyprus Federation, Mary Varianides. Thousands of women were asked to dress in black and hold lit candles in a procession along 5th Avenue leading to the UN where the late NY Congresswoman, Bella Abzug, was one of the most dynamic speakers demanding the removal of Turkish troops from Cyprus. The Cyprus Federation was at the forefront of so many of these protest actions. The president at the time was Mr. James Oratis, who lived near Philadelphia. The Vice President of the Cyprus Federation at the time, Mr. Andreas Konnaris, spearheaded the effort to collect donated clothes, food and supplies for the Cypriot refugees and thousands answered the call and donated at the Cypriot associations, Greek topika somateia, local Greek churches and Greek owned businesses- and all these items were sent to the Enosis Kyprion building on Astoria Boulevard and shipped to Cyprus. Shortly thereafter, the Cyprus Children’s Fund was formed and over a thousand Cypriot children in dire need were sponsored.
Indeed, the summer of 1974, was the first time any of us had participated in any protest or demonstration and it was the first time we had ever exercised our civic rights as activists in the United States and it represented a paradigm shift and coming of age for our community-since we were now a community in transition, evolving from having been mere observers on the margins and periphery to actual participants and players in the US political and civic process and in the broader US mainstream society. The seeds had been planted, the foundation was built and a movement for justice for Cyprus was born and for the first time in the summer of 1974, the names Philip Christopher and Nicos Mouyiaris, were heard. Shortly, thereafter, in 1975, the Pan-Cyprian association was formed and the Greek American daily newspaper, Proini, was founded by Fannie-Petallides Holliday, as a direct response to the Turkish invasion and occupation of Cyprus. Unfortunately, the occupation continued and saw the need for the mobilization of future actions of protest and demonstrations, such as the demonstration in Washington DC in the summer of 1978 to protest the lifting of the US embargo, the 1983 protests against the illegal breakaway state declared by Denktash in occupied Cyprus, the 1987 march by students from NY to Washington, DC, culminating in a huge demonstration against the, then, 13 year long illegal occupation, the Women Walk Home non-violent crossings into the occupied areas of Cyprus in November 1987 and February 1989, attended by hundred of women form the Greek and Cypriot American community and so on and so on for 44 long years- a number nobody, not one person, would have believed if they had been told in the summer of 1974, that we would still be waiting and struggling for justice for Cyprus 44 years later.
I just want to end by saying that our community has channeled this tragedy over the last 44 years, by persevering and tirelessly answering every call to action that was required at the time. I want to commend the organizers of this evening’s important event. Soon, the torch of this struggle, will be passed to the next generation and events such as this serve to inspire and instill the understanding and responsibility to this younger generation that they have a sacred duty to pay it forward, not only in continuing the struggle themselves, but to prepare and lay the ground for future generations to take the torch when they themselves will be ready to pass it down, Of course, we all hope for the best and try to remain optimistic, that there will not be a need for a 45 year or a 46 year, etc. commemoration of the Turkish occupation of Cyprus. But we must also be prepared and at the ready to answer any and all future calls to action.
Lastly, on behalf of the Queens College Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, which incidentally was founded in 1974 by another great Hellene, the late Harry J. Psomiades, and whose library is, aptly, named The Benjamin Rosenthal Library and where over 17,000 students have passed through our program in the last 44 years, among them, the present Cyprus Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nikos Christodoulides, and where we have been at the forefront of Cypriot Studies, courses and publications on the history, economy and politics of Cyprus; we would like to offer any and all cooperation and co-sponsorships on future events such as these, so as to continue the conversation and dialogue that has begun this evening and perhaps broaden its scope to include a full day conference, in the not too distant future. It is vital that the stories, testimonials and oral histories of the human tragedies pertaining to the Cyprus invasion and continuing occupation are collected, documented and preserved and we at Queens College are ready to assist you towards this end with all the resources that we possess.
**** *** Effie Lekkas address at the Cypriot Young Professionals and NEPOMAK USA event “Cyprus 44 Years Later – A Retrospective Look and Call to Action, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. She is the deputy Director of the Center of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Queens College.