Op- Ed for Naftemporiki on Chios Visit: Warm Welcome in Chios

by Geoffrey R. Pyatt, United States Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic

May 18, 2017

One of the strongest pillars of the bilateral relationship between our two great democracies is the people-to-people ties between individual Americans and Greeks.  This was driven home for me during our visit to the stunningly beautiful and welcoming island of Chios.  Countless Greek-Americans have ancestors or relatives from Chios.  When I met with the bright, young undergraduate students at the University of the Aegean School of Business Administration and Maritime Business, I asked the group how many of them had family members who have lived, worked, and studied in the United States.  Almost every hand was raised.

These types of personal connections support and fortify the strong partnership between the United States and Greece and they were repeatedly highlighted during my visit to Chios.  When I had the honor of meeting with Mayor Vournous and the Metropolitan of Chios, the island’s especially strong ties to the United States were a key part of our conversations and, clearly, a source of pride for both leaders.  During our tour of the “painted village” of Pyrgi, my wife, Mary, and I had the opportunity to visit the home where explorer Christopher Columbus may have lived before his voyage to America.  It was remarkable to get a sense of the shared history between our two countries going back to the 15th century, long before the founding of the United States.  We were very grateful to Mayor Vournous and his wife, Katerina, for showing us around Pyrgi and sharing their insights into the wonderful Genoan architecture.

I am very appreciative of the warm welcome the leadership and people of Chios showed me as a representative of the United States.  Of course, the hospitality of the people of Chios is well known.  I was deeply impressed when I heard from the Metropolitan and others about Chios’ tremendous outpouring of generosity during the migrant and refugee crisis.  The people of Chios selflessly shouldered the great burden of fulfilling the needs of thousands of desperate people, unexpectedly arriving on their shores.  For example, I had the pleasure of meeting some of the kind volunteers at Ark of the World Children’s Village, which played an essential role hosting unaccompanied minors during the migrant crisis.  The U.S. Embassy has been proud to partner with Ark of the World on various programs over the past several years.  During my visit, I thanked the generous volunteers and donors who support the organization.  As former Ambassador to Ukraine, I was particularly touched to hear that the organization hosted unaccompanied minors and Ukrainian children from the war-torn city of Mariupol.

This outpouring of generosity in Greece, particularly on receiving islands like Chios, was an inspiration to the world.  The U.S. Government has been proud to do its part in supporting UNHCR, one of the NGOs assisting migrants and refugees on the island of Chios.  The U.S. is the number one donor to UNHCR – donating more than $1.49 billion in 2016.  In fiscal year 2017, the United States also donated directly to NGOs addressing the needs of migrants and refugees in this region – $41.5 million to the UNHCR Europe Crisis Response, $2 million to the International Federation of the Red Cross in Greece, and $800,000 to ICRC in Greece.  The remarkable work of local and international groups on Chios is ongoing, as they support the refugees and migrants in residence there.  For our part, the United States remains committed to addressing the underlying causes of this refugee crisis.

Of course, the welcoming and big-hearted character of the people of Chios carries over to the tourism and hospitality industries.  The world-class Masticha Museum was a highlight of my trip.   Tourism and mastic production are the life blood of the Chios economy.  Even after the economic crisis and the devastating wildfires that destroyed much of their crop last summer, I was thrilled to hear how well the mastic and masticha producers and exporters are faring in the regional and global economy – particularly in the U.S. economy.  This is a testament to Greek resilience in the face of serious challenges.

Chios has been a major tourist destination for many years, welcoming visitors from all over the world. The island is very close to Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey, and hosts thousands of Turkish visitors annually.  I believe this proximity to Turkey and the close contact between Chios residents and tourists from their neighbor to the east have resulted in a spirit of pragmatism about bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey.  It was encouraging to see citizens from two countries with a long and complex history set aside any differences and enjoy mutually beneficial cooperation.  For me, this was a source of hope for the future of bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey.

I was also very encouraged to see a Princess Cruise ship in the harbor, an American cruise line.  I hope that many more Americans have the opportunity to visit Chios and enjoy all it has to offer.  Mary and I were stunned by the spectacular beauty of this island, especially the beaches!  We are very grateful for the warm welcome we received from the citizens of Chios and hope to return to the island very soon.