Pinellas Greeks should stand with other immigrants and help vote Sheriff Gualtieri out of office

by Panagioti Tsolkas (originally submitted to the Tampa Bay Times, 10/16/2020 and an edited version was published 10/25/2020.)

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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 has built a national reputation around his harsh stance on immigrants. As the Tampa Bay Times has covered extensively, he is credited for the push to increase collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE across the country, which results in prolonged detention and deportations that too often separates parents from their children.

These policies that encourage ICE involvement have resulted in human rights abuses across the country, often for people that have not been convicted of criminal charges but are accused of living on the wrong side of a boundary in search of economic opportunities or political asylum.

This creates a damaging 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 U.S.

In the 1920s, the KKK harassed and threatened Greek-Americans, who they viewed wrongly as a threat to their jobs and culture. A generation later, many Greeks would leave their homeland as refugees amidst 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.

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 prior to a 2015 meeting with the Catholic Pope Francis in Lesvos, “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.”

Voting Sheriff Gualtieri out of office next month would be an appropriate way to honor our cultural legacy as immigrants as well as a spiritual commitment to hospitality.

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Panagioti Tsolkas is a volunteer with FLIC Votes, a political advocacy effort that is a sister organization to the Florida Immigrant Coalition. He has also written about Sheriff Gualtieri in a recent article published by Criminal Legal News.

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Tsolkas is a Greek-American community organizer and dad. He has published extensively on mass incarceration, policing and environmental justice.

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