Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela died this week and I have been very sad, but contemplative about what he meant to me.

I remember the divestment protests at my Alma Mater, UC Berkeley in 1985. Divestment was a means to financially hurt South Africa due to their system of racial segregation called apartheid. Under this system, non-whites were not citizens, had no representation, lived in separate areas, had separate schools, medical care and social services, all of which were inferior to those provided to whites.

My awareness of apartheid, as well as that of many Americans, grew out of those protests. I remember the talks amongst friends. Our discussions about the horrors of apartheid and what was happening in South Africa. The stories of the various anti-apartheid activists murdered by the South African regime; people like Steven Biko.

But I learned about racism long before these protests. While apartheid was a system in a foreign country, America does not have ‘clean hands’ when it comes to racial prejudice. We also have a history of systemic injustice typified by Jim Crow, the anti-voting laws, racial based covenants against land ownership, the KKK and segregation.

I had school mates who were the first Asian family to buy a home in their neighborhood; they never played in their front yard for fear of retaliation. The uncle of my best friend in middle school was the first Chinese-American to buy a home in one of the exclusive neighborhoods in San Francisco. The parents of my best friend in high school were interned in camps during the war because they were of Japanese descent.  As a child of Greek immigrants, I heard my parents’ stories of prejudice against them; how my father had to change his long Greek last name to something shorter and more pronounceable in order to fit in.  I still get flack when my name doesn’t fit on official documents or fill-in forms. I remember the man with his eyes bulging from rage, screaming at my mother and I in the middle of a supermarket, while every one watched and did nothing.  He screamed at us for speaking Greek instead of English, how foreigners like us should go back to our countries.  I screamed right back and told him I was born in Oakland.

During my high school years, prejudices became a divisive force and tensions grew. Something as simple as the choice of a band for a school event fueled racial tensions. Many of my former Asian friends were pressured to not speak to me. Most still did. But there were ones that didn’t. Fights amongst different ethnic groups occurred. Several students were beaten, one so badly that he ended up in the hospital. But acts of working together also occurred. Members of the high school football team broke into groups of black and white players and roamed the halls keeping the peace.

As an adult, I’ve seen my old neighborhood in my beloved Oakland left with garbage on the sidewalks, potholes and rampant crime because the majority of residents are poor African Americans.

I’ve seen the difference between white justice and black justice. Northern lynchings. Racial profiling.  Prejudice.  Inequality.  Injustice.

The first home I bought had a covenant running with the land, an enforceable prohibition preventing any owner from selling to Blacks, Jews, Hispanics or other non-whites. I’ve lived in an affluent city on the Peninsula where an African American family moved out due to the racism their children were subjected to in school (in 1997!!). Where I live today, police recently detained two African American boys and their Hispanic friend for doing nothing more than waiting outside their own home while the older brother backed out the family car to drive them somewhere. This is 2013!! Sometimes it feels that little has changed.

We were denied a home loan because my spouse is Hispanic, the year was 1996. Recently, for our second home loan we suspected a similar problem, but this time I threatened to sue and the loan was granted.

Yet, I am reminded that Northern California was more tolerant than other parts of the country. That fact gives me great pause.

After the apartheid protests at CAL, I followed the news of South Africa and then the news of the release of Nelson Mandela. He travelled to the United States and spoke at the Oakland Coliseum as a thank you to the efforts of the students at CAL, and others in the East Bay who had protested against apartheid. Four years later in 1994, he was elected President of South Africa in the first free election. He lead his country, then at the end of his term, he stepped down and allowed for a Democratic and peaceful transition of power.

Then this week we received the sad news of Nelson Mandela’s death and I am reminded of the lessons he taught with his quest for freedom and justice.

Nelson Mandela taught me that racial prejudices and injustice happen whenever we view a person as different and therefore less worthy of dignity, equality and respect then ourselves. But he also taught that prejudice can also end with us. Rather than espousing hatred for his former oppressors, Nelson Mandela embraced reconciliation. It takes a great man to do that. Nelson Mandela was such a man.

Witness to History — Summer of 1974 Part 2

On 20 July 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and Greece was at war. My mother and I were visiting my relatives in Greece.  My uncle took me to the American Embassy to find out what to do in this time of crisis in Greece.  I learned that while I could be evacuated since I was an American citizen by birth, my mother was considered a Greek National, even though she had American Citizenship.  Thus, Greece as her country of birth could retain her over any objections by America.  If Greece made that decision, I would return to the United States, alone, where I had no family.  I was terrified.  I learned a lesson in international law the hard way.  I lived it.

International law differentiates between citizens and nationals.  A citizen can be by birth or naturalization.  A national is someone born in a country, but not necessarily a citizen. The reasons can vary.

My uncle told us a story of a young man who had come to Greece on his honeymoon only to be arrested at customs.  The man had left Greece as a baby and was a naturalized citizen of the United States.  While not a citizen, Greece considered him a national and arrested him for not fulfilling his mandatory military service.  Everyone laughed at the story when he told us.  I no longer thought it funny.

In my mother’s case, she relinquished her Greek citizenship and became an American Citizen.  But, under international law, because she was born in Greece, she was a Greek national.  If Greece decided to exert jurisdiction over her, America could protest through diplomatic channels but could not act. Greece held the trump card over whether my mother could leave Greece. I had no family in the United States, without my mother, what would happen to me?

I sat in my aunt and uncle’s house in Piraeus listening to the American radio station for any evacuation orders.  I was worried sick that the order would come and my mother would have to remain.  The television in the parlor was on but the government controlled stations only showed costumed dancers performing Greek traditional dances or pictures of historic sites with music playing in the back ground.

My aunt would enter the room and glare at the TV saying, ‘until they figure out what to tell us they want us to feel patriotic in our ignorance.’  I sat.  Watched.  Listened.  And grew up a lot.  Learned as much as I could from my family.

In 1974, Greece was ruled by a military junta, in Greek, Xouvta.  The Colonels Regime as it was also called, was a right-wing military dictatorship that came into power with a coup d’état on 21 April 1967.  The Junta imposed martial law, censorship, mass arrests, beatings, torture and exile.

My uncle told me with pain still lining his face how he tried to get permission to take my cousin to Bulgaria for an operation, the anti-communist Junta denied the request.  A small example of what the dictatorship did to repress the Greek populace during their reign.

Months before my mother and I arrived in Greece for our summer vacation.  The students at the Polytechnic University (Πολυτεχνείο) in Athens began a massive demonstration against the Junta on 14 November 1973.

I remember watching the student protest at the Polytechneion on American television. This student protest was preceded by protests by law students at the Law School on 21 February 1973.  I remember watching the Polytechneion protests.  The grainy footage on our black and white television showed the massive gate of the university chained shut.  The students waiving their arms in protest behind it.  The chants in Greek.  My mother didn’t worry about it affecting our summer trip months away.  So removed in American, she had no idea about the real state of affairs in Greece.  Her family unable to tell her for fear telephones were bugged and mail read.

The students of the Polytechneion barricaded themselves in and broadcast from their radio station across Athens.  Thousands of people joined them.  The streets surrounding the university were crowed with supporters, young and old.

A curfew was declared. Then on 16 November, lights across the city were cut off.  More and more tanks and soldiers surrounded the university and in the early morning hours of 17 November 1973, the first tank crashed through the gates of the Polytechnic violently crushing the student protest.

Among the Junta leadership, the most right wing generals, upset with the state of affaires, instigated a counter-coup, bringing Taxiarkhos Dimitrios Ioannides into power.  Wanting to unite Cyprus with Greece, Ioannides attempted a coup against the president of Cyprus on 15 July 1974.  The coup became the pretext for the subsequent Turkish invasion of Cyprus on 20 July 1974.

From the whispered conversations around my aunt and uncle’s table, I learned how we had reached this moment where Cyprus had been invaded, Greece was at war and American might issue an evacuation order of Americans from Greece.  An evacuation that would get me out of Greece, with or without my mother.

Telephone lines worked sporadically.  Most of what we learned was through word of mouth. Few people felt courageous enough to venture far from their families.  My uncle was one.  He rode his motorcycle through Pireaus connecting with friends. Without reliable information, your ability to make decisions is hampered.  You don’t know what is happening two streets over let alone miles away in the government offices in Athens.

My godfather in the United States called as often as he could get through.  He wanted to make sure my mother understand the severity of the situation.  He had a short wave radio and was able to get sporadic radio reports from European broadcasts and became fearful with the news that he received. He started out counseling my mother to leave with me immediately.  With each refusal by my mother, he grew more heated in his arguments.  He worried so much about us and whether we might become trapped in Greece that by the end of the conversation his language grew more and more colorful.  He changed tactic.  When he next called, he asked me. He urged me to get our passports and get to the airport where he would have tickets ready.  My mother snatched the telephone away and told him no and hung up.  My aunt hovered nearby concern etched over her face, unwilling to interfere with my mother’s decision because my mother was her older sister.  But she feared for our safety.  Having lived under the Junta, she understood better the risks my mother was taking.  My father’s side of the family is known for their stubbornness.  I’ve always been proud that I’m like them.  Now I wondered if I didn’t get it from both sides.

Time passed slowly.  The ticking of the clock, static on the radio, the drone of patriotic music from the television, the whispers of huddled neighbors floating through the open windows of hot summer days became the white noise of our existence. My aunt and uncle’s house was small and I slept on the pull-out bed in the parlor, so the minute I awoke, the television was turned on.

I don’t know how many hours, days or minutes passed before the news finally broke that the Junta had fallen.  People celebrated in the streets.  Television went live and we were told a new government was in place. Newspaper headlines announced the end of the Junta tyranny.

I remember playing outside, when the ground shook and a distant rumbling filled the air.  I ran with the other children and adults to the main road.  This road led from the center of Athens into Piraeus.  With other stunned Greek citizens, I watched as tank after tank, anti-aircraft missile launchers, and other massive military machinery moved through city streets.  Cars stopped and drivers stood outside their vehicles and watched with us.  Women held hands to their faces and men huddled in groups talking. My aunt materialized by my side.  She said, ‘what did the Colonels need all of that in the heart of Athens.’  I said to her, ‘isn’t that for the war?’  She shook her head sadly and said, ‘no that was for the students and for us.’

In the next few weeks, Greece had a new government fulfilling its destiny as the nation that created democracy. When I returned to the United States I studied and learned as much as I could about international law and politics eventually majoring in it at University of California Berkeley.  I became a news junkie wanting to know what was happening in the world and especially in Greece.  But I learned fundamentally that politics is like a onion with many deeply hidden layers.

In the summer of 1974, I saw the final days of a military dictatorship, saw the birth of a new government in Greece and learned a lesson about international law.  Mostly I cherished the freedom I once took for granted as an American.

Years later returning to Greece on another visit, my cousins and I were at a night club when they pointed out an older man happily partying at a nearby table with lots of booze, food and friends.  He was well dressed, good-looking, completely at ease. My cousins said he had been one of the torturers under the Colonels Regime.  Astonished I blurted out, ‘why isn’t he in jail?’  One of my cousins retorted, ‘we don’t have enough prisons for all the torturers.’

Later that year one of the television stations in Greece ran a mini-series dealing with the student protest at the Polytechneion.  The series showed actual and dramatized footage of the protests.  I saw the grainy footage from the tank crashing through the gate taken by a foreigner.  Then the dramatized arrests afterwards along with the brutality of torture and rape.  Survivors of that time told their stories.  As I watched I wondered which one of the depicted torturers was the happy-go-lucky man at the night club.

Back in that summer of 1974, a few days after the new government was sworn into office, my mother and I left Greece together.

I will always remember the events that made me a witness to history in Greece.

I have visited Greece many times since 1974, and this visit was not the last during a newsworthy point in Greece nor the last time I would witness history.

But it was the first.


Oxi Day

On 28 October 1940 at 2:50 am, the Italian ambassador in Athens, Emanuel Grazzi took Benito Mussolini’s message to the Greek leader General Ioannis Metaxas.  Metaxas was awoken and confronted with a written ultimatum for Italian troops to enter Greece.

Metaxas responded ‘this means war’ (in French “Alors, c’est la guerre”, French was the diplomatic language of the time).  For Greeks, this day is commemorated as OXI day.  ‘Oxi’ (pronounced “ō-hē”) is the Greek word for ‘no’.  The day is a public holiday in Greece and celebrated by Greek communities world wide.

Jealous of Hilter’s conquests, Mussolini’s impetus for the invasion was to accomplish his own military success.  Mussolini boasted prior to the invasion that he would crush Greece.

Greco-Italian War 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941:

At 5:30 am on 28 October 1940, the Italians crossed the border from Albanian into Greece. Greece was at war with the Fascist government of Italy under Mussolini.  Shortly after, Metaxas addressed the Greek people:

“The time has come for Greece to fight for her independence. Greeks, now we must prove ourselves worthy of our forefathers and the freedom they bestowed upon us. Greeks, now fight for your Fatherland, for your wives, for your children and the sacred traditions. The struggle now is for everything!”


28 October – 13 November 1940

The first Italian offensive of the war against Greece was fought in the Pindus Mountain range in Epiros and Macedonia.  The Italians wanted to capture the strategic mountain passes of the Pindus Mountains.

The Pindus Mountain range extends 93 miles across Greece, 100 miles south of Albania. The range consists of high, steep peaks, with many deep canyons and a landscape of limestone where erosion created sinkholes, fissures, ravines, underground streams and caverns.  The maximum elevation is 8,650 feet at Mount Smolikas.  The mountain range is called the Spine of Greece since it extends down to the north of the Peloponnese.

The Italian forces moved from southern Albania into Greece with it’s 3rd Alpine Division Julia.  Julia was a light infantry division which specialized in mountain combat and consisted of highly decorated and elite mountain corps. Julia was considered to be one of the best in Italy. The Italians were better armed with weapons and machinery.

The Greek force in the area was the Pindus detachment under Colonel Konstantinos Davakis containing a force of 2,000 men.  Davakis divided his troops into three sectors.  Davakis was a Spartan.  His division was the first Greek unit to encounter the Italians.

Under heavy rain at 5:30 am, the Italian forces attacked the three sectors. The Greeks fought courageously and against greater forces. The Julia division succeeded in pushing through Davakis’ central sector.  The Italians moved to the Greek town of Metsovon and their objective was to cut the Greek forces in two, those in Epirus from those in Macedonia. 

The Greeks were mobilized into small coordinated units which proved to be a strong resistance and within a few days the Julia division was surrounded.  On 8 November, General Mario Girotti of Julia admitted defeat.  The rain, snow and wind along with the steep mountain slopes aided the Greek troops in defending Greece.  The Greeks pushed the Italians back to the border in a complete victory, even advancing deep into Albania.  The Italian loses were 5,000 dead.

Not only weather and terrain aided the Greek forces, but also the local civilian population.  The local women provided crucial assistance to the Greek victory.  Women, old and young, carried guns, food, clothing and supplies on their backs to the troops over the mountain trails.

Davakis was wounded 2 November 1940 but survived.  He was arrested in December 1942 by the Italian occupation authorities under suspicion of working in the Greek Resistance and was shipped to a POW camp in Italy.  However the ship carrying him was torpedoed and sank.  His body was recovered by local Greeks and buried.  After WWll ended, he was transferred to Athens for reburial.


2 − 8 November 1940:

The Greeks while outmanned in both numbers and equipment, created a defensive line along the Elaia-Kalamas river in Northern Greece 19 miles south of the Greek-Albanian border. The Greeks had no tanks and their arms and equipment were from WWI.

The Greek 8th Infantry division in the area were commanded by Major General Charalambos Katsimitros. Katsimitros understood that the mountainous and marshy terrain negated the Italian superiority in men and armour. Opposing instructions from the Greek General Staff, Katsimitros chose to set his troops in a defensive line along the Elaia-Kalamas river.  The Greek Plan was to initiate a slow retreat towards this line. This decision contained the Italian invaders and provided the necessary time for Greek enforcements to arrive. The Italian light tankettes and medium tanks could not navigate the terrain. Even though the Italians had superior numbers and equipment, the Greek defensive line remained unbroken.

The Greek army counterattacked and repelled the Italians back by mid-December and into Albania.  Katsimitros led his division into Albania. The Greek army eventually occupied a quarter of Albania moving 18 to 49 miles deep into Albanian territory, holding down 530,000 Italian troops.

In March of 1941, trying to expel the Greeks from Albania, Mussolini personally supervised a counterattack.  It failed.

The Greeks fought for six months against the Italians and repelled the Italian advance into Greece.

Winston Churchill said,

“Our allies the Greeks has seen off the Italian army. Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.”

Nike Women’s Marathon

“30,000 women and a few good men,” the announcement blared through the dark and foggy morning at Union Square at 6 am in San Francisco bouncing off tall building and hotel facades and echoing through valleys of concrete and steel. The announcer was revving us up for the start of the 10th Nike Women’s Marathon; the largest women’s marathon in the world. This race benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society which funds research into treatment for blood cancers and was created by Nike, Inc.

Nike is the Greek Goddess of Victory. In Greek, Nike (Νίκη) means Victory. She is always depicted with wings. She is the goddess of strength, speed, and victory.

I’m not a runner. I hate waking up early. I especially hate waking up early to run.

My younger son Samuel became ill at nine and half months old in 2004. He was diagnosed with Leukemia. He was stoic throughout his treatment, some of which were very painful, yet he never cried; as long as we were with him he endured everything. Samuel died six weeks after being diagnosed. He never said his first word and never took his first step. Our family will never be whole.

My friend Vivian tried to get me to run the first Nike in 2004 as a way of healing after Samuel’s death. I refused. She tried again in 2005, I refused. In 2006 she showed up early one Saturday morning and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She drove me to the Team-in-Training kick-off and signed me up. I told her I would do it for her, this-one-time-only. She laughed.

I trained grudgingly, hating every minute on the track and on long runs over city streets and trails. I hated it because every time I laced up my shoes, it reminded me that Samuel was dead. Seeing my lack of enthusiasm, my coach even asked me why I was there. Vivian, I thought but didn’t respond.

A few weeks later, I was asked to speak at an event. I told Samuel’s story. My coach walked up to me with tears streaming down his face and said, “now I understand why you are here.”

On a Sunday morning in October 2006, I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of participants; some cancer survivors, some like me, mourning lost family members. As I made my way through the streets of San Francisco,  I knew that Samuel was at my side.

At Crissy Field, Vivian was waiting. She walked with me for a while and cheered me on when she let me continue. From the flat ground of Crissy Field the course begins climbing upwards through the hills of San Francisco. Vivian’s cheerful encouragement boosted me over the next steep hills. I made it to the end. My obligation done to Vivian, my honouring Samuel’s memory accomplished.

A few years later, Vivian was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through similar treatments as Samuel but she survived. She died a few years later.

But Vivian was right to laugh that first day when I said only this once. She knew. She knew how important it was to keep Samuel’s memory alive. How important the work that the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society does. Much of the research funded for blood cancers has produced treatments used for other cancers as well, like breast cancer.

Every year since 2006, I wake up at four in the morning to lace up running shoes and head out into a cold dark morning to run from Union Square out to Ocean Beach. Every year, I pass a section in Crissy Field where on my first run Vivian met me to cheer me on and I know that each year since her death that she’s there with me.

Just yesterday, 20 October 2013, I ran Nike. At Crissy Field, I remember Vivian’s bright and cheerful face. I run with Samuel at my side.

I fundraise for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and run Nike every year since 2006. I represent Samuel and talk about him to other Team-in-Training participants. Thanks to Vivian, his memory lives.

Nike 20 October 2013

Nike 20 October 2013

Nike Sign - 20 October 2013

Nike Sign – 20 October 2013

Nike Start Line - 20 October 2013

Nike Start Line – 20 October 2013

Nike Finish Line - 20 October 2013

Nike Finish Line – 20 October 2013