LOWELL, MA – George D. Behrakis, a prominent Greek-American businessman and philanthropist from Lowell, MA is on a sacred and patriotic mission these days trying to save Greece’s children from dying from illnesses linked to smoking cigarettes. He has spent a lot of time traveling back and forth to Greece over the past six years, and devoted over $10 million in an antismoking campaign aimed at Greek students, to convince them to quit smoking or never start.
Behrakis created a package called “The Truth about Smoking” and has funded the writing, publishing, and continuous distribution a series of booklets accordingly. One of the books is called Education for a World without Smoking; another is I Learned Not to Smoke.
Behrakis is also concerned about adults, especially the pregnant women, who are hooked on smoking. Thus, he funded a book depicting on its cover a young mother holding her newborn baby. The book is called Because I love You, I Don’t Smoke. It is actually “guide of self-help to stop smoking during pregnancy and forever.”
It all began about six years ago, Behrakis told TNH, “during one of trips my to Greece because of the riots that were taken place in the center of Athens, at that time I stayed in a small hotel in Kifisia. I woke up one day very early in the morning and I walked around the block and I happened to come in front of a school and there were two women dressed in black giving free cigarettes to little girls. I walked up to them: they couldn’t speak Greek or English, and I wanted to know what they were doing. They were passing out three cigarettes to 11, 12 year-old girls. I called up my cousin Panagiotis, who is a physician expert in pneumatology and also a university professor and I asked him: ‘what is going on here? The government is allowing foreigners to give cigarettes to little girls and boys? You are going to have a major disaster in the next 30 years. Being a physician you know that 80 present on lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking. These children are going to smoke over the next 30 years and it is going to be a major problem.’ So, I said, we have to do something about it.”
Sure enough, Behrakis mobilized his knowledge, his contacts and his funds and he started the campaign. “I got the Harvard School of Public Health involved, they came over to Greece and they started a program to give lectures to students in elementary and high schools. We publish a lot of material and we distribute it to the schools.” Behrakis said “the reaction is fantastic.”
It was well worth the $10 million he has spent on this effort, Behrakis said, “because I feel very comfortable in helping these children out. I go to Greece two or three times a year but we bring them all together the first week of December. We bring 800 to 900 into the room and give me a talk. Then, I give out prizes on art work: for example, how they would look if they start smoking. They do a lot of painting we give prizes to the best artist. I am very impressed with the young children; they are very receptive and very knowledgeable.”
CONDITIONS IN GREECE
Behrakis is extremely concerned about the economy and the overall situation in Greece today. “One out of four people are without jobs. The young people are leaving because they cannot find work and they are going all over Europe and the United States to find jobs. I am shocked at the numbers of doctors who have left Greece. I know we have a problem with the debt with the European Union. I am not an economist, but when you start cutting pensions taking away the people’s livelihood, people are going to get very upset. You just can’t do that.
“Do all the Greeks pay their federal taxes as we do in The United States? Some do, some don’t, and I think that is a major issue. I thought that Prime Minister Samaras was going to go after the tax evaders and I am surprised he hasn’t gone after them. He tried but, if your internal revenue service is not good you clean it out and hire new people. You have to be a government from the people for the people.”
Behrakis also described two Greeces, comprised of “the haves and the have-nots.”
His advice to Samaras is “you have to bring industry into Greece to employ people, the government is not the answer, everyone cannot work for the government. Greece is an ideal location. The weather is great, the beaches are excellent. For a comfortable living, Greece is the place to be, you need to get business in there.”
CHURCH IN THE U.S.
Behrakis is one of the greatest donors of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States and he is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Archdiocesan Council. He said that “the Church should play a major role because we are now in the fifth generation of Greeks. Certain parishes are very successful, some others are not that successful, and then there are some others ready to close. It is a major issue that we have and that is education. Education not only for the priests but also for the officers of the church. It is a two-way street, it is not only the priest, but it’s the parish council, too. They have to be leaders also.”
His home parish the Holy Trinity of Lowell with the only Day Greek American School in all of New England is experiencing difficulties and the numbers are withering. Behrakis said “when I was the president of the parish council we had 1,400 families, today it is down to close to 500 due to a lot of factors. You need really a mission statement for the church. You have to bring the young children together.” He said “the priest and the parish council” have to do it. :They have to knock on the doors they have to work on it.”
He also said that “they have to be very careful because the next five years are critical. I am not directly involved in the workings of the school but if you don’t have 130 students at least the cost is too astronomical and the bleed the church. We can’t ask the same parishioners to support the same short falls, we can’t do that.”
What about Metropolitan Methodios? “He has shown interest but he is allowing the local community to run the show. He has 65 communities in New England.” But Methodios only has one school in his Metropolis.
“Correct, said Behrakis. “He has one school. He is the leader of his Metropolis and it is up to him to make those decisions.”