Greek families fled hunger, upheaval

For Magda Fanaritis, the United States has been her home since birth.

But don’t think for a second that her Greek heritage hasn’t come, too.

That’s the beauty of our “Melting Pot.”

Her parents, Maria and Prodromou, emigrated from Greece to the United States in the early 1920s, her mother to New York and her father to Philadelphia.

They came for “the same reasons that brought everybody across the pond. They were refugees. They were immigrants.

“Our family came from the Turkish party of it… they were part of the population that was exchanged in the early ’20s. The Greeks were invited to leave Turkey” and Turks living in Greece were sent back to Turkey. The two peoples were transformed.

“A lot of people came because they were hungry, but it was also political,” she said.

Fanaritis explained that, to come to America originally, families “would bring other people from their village to the same place. They would have a business,” and use the second floor as a residence, bringing young men to join them. She said that many in this area came from western and northern Greece. “When you came, (you) had to have someone act as a mentor for you. Someone sort of promised that you would have a job.”

As reliant as her family was on the immigration system for a new start in the states, recent debates over immigration leave Fanaritis uncomfortable.

“I can’t understand the way we immigrants are turning on the ones that want to come now,”she said. “After all, that’s what made this country.”

She was raised in Philly, but Warren has been home since 1947 when she, as she describes it, “came here… as a bride to John Fanaritis,” who was a chemical engineer at Struthers Wells, eventually becoming the vice-president of the company.

“We loved this country, we fought for this country,” she said of the Greek presence in the area. “We have in our own way worked for what we believe in. We believed in this country.”

But coming from the “Old Country” required much more than just belief.

“You find that all the immigrants that came here worked very hard,” Fanaritis said. She said her father-in-law, who operated a restaurant in Warren, worked constantly, with the restaurant open 24 hours a day every day but Sunday. “If anybody did well, it was not because it was being handed out.”

And that hard work wasn’t just in employment and business ventures.

It extended to civic engagement, too.

“They were very, very interested in their religion, citizenship. They were not perfect. God knows none of us are, but we took responsibility for our actions and I can say that about everyone that was here that I know.

“Most important, we all loved this country,” she said. “We were not embarrassed, not reticent of speaking up and talking about it. My parents were proud and they made us proud of it. They were very much interested in education and that that was the way to go.

“They were really interested in everything the community did,” she said of the Greek community. “They felt that everything was ‘you had to work for it,’ whether it was respect or honor or grades in school or what you did in your job. It was your fault if you made it or didn’t make it.”

That was true for Fanaritis, too.

She said she was “active for a long time in a lot of things” and was “lucky to be given one of the Chamber women of the year,” for those efforts.

And that intent on being active in the community may have led to some discrimination that Fanaritis sensed.

“I don’t think there’s any place or anything where they (Greeks) aren’t involved just like all the rest of the immigrants. (We) assimilated and became part of the structure (but) went through a lot of harassment. As each group came over, (they) had to fight for acceptance.

“We were discriminated against, yes,” she said. “But you can only allow yourself to be bullied, be discriminated, be put down. If you don’t accept that and do not react to it then it goes away…

“We’re philosophical people. We glory in our ancestors,” Fanaritis explained. “Too bad we aren’t as smart as the ancient Greeks, but they did give us a lot of things; we picked up a lot of things as pride.”

“In this town when I came here there were a lot of Jewish people,” she said. “They were part of the community. All of us knew these people…. We draw this big stupid picture and talk about ‘the Jews’ or ‘the blacks’ or ‘the Greeks’ (and) don’t stop to think ‘Magda is Greek Orthodox and I like her.’ Each one of us represents something. If you accept me then you should assume until it is proven otherwise that others like me are the kind of person I represent.

“A small town, you stand out more because there aren’t as many of you. (It) behooves each one of us to be individually an example. We’re in a way representing a group and if we work this way we wouldn’t have this animosity.”

Describing herself as “first generation,” Fanaritis said she is bi-lingual. “Most of my generation were bi-lingual.”

And that language tie to Greece is evident in name selection

Fanaritis and her husband had four children Panagiotes, Nikitas, Maria and Kathryn.

“It was customary, (and) sad that it had not continued, most of the people from the old countries, you named your children after your parents,” she said. “My daughter is named for my mother. My son is named for his two grandfathers. A name carried.”

Fanaritis said she has had the opportunity to go back to Greece four times.

“I had cousins there,” she said. “My aunts were all gone by the time I went. My mother never wanted to go back. She said she was always living in paradise.”