A block away from the boarded-up luxury stores and the oddly quiet sidewalks along North Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, the consulate general of Greece in Chicago is as busy as ever this holiday season.
It’s been like that since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The global health crisis has limited the ability of Americans to travel abroad — and sparked a surge in the number of Chicagoans with Greek roots who want to become citizens of their ancestral homeland, too.
The consulate general of Greece in Chicago says it has seen a 400% increase this year in Americans seeking dual citizenship and the European Union passports that come with being officially Greek. There were 1,300 applications in a recent three-month period, compared to 700 in all of last year, officials said.
Anybody who can prove they have Greek heritage is eligible for citizenship in that country.
And having an EU passport allows unencumbered travel and permission to work in more than two dozen EU member countries. That’s a big advantage over just having a U.S. passport, says Ekaterina Dimakis, the Greek consul general in Chicago.
But the motivation for many Greek-American applicants is as much emotional as it is practical.
They say they plan to continue to live here, but many have homes and family in the old country, and the pandemic has restricted their ability to visit Greece.
“They want to see Greece,” Dimakis said. “The light, the warmth, the beaches, the food. These are the elements that constitute, that create the nostos, the nostalgia for Greece.”
The Chicago consulate of Croatia – which became the 28th member state of the EU in 2013 – is handling many more citizenship applications than in 2019, said Consul General Sanja Lakovic.
“Last year, we had about 25 requests, and this year we have 65,” Lakovic said.
She said many of those applicants want to study in Europe, which is easier – and cheaper – to do with an EU passport.
“In this time of a pandemic situation, they have more time to think about that,” Lakovic said.
‘Feeling of belonging and history’
Brothers Manoli and George Alpogianis have deep roots in Chicago. Both were born here, as were their parents and one of their grandmothers.
They own restaurants in the Chicago area, including the America’s Dog & Burger outlets on Navy Pier and at O’Hare International Airport and Kappy’s American Grill in Morton Grove.
George Alpogianis is an elected official in Niles and is running for mayor of the northern suburb next year.
But the Alpogianis brothers are proud of their heritage and now want to become Greek citizens, too.
“Even though we were third-generation Greeks here in Chicago, we always maintained a strong connection with Greece,” said Manoli Alpogianis, who credits their involvement in the Greek Orthodox Church community here with maintaining those ties.
He was 18 the first time he went to Greece for vacation and vividly recalls the emotions that the trip sparked.
“It was just this great feeling of belonging and history and knowing where I was from,” Manoli Alpogianis says.
He says he wants the next generation of their family to feel the same connection.
“We could give them the opportunity to know where they came from, who they are, who their people are and, while knowing they are Americans, having a strong sense of identity of being Greek-Americans,” Manolis Alpogianis says.
Long waits at consulate
But the Greek citizenship application process can be complicated in many cases.
Second- and third-generation Greek-Americans are increasingly seeking help to become dual nationals because they have a hard time tracing their lineage and gathering the necessary paperwork, says Steve Kourtis, a Greek-American lawyer in Athens.
Presenting documentation proving ties to Greece often is muddled by the common immigrant practice of anglicizing typically long surnames that tend to be challenging to pronounce for other Americans, he said.
“You have to have a Greek blood relative in order to be eligible to apply for Greek citizenship,” Kourtis said. “There was World War II, and a lot of the documents were destroyed or lost. That means the grandparents’ information cannot be found.”
Dimakis, the Greek consul general, said the consulate can provide assistance but the increased workload these days is falling on the same number of employees, causing a backlog.
On a recent weekday, several masked, socially-distanced Greeks sat in the consulate’s waiting room, which is adorned with a big, bronze statue of an ancient Greek wielding a spear.
“We are welcoming everyone to the consulate,” Dimakis said. “You just have to show a lot of patience.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. He was born in Chicago to Greek immigrant parents and is in the process of obtaining dual citizenship.