LOWELL — Political and educational leaders will travel to Kalamata, Greece, Wednesday night on the second leg of their sister-city expedition.
Lowell, which has a long history and community of Greek Americans, became twinned with Kalamata after the city’s mayor, Athanasios Vasilopoulos, visited Lowell in April. Vasilopoulos toured the Boott Mills and UMass Lowell Research Center, greeted children from the Hellenic American Academy, and even shopped at the Market Basket.
Now seven people, including their spouses and other family members, will spend a week in Greece for similar cultural enrichment and a deeper understanding of a city nearly 5,000 miles away.
Bill Kafkas, president of the Federation of Hellenic-American Societies of New England, said the organization was “instrumental” in uniting the two cities. Having visited Kalamata four times and being born in Greece, he is looking forward to returning and introducing others to their sister city.
Kafkas said it was important that the Greek community in Lowell, and the city in general, maintain a fruitful, enduring connection with Kalamata. The program could also be a model for other town twinnings, he added.
“Other organizations want to use the Lowell Kalamata project as a guide, and I’m pleased about that,” Kafkas said. “I think we can pave the way for something good to happen for other nationalities too.”
Kafkas, alongside former Lowell Mayor Bill Samaras, who introduced the idea of establishing sister cities back in 2018, as well as Mayor Sokhary Chau, Senator Ed Kennedy, UMass Lowell Vice Chancellor Arlene Parquette, Judith Hogan, Dean of Middlesex Community College, and the Association board member Dimitrios Mattheos will visit the city.
The 12-strong delegation will leave Boston on Wednesday evening and will reach Athens at 12:30 p.m. local time on Thursday. From there it is about a two and a half hour drive to Kalamata.
During the first four days of the trip, Lowell executives will visit the University of the Peloponnese’s Kalamata campus to discuss the establishment of study abroad programs between the two cities and meet with businesspeople to discuss imports and exports. You will leave Kalamata the following Monday to see Ancient Olympia – site of the first Olympic Games – and the ancient theater of Epidaurus.
Before the group departs, they will also visit some historical sights in Athens at the Parthenon, the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum before heading to the Greek Parliament for an official visit and meeting with US Ambassador George Tsunis at the American Embassy. They are supposed to fly home next Wednesday.
Greece is the “foundation of democracy,” Chau said, and contains so much ancient history waiting to be explored. Having never been to Europe, Chau said he could finally understand how Vasilopoulos felt when he first visited the United States a few months ago.
This partnership is all about sharing, Chau said: sharing ideas, trade, culture and more. And with the dozens of countries represented across Lowell — including Cambodia, where Chau is from — there’s an opportunity to set up more town-twinning programs to foster international connections.
“I think what made this work stand out was that there’s definitely a real interest on both sides of the ocean,” Chau said. “I see this as a model for the future.”
The Greek community is actively invested in the partnership, Samaras said, and he hopes the universities and local governments can forge links that will sustain that connection for years to come.
“They send the documentation and they talk about our proximity and what-have-you, and it’s nice, but we wanted to go beyond that,” he said. “One thing I’m proud of is that the Greek community really got behind it.”
Parquette, who will represent UMass Lowell, met with Kalamata officials as they toured the university’s innovation center, which operates in an old mill building, and learned about UMass’s research and technology activities.
Though Lowell and Kalamata may not have much in common on the surface, Parquette said she already sees how the two could complement each other academically and allow students to broaden their perspective, educationally and culturally.
“Whether it’s interdisciplinary or you need to think more globally, those kinds of partnerships and relationships really help us with that,” Parquette said. “We can just learn a lot from each other.”
Kafkas said he wants this partnership to be more than just a photo op, but rather a meaningful, mutually beneficial exchange of culture, business, tourism, education and more.
“We have worked very, very hard for the success of this town twinning project,” said Kafkas. “We are not coming to the end now, but to the beginning because we hope that this will be the beginning of many good things.”