Monday, February 21, 2011

Dr. Basil Photos, 95, never forgot Albanian homeland

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Dr. Basil Photos, who died Feb. 13 at 95, was the longtime head of the Panepirotic Federation of America.

At a time when Greeks and other ethnic minorities living in southern Albania could not always practice their language, religion and even some customs, 10-year-old Basil Photos was sent away from home to get an education — which eventually included medical school.

“His father selected him as the one in the family to go off to school. In 1926 he set off with a note in his pocket saying, ‘Go see Mr. So-and-So and live with him and go to school,’ ” said Dr. Photos’ daughter Cynthia Abbott.

Dr. Photos’ family members were among the ethnic Greeks living in the area on the border of Albania and Greece known as Northern Epirus — a territory within Albania proper that has seen oppression at various times against the minority population.

“You couldn’t go to church. They closed all the schools; the Greek language was not taught in the elementary or high school level. The only Greek that was taught was in private schools, which ran the risk of being found by the Albanian police,” said Demetrios Tsoumbanos, former leader of the Panepirotic Federation of America, an organization seeking to protect the human rights of Greeks in Albania.

Studying medicine in Athens, Greece, and eventually emigrating to the United States, Dr. Photos was able to escape the troubles of his home region, but much of his family did not.

“He couldn’t speak to or see them for 45 years. Many of his relatives really did suffer quite extensively. His sister’s home was burned down multiple times, his brothers were jailed because they spoke out,” said Abbott. “His struggle from the 1940s all the way into the Iron Curtain was to see his homeland be free.”

Dr. Photos, born in 1916, died Feb. 13 at age 95 following a brief illness. A Glenview resident, he served for years as head of the Panepirotic Federation of America, and was a founder of Chicago’s Greek Independence Day Parade.

After graduating from the medical school at the University of Athens in 1945, Dr. Photos came to the United States for postgraduate studies in medicine at the University of Michigan. Graduating in 1948, he came to Chicago to intern at Grant Hospital and became an emergency room physician at another medical center.

In 1953 Dr. Photos married the former Mary Vaselakos, and opened his own practice in the Loop. He later opened another office on the North Side. A family physician, Dr. Photos delivered nearly 1,500 babies, said his daughter.

Though busy as a physician, Dr. Photos found time to raise awareness about his homeland. Through the Panepirotic Federation, Dr. Photos visited the United Nations several times to discuss human rights violations in Northern Epirus. His efforts were recognized by the Greek government as well as the Greek Orthodox Church.

“Dr. Photos was very instrumental in keeping that idea alive for the last 60 years,” said Tsoumbanos. “Every time we got together it was the first thing he would bring up.”

Dr. Photos never made it back to his home region, though he was reunited with family. Today Albania is considered more welcoming of Greeks in the southern territory, although the area of Northern Epirus has become less populated as it has gained more freedoms.

“What was interesting is that his homeland is in many ways deserted now; people moved to the big cities,” Abbott said. “He would have liked to see the area itself prosper, but most of [the Greeks] left. That was somewhat painful for him.”

Though he struggled with the plight of his homeland, his pride in his Greek heritage was unwavering.

“He had tremendous pride in being Greek and pride in some of the original ideals going back to Socrates and Aristotle — the freedom to express yourself and debate ideas, and chart your own destiny. He was so much a patriot of this country because our ideals are the Ancient Greek ideals he felt strongly about.”

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Photos is survived by his wife, Mary; daughter Thalia Murphy; four grandchildren, and one sibling.

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