Maria Eliades, CIANA's Communications and Programs Manager, in Athens Square. Photo: Olivia Sztanga
Astoria, NY -Maria Eliades first started working at CIANA as a volunteer in March. In August, she joined CIANA’s staff as its Communications and Programs Manager. For Maria, the journey to CIANA started overseas, in Turkey.
While teaching at a Turkish university in her last three years in Istanbul, Maria began to see the effects of the Syrian refugee crisis first-hand.
“In my last years in Turkey, I started seeing the refugee crisis up close. It was certainly in the rest of Turkey too, but I was seeing it up close on Istanbul’s streets,” she said, “I became friends with several Syrian refugees, too. I saw this crisis in the ports of Greece, I saw it up North, and all of this was really deeply affecting.”
At the same time, what she saw in Turkey and Greece reminded her of her own family's history, of how her father’s family left Turkey in 1959 to come to the US and try to build a better life for themselves. Her family’s history and her own ties to Turkey left her wondering whether she was doing enough to help the migration crisis that she saw unfolding before her eyes; ultimately prompting her to move back to the US after the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey.
When she first came back, Maria was eager to work with refugees before finding out about CIANA through a friend. After discovering CIANA, she thought that it made a lot of sense to work with immigrants.
“You’re not a refugee necessarily but you still have a lot of needs, and I don’t think that’s really recognized. You come into a country, whether it’s the U.S. or someplace else, and you often don’t know the language, you don’t know how the system works, you don’t necessarily have a job, and you have to navigate all of that.”
Her own experiences in navigating the move to Turkey and adjusting to life there had given Maria an appreciation for how difficult it can be for people to immigrate to a new country to which they have no ties, but her understanding of the immigrant experience in Astoria doesn’t stop there.
Astoria is where her father’s family came when they arrived in the US, where her mother eventually moved and grew up. These streets are where her great uncle owned and operated two baklava shops and where her grandparents raised her father and uncle to become an engineer and surgeon. Astoria is a place where her family was able to succeed in ways unimaginable in their home countries, and in turn, where Maria hopes to help other immigrants achieve those same dreams.
Having been at CIANA for several months now, there are many things that she has come to like about what sets it apart from the countless other community based non-profits working towards similar goals, especially the location in the most diverse place in the US. This gives CIANA the opportunity to serve its clients right where they live.
Maria is also touched by how supportive the Astoria community is, saying, “I am perpetually surprised and really heartened by the feeling of we’re all a community with everyone who lives here. People choose to live here and they’re very proud of it. I’m heartened by how businesses also want to support us.”
At the end of the day, Maria hopes that the work she does along with the work that CIANA does overall, will leave behind a legacy.
“Everything that we do here, from our ESL classes to our civics classes is giving people the tool to speak, and to do things for themselves, to have agency. I hope that those seeds that we’re planting will eventually bear fruit into what has always been the seeds of the American dream.”
In the meantime, Maria continues to do her work and remain grateful for what she has in her own life.
“I’m thankful overall that I was born here, that I did not have to go through what my grandparents had to go through in coming to this country. And I’m thankful for what they did in doing that, in being very brave —because that’s the thing about being an immigrant that I think is not recognized enough. It’s a really brave decision to leave behind everything that you know and come to a place where you don’t know anyone. And at this very moment in my life, I’m thankful that I’m working at CIANA, where I have the chance to help other people have the same opportunities that my family had in coming to this country.”