Rush Toward Citizenship
American Dream Almost Lost
Yorgos Voulinakos sells souvlaki from a stand like this one in Astoria. Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen
By LIZ GOFF
Yorgos Voulinakos sells souvlaki on 31st Street in Astoria.
The Greek native arrived in the United States in 1970, first settling with his wife and young son in a small apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan.
Voulinakos said he was told by a friend, “soon after we arrived here,” that he could find his fortune peddling hot food from a pushcart in Astoria.
“At first I worked at a stand owned by my friend,” he said. “I worked whenever he wanted to take off.”
Voulinakos said he soon found work with several pushcart owners, and he was able to work almost every day. By 1976, he was earning enough to support his growing family – there were three more children by then, Voulinakos said.
“I bought my own cart in 1978, set up on 31st Street near Ditmars Boulevard, and felt like I was on the top of the world,” he said. “It didn’t matter that I traveled from Manhattan to Astoria each day and worked for 12, maybe 14 hours.”
“I was an independent businessman in the United States.”
Voulinakos moved his family into an apartment in Astoria in 1982. He recalled, “how wonderful it was,” to be able to send his children to the St. Demetrios School and to be a part of the Greek-American community in Astoria.
“This was a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “The children learned all they needed to know about this country – and their parents’ homeland. The business was hard work, but there was enough money for all of us to live well.”
Voulinakos said he decided in 1990 to buy a house in Astoria – the end of his American dream.
“It almost cost me everything,” he said.
When he and his wife found the “perfect house,” they went to a local bank to apply for a mortgage, Voulinakos said. “We never thought about Social Security numbers, or Green Cards, or the fact that we had never applied for citizenship,” he said.
“Before we could do anything, we had to find a way to stay in this country legally, or lose everything we had worked for.”
Voulinakos said he sought guidance from the Greek American Homeowners Association in Astoria.
“They sent us running all over the City to agencies that helped us establish ourselves as citizens. We faced questions from people at Immigration – who wanted to know why we waited so long,” he said.
“The really big blow came when we had to pay taxes on an estimated income that went back more than 10 years,” he said. “That almost broke the bank and kept us from getting the house at that time.”
Voulinakos said it took about three years for “everything to get straightened out.” Once the family was on solid financial ground and he and his wife were sworn in as U.S. citizens, “we found the right house, and we still live there today,” he said.
“The children are married or in college,” he said. “My youngest daughter, Athena, earned a scholarship and is studying to be a doctor in Manhattan.”
Voulinakos said he still sells souvlaki from his stand on 31st Street. But these days, he is assisted by his son, Theo, who “insisted we add hot dogs and pretzels to the cart.”
“The decision to come to this country was a good one,” Voulinakos said. “Even though we didn’t do things correctly at the beginning, we admitted to our mistakes and paid a price for the right to be here legally.”
“The children are doing well. We are expecting our first grandchild this summer, and in a few years we will have a doctor in the family.”
“I believe there is no other place where a street vendor would be able to say that,” he said.