LIKE many Greeks, Philippos Petsalnikos did well when he lived abroad. Now the president of the Athens parliament hopes expatriate Greeks can help him in a mission far greater than he ever envisaged when he returned home rescuing his homeland from bankruptcy.

“There are many Greeks worldwide, who want to assist us,” he says. “Every day, I receive emails from people in America, Australia, Austria, asking how they can help. And that's how I had the idea to set up an account for the sole purpose of helping to pay off this country's debt.”

On Friday, that idea turned into something much bigger, with the opening of a special fund at the Central Bank of Greece — the start of an unprecedented global campaign to inject the nation's near-empty coffers with much-needed monies.

At first glance the fund's budget target might seem a little ambitious. Athens' debt is 300bn euros, more than 120 per cent of the country's gross domestic product and by far the largest in the EU.

But Greece also has a hidden asset. From Hollywood — think Jennifer Aniston, whose father was born in Crete — to the highly competitive fields of real estate, shipping and commerce, Greeks have excelled. Like Smyrna-born Aristotle Onassis last century, many who started out as dirt-poor immigrants have become business successes in Australia, America, South Africa, Brazil.

“In countries where there are rules, Greeks often distinguish themselves,” Petsalnikos points out. “And they also have a great love for Greece.”

Athens plans to tap into its seven million-strong diaspora as never before. “The campaign's slogan will be I love Greece, I support Greece,” Petsalnikos says.

If the Greek rich list is to be believed, the Athens government should have no problem. First published in the UK — where self-made tycoons such as easyJet's Stelios Haji-Ioannou and the retail entrepreneur Theo Paphitis have long been household names — the annual compilation went global last year because the number of Greek multimillionaires worldwide had officially become too large to ignore.

“It's quite shocking how many successful Greeks and people of Greek heritage there are all over the world,” the periodical's publisher, Savvas Pavlou, says. “Our list of 300 scrapes the surface. We're discovering new millionaires all the time. It would be easy to publish a 500-page magazine. What's more, they appear to be even more patriotic than the Greeks in Greece.”

The list is growing, especially in America, where the Minnesota-born Greek prime minister George Papandreou is going for crucial talks with US President Barack Obama.

As home to the largest overseas Greek community, the US has more billionaires of Greek origin than any other country. With fortunes made in finance, real estate, pharmaceuticals and the food industry, Greek-Americans are among the nation's biggest philanthropists. Last year they were the biggest donors to political candidates seeking federal office in New York.

“They have become a real political force in the US because of the size and amount of donations they make to candidates across the political spectrum,” says Peter Poulos, a professional fundraiser who divides his time between Athens and New York.

“And they're not only funding Greek-American politicians but politicians who care about Greek-American foreign policies, like the plight of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Turkey.”

— The Guardian, London

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