First Step of the Journey: Being a Newcomer in Nicosia
καλωσόρισμα! Welcome to my blog about my time in Cyprus, a small EU island in the Mediterranean where I will be spending the next six months. I first want to thank the InterExchange Foundation and the Christianson Grant for their support of my work! Without the grant, I would not have been able to embark on this journey across the world, where I’m providing support to the Strengthening Asylum project, a program funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and part of the Future Worlds Center (FWC).
A little background about me: I completed my Master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies with a concentration in Policy Analysis in 2013 from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. I was an intern in Dublin, Ireland, for three months, and after I returned to the U.S., I started searching for ways to head back to Europe! I began working in a refugee resettlement center in Boston, MA, where I conducted employment intakes for refugees and asylum-seekers, and assisted with job-training courses. My work there involved refugees/asylees who were already under legal protection in the U.S., and who had largely spent time in refugee camps in other countries before coming to America. They had the documentation to prove their work eligibility, and issues that caused them to leave their country were often years in the past.
My desire to come to Cyprus stemmed from my efforts to get closer to the center of the refugee issue. Clients coming to Cyprus are overwhelmingly from the horrific civil war in Syria, which has seen record numbers of displaced people over its four years. There is no end in sight for the Syrian civil war. Those Syrians seeking asylum here have neither the documentation nor the understanding of the asylum process that the clients in my previous work had. Often their psychological issues are a barrier to successful integration. The long wait times for responses from the authorities can be disheartening and frustrating, and the staff at FWC works to address both the bureaucratic and the behavioral aspect of the transition for each client. Working in Cyprus gives me the opportunity to be a part of a team committed to helping a vulnerable population access the resources available to them, socially and legally.
Now that you understand a little about why I’m here, I’ll dive right into my experience so far (I’m about 10 days in). Cypriots are an extremely welcoming and friendly people, and they have been endlessly kind to me in my first few weeks of being in a new place. I arrived in the country right after the holidays, so on New Year’s Day, I roamed around the area called Ledra Street, full of cafes, shops and street vendors. I saw a man cooking chicken on a spit (the famous Greek dish souvlaki). I stopped and chatted with him, and it turns out he was the owner of the restaurant he was outside of. He invited me back once the food was done, and I was the guest of honor at a big family dinner at the restaurant. If you try to pay for anything you are offered, people are insulted, so they refused to let me pay anything after eating and drinking with them all afternoon. A week later, on January 6, it was Little Christmas, which the Greeks treat as a public holiday. On this day, the bishop throws a cross into the sea and all the men dive in to get it. Whoever gets the cross gets good luck for the year. Unfortunately, I don’t live on the coast, so I didn’t get to see it in person! It’s been very interesting to be here throughout the holiday season to observe and understand some cultural and religious traditions.
The terrain of the country ranges from mountains to beaches, and the climate is mostly dry and warm. I’m told that winter is “the one day in January that it rains,” but it’s proving to be colder here than anyone expected this month. There’s a mandarin and lemon tree outside the apartment, and the produce at the supermarket is very fresh as well. The food has been great - lentils, chickpeas, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, kebab, souvlaki…and of course, tons of local olive oil. Bottles of local Cypriot wine sell for about three euro ($5). One of my hobbies is running, and I signed up for a half marathon at the beginning of March on the coast in Paphos (in mythology, the birthplace of Aphrodite), so I’ll spend a few days out there and learn about the history of the region a little bit. I have a deep interest in mythology, so taking a trip out to that area will be fascinating for me. I took a day trip out to the coastal city of Larnaca last week, which was really beautiful. The ocean is so warm even at this time of year, and the beaches are so clean.
The place I’m working is The Humanitarian Affairs Unit (HAU) within FWC. It is the only place in the country that provides legal and social assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers. The government doesn’t provide any resources to asylum-seekers, so my work is similar to that of a typical NGO - over capacity but staffed with amazing people who dedicate their careers to this cause. Three months ago, a boat of 300 Syrians was stranded off the coast. These people were escaping the civil war, and each paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to help them get to Europe to get asylum. The smugglers ended up deserting the boat with the refugees, and by the time it was found, those on board had not eaten or drank in days. Cyprus established a temporary refugee camp for the 300, called Kokkinotrimithia. Those in the camp are seeking asylum here or in another country, and many want to be reunited with family in their intended country. Most don’t understand the logistics of the application process, entry/exit and the rights and rules that apply to them.
Opening a refugee camp is a big move since countries that border war zones tend to have refugee camps, but first-world countries rarely if ever have them, especially not an island. In this case though, they had no choice. A lot of these people don’t speak Greek or English, some are coming as victims of torture (VOT). There is specific VOT staff here, since those clients have a hard time integrating into a camp environment. The camp’s “end date” is this Saturday, January 10. Supposedly the camp closes at that point, but there are still hundreds of Syrians awaiting the results of an asylum application or appeal. Is is unsure what will become of the camp after this end date.
The lawyers and social workers at FWC have ongoing case files for clients applying for asylum/refugee status or for clients working to appeal cases that have been rejected. Clients come in for appointments or just walk in to ask questions and find out the status of the application. The lawyers also take turns going out to the detention center, where people who are here who tried to enter illegally are detained. One of the Syrians whose English is good is now an interpreter for FWC. I’m working on my Arabic as well, since it’s very helpful to have it here and not many people do. I’m also working on my Greek, as I can get by in English, but most people’s English (outside of work) is about as good as my Greek (not very). I can make myself understood usually, but it will be a lot easier once that improves.
VERY few are approved for asylum in Cyprus. Most are approved for Subsidiary Protection. Each client has his/her own specific family issues, medical problems and personal questions, so the lawyers are busy communicating between governments, clients and authorities that speak a combination of Arabic, Greek and English. It’s a lot to get used to, but this is what I love about this field.
The Republic of Cyprus shares a border with TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) which is not recognized as a political entity by any international organization. Since 1974, the island has been split, and Nicosia lies near the UN “green zone.” With your passport, you can actually walk across the border quite easily. I will give some more information and context in a future post about the political history of the divide, because it’s very interesting and still relevant to Cyprus’ regional affairs.
That’s all for now - αντίο!
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