Working With Refugees in Cyprus

11 minute read

Maryann volunteered in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Maryann volunteered in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Image courtesy of Maryann

As I reflect back on my experience in Nicosia, Cyprus, over the last six months, I cannot imagine my life without this internship with Future Worlds Center. I had never been to Cyprus before and I didn’t know any Greek. I was excited for the chance to do humanitarian work in a totally different community with different challenges and circumstances.

Three months before I arrived, a boat of 350 migrants heading to Italy from Syria was rescued off the coast of Cyprus. These migrants were escaping the civil war which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. Many of the migrants were young men who would rather risk their lives on the sea than complete their mandatory military service for the Syrian regime.

Although I was not here when they arrived in late September, this community of Syrians became the target community for much of my volunteer work at Future Worlds Center. The Syrians were set up in tents in a refugee camp and lived off local charities. They were broke; each had paid $6,000 to a smuggler who abandoned the boat at sea and took the money. They were unhappy and anxious about their futures – they had not intended to land in Cyprus, a country where asylum-seekers and refugees are treated with very little respect.

Unlike other European countries, Cyprus is infamous for taking a very long time to process applications for asylum, and for rarely granting international protection. The general culture here is laid-back, which is usually great, but can be endlessly frustrating for a refugee who wants to restart his life.

The attitudes towards refugees is also problematic. Prior to the economic downturn of 2008, Cyprus had a booming economy with beautiful vacation spots at cheap prices. Jobs were plentiful and people were happy. Since the downturn, however, the residents often feel threatened by poor migrants trying to rent homes and work.

Therefore, a large number of the original 350 refugees chose to escape through the northern border of Cyprus, onto the Turkish occupied territory, and risk the sea again to reach Türkiye. Some were successful, and many were not. Each attempt cost more money, but these people were so desperate to leave that they once again risked their lives. Many remained here in the country on a six-month visitor visa given by the government to those who came on the boat.

Views of the Cypriot countryside.
Views of the Cypriot countryside.
Image courtesy of Maryann

Many of the Syrians applied for international protection (asylum) in Cyprus. International protection is split into two categories: recognized refugees and subsidiary protection. Recognized refugee is the ideal status, as it allows the refugee to live in this new country with certain rights. You can bring your family here in a process called Family Reunification (FR). You also receive a residence permit lasting three years.

For those who receive subsidiary protection, you have a residence permit lasting one year and you are not afforded the same opportunity for FR. You tend to be more limited in your opportunities. Some are denied both, and must either appeal or leave the country. Because of all the uncertainty, the waiting period, and the importance of the applicant’s given status, the process is quite stressful.

Future Worlds Center offers free legal, social, and psychological assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers. However, because of the small size of the NGO and the high demand for these services from the influx of Syrians and the regular flow of migrants from all over the world, FWC was overwhelmed by the need. FWC is the only NGO to offer these services in the entire country, and the high stakes for clients and constant demand can be stressful at times. If a client is rejected, he/she may appeal the decision with the help of a lawyer.

Maryann explored the Cypriot coast.
Maryann explored the Cypriot coast.
Image courtesy of Maryann

While asylum-seekers await their answers, they reside at Kofinou Reception Centre in Kofinou. This centre is about 50 kilometers from the city, and the residents are quite poor. The centre provides small meals, but the residents are largely unhappy with them. The staff is sometimes difficult to cooperate with for FWC as an NGO as well as the clients who live there.

The Asylum Service is the governmental organization that runs the centre and makes the asylum decisions. Some clients have lived there for a few months; a few have lived there over five years. One woman has lived there with her family for eight years. Those here in Cyprus feel jilted, because many have family or friends in other European countries where the process for asylum is simple, quick, and provides refugees with all kinds of great resources to integrate, including language classes and residential homes.

There are over 140 asylum-seekers living at Kofinou. The isolation from the city and the lack of things to do lends to a hopeless attitude. I noticed this when I joined the psychologists on a visit to Kofinou early on in my internship. I spoke at length with some residents just to understand their situation before and during their wait for their decision. As I listened to their stories, I became frustrated for them. They had escaped death and tragedy in their home countries. When they arrived in Cyprus, they were not assisted in any way except for the random kindness of strangers or by an NGO who was aware of their presence and was contacted to help them.

Most of them were processed in Nicosia and told to go to Kofinou without any directions – a totally isolated place far from the city in a country where they do not speak the native language. They did not know where they were going, and sometimes they were traveling at night. The buses to and from Kofinou only run twice per day, and a newcomer would never fully understand how to get there. After their journey to finally find their new home (a tin caravan), they were not given any information regarding resources, medical care, legal assistance, social assistance, or transportation. They were not provided language classes for Greek or English. They were made to be fully dependent on those who provided them meager resources. The majority of them wasted away their days doing nothing.

Maryann helped asylum-seekers in Cyprus understand their rights.
Maryann helped asylum-seekers in Cyprus understand their rights.
Image courtesy of Maryann

I felt the depressed atmosphere the instant I walked in, and I began to feel a need to somehow fill the gap that the government so blatantly left in the system. I began to brainstorm with an Arabic-speaking translator of what we could do to remedy the situation. We decided to design and implement a seven-week program of bilingual integration training, covering all topics including health, legal assistance, rights, employment, education, transportation, and more. The attitude in the centre began to change noticeably once this program started.

My students arrived early for class, ready to learn, take notes, and ask questions. I also fielded their concerns and questions after class and relayed messages back to their lawyers here at the office. The program was largely successful, and they will use the curriculum I designed to do this program again. This project was run completely on the work of volunteers.

Throughout the project, I began to get to know some of the residents and their families very well. They became more than clients or Kofinou residents to me; they became my friends and resources. Since the program ended in late April, I have acted as an employment specialist for those who are legally able to work and those who cannot legally work but would like to volunteer. The integration exercises were also very helpful to me personally – as I designed the curriculum based on what a newcomer wouldn’t know, many of those things also applied to me. In teaching the bus system, I learned more about it. In teaching about getting an apartment or a driver’s license, I myself learned a few things.

One of the biggest frustrations for me was the lack of transitional assistance, not just financial, given to those who got a decision and were trying to move from Kofinou. The average resident who attained international protection now had no money, very little language skills, and no understanding of the next steps. The Kofinou staff was unhelpful in this, yet would repeatedly ask residents to leave once they had a decision.

Once the asylum service became frustrated with resident who would not leave, they would call FWC to assist. At that point, the decision may have been months before. The client had no idea that they needed to get a bank account, an ID, registration at the Labor Office, a rental agreement, or that he/she needs to apply for social welfare (called here Minimum Guaranteed Income, or MGI). All these procedures were intertwined, and often different officers or employees at the ministries would request additional paperwork or something they could not get. They faced constant rejection to do the simplest things.

Refugees took notes in class.
Refugees took notes in class.
Image courtesy of Maryann

On top of the rejection, they also paid what little money they had to visit the FWC office for assistance, as it was difficult for me as well to get to Kofinou to see people since I didn’t drive here. This is a stressful time for someone with international protection, as they quickly struggle to integrate in a system that is not welcoming or logical or efficient.

With a little preparation, the refugees could be more self-sufficient. Before I leave, I would like to do a few workshops at Kofinou to do more practical skills training for MGI applications. MGI is a very poorly designed system, and people rarely get the assistance checks they deserve. The Cypriots within my organization represent the growing minority that recognizes refugee welfare as an important cause. They work tirelessly for low pay to provide these important services, and they give me hope that the country can slowly change.

Intercultural Exchange

Everyone in my office were either Cypriot or Greek. I took Greek lessons once per week with a volunteer and tried to use y basic language skills around the office. I made lots of international friends who were also in various stages of integration into this society. It was amazing to interact with them either camping or exploring the city or villages. We used our Greek language and immersed ourselves in Cypriot culture through food, drink, and holiday events.

I tried to find new places each weekend. The public transportation system here is decent if you want to travel between cities, so it’s quite easy to hop on a bus for a few hours to get to the mountains or the beach. Nicosia itself is a quiet city, so I found myself getting out on the weekends. The easiest way for me to try new Cypriot things was to always say yes if someone suggested something new. In this way, I had some of the best experiences.

Regardless of the governmental shortfalls, Cyprus is an absolutely beautiful country. There are some of the best beaches in the world, small old cities with hidden cafes and tiny streets, and mountains surrounded by deep forests. I saw mythological and historical landmarks. I hiked, camped, and traveled by bus, car, and bike. I ate souvlaki (the traditional grilled chicken), tzatziki, tahini, lemon, sheftalia, and more. The food here is fresh and local, and many of the drinks are as well.

Maryann enjoyed street barbecue in Cyprus.
Maryann enjoyed street barbecue in Cyprus.
Image courtesy of Maryann

With regard to the Syrian refugee community, I actually became just as close to them as the Cypriot community. The issues of the refugee and asylum-seeker communities became very familiar and personal to me, as I spent much of my free time with people facing those issues. At times, I felt indignant for them – they faced a difficult system, uncooperative government, and an NGO that should represent them but is overburdened with cases. I had taken Arabic previously, and began to study it again as I was surrounded by people whose first language was Arabic.

I became immersed in their culture as well; the kindness shown to me as a newcomer in Kofinou was overwhelming. I was at first nervous that because of the foreign policy choices of the U.S. in the past that an American would not be easily welcomed into the community. However, I was treated with the highest respect and kindness. I gained their trust by listening to their issues and doing my best to address them.

My personality is one that if someone has a problem, I feel restless until I can find them a good solution or alternative. They recognized that I always followed through with their requests and returned answers to them for their concerns. They cooked me traditional falafel and tabouleh, and I was totally humbled by their generosity.

I felt a common bond with them as an outsider in Europe, experiencing the system and seeing its flaws. As someone who enjoys politics, I really loved hearing about the past lives of those in the centre. I am one who believes that I never know the full story, so to form an opinion, I want to hear about those directly involved in regional politics. I learned a great deal about politics in the Middle East, and maybe my Arabic will allow me to one day see that part of the world.

A Meaningful Experience

Overall, this has been an incredible journey. I have learned languages, made deep friendships, and expanded my knowledge and skills to include more of a leadership/management role for which opportunity I’m so grateful. None of this would have been possible without the Christianson Fellowship, and I’m so honored to have received it. The team at InterExchange was so helpful to me every step of the way, so I would like to thank you for that.

I would like to keep working with refugees, and to continue to find work abroad. The refugee population is such a welcoming community, and I think that is because they understand more than anyone what it is like to be an outsider. I went from being an outsider myself to becoming a person who understands so much about Cypriot life and can pass it on to others.

I appreciate so many of the things on this small island, and I will always feel a special tie to this country. Living and working with those from other cultures has always been a time of strong development in my life, and this volunteership is the same. When I applied for the Christianson Fellowship, I hoped to get closer to the “refugee issue” than I was previously in Boston. I wanted an experience that made me uncomfortable in a good way – and that is exactly what I found.

I see growth in myself personally and professionally and I can’t thank InterExchange enough for making this possible!

Maryann By

Maryann volunteered in Cyprus with the help of a Christianson Fellowship, from the InterExchange Foundation.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation