Since 1974, one of the most beautiful places on Earth has had a wall running through it.
The Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus was split in two by a war. In response to a coup d'état orchestrated by the military government of Greece after years of simmering conflict, troops from Turkey occupied the northern third of the island, which was declared an independent republic — recognized to this day only by Turkey — for Turkish-speaking Cypriots. What had once been a tranquil country where the Greek- and Turkish-speaking communities intermingled became a nation divided along ethnic lines.
Divisions and distrust between Greek and Turkish Cypriots persist, but a nonprofit group called the Cyprus Friendship Program is working to heal the schism. Modeled off a similar program that focused on Northern Ireland during "The Troubles," the period of conflict between Irish republican and British loyalist paramilitaries, the Cyprus Friendship Program seeks to promote peace and understanding between Cypriot people by bringing teenagers from the Greek- and Turkish-speaking communities together.
Young Cypriots talk trust, unity at Tigard Rotary
For several years, host families in the Portland area and Southwest Washington have been housing Cypriot teens every July as part of the Cyprus Friendship Program's local chapter. The experience for teens participating in the program includes a four-week stay in the United States, during which they live with both an American family and a counterpart from the other side of Cyprus.
Hilmi Arica and Andreas Constantinou concluded their American July last Friday, July 28. But before they returned to their native Cyprus, the teens spoke at Thursday's noon meeting of the Rotary Club of Tigard, sharing their perspectives on the situation in Cyprus and their own experiences with the ethnic tensions that keep the island divided.
Arica, who is from the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recalled a visit he made to the south of Cyprus — the border between the two sides of the island is open, although crossing it is not always easy — where he met both a friend he had made in the Greek-speaking community and his less trusting 6-year-old brother.
"When (my friend) Ioannis introduced me to (his brother) Andreas as a Turkish-speaking Cypriot, he wanted to leave, because he was scared of me. His teacher told him that all Turkish-speaking Cypriots were bad and were monsters," Arica said. "In spite of this, Ioannis convinced Andreas to stay there, to spend time with me. We spent a wonderful two hours talking, and when it was finally time for me to leave, Andreas said that he had not believed that Turkish Cypriots could be good people."
Constantinou, who is from the Greek-speaking southern part of Cyprus, said he was dismayed when he mentioned something about his participation in the Cyprus Friendship Program at school and a Greek Cypriot friend reacted negatively.
"Excitedly, I announced to my peers about the meeting I had with my Turkish-speaking Cypriot friend, Hilmi. A friend of mine gasped in disbelief and yelled back at me: 'You shouldn't have gone there. This means you accept them and you can call them friends,'" Constantinou recounted. "I was both taken aback and angered at his reaction. My first thought was, 'What?' After a couple of seconds, I then replied: 'First of all, I'm not asking you what I do, and second of all, you really need to open your mind up and stop being brainwashed.' And I have to tell you that I couldn't stop thinking about this the other day. It had shaken me in a way that I couldn't have predicted."
Constantinou added, "As intelligent people in this room, I'm sure you will agree that we cannot let this continue. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, but now, we have to make the change."
The two governments in Cyprus sporadically hold peace negotiations, but Arica said he does not believe political action alone can bring peace.
"If we want to make peace in Cyprus, first of all, we have to get both Cypriot communities to interact with one another so trust and bonds between the two communities will be stronger than now," Arica said.
Rotary president: 'So inspired' by Friendship Program
Thursday's presentation brought some attendees to tears. Tammy Haas, a coordinator of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Cyprus Friendship Program, cried as she marveled at the courage shown by teens in the program and the progress they make as public speakers during their stay in the United States, addressing groups like the Tigard Rotary.
Haas repeatedly pointed out how rigorous the program is. Teens must apply, go through interviews and be selected to participate — there is a shorter, less intensive "peace camp" in which teens who are not chosen for the four-week U.S. visit can get involved — and once they are in the United States, they are prohibited from using electronic devices and must participate in trust-building exercises, public speaking engagements, and other activities intended to hone their civic engagement and conflict resolution skills.
"Some of them have never left Cyprus. This is a big journey," Haas said. "Some of them have never been away from their families for that long."
The program has a local connection: Cheron Calder, this year's president of the Tigard Rotary, became the volunteer coordinator for the local chapter of the Cyprus Friendship Program after studying abroad in Cyprus as a Portland State University student in 2012. The program expanded under Calder, and coordinating duties have since passed to Haas and her husband, who live in Washington.
"They have a huge event at the end of the year — it's usually sometime around October — and it is one of the largest bicommunal gatherings on the island that takes place each year. It's, like, 500 people that get together to celebrate the work of these teenagers in bringing together the Turkish-speaking and the Greek-speaking Cypriots on the island of Cyprus. And I was so inspired by what I saw in that room," Calder said.
She added, "It was a crowded room, there were a lot of teenagers there, and every one of them was talking at the same time, and it was total chaos. I didn't understand how they were getting anything done, but they were. And what was so exciting to me was that when I looked around the room, I couldn't tell who was Greek-speaking and who was Turkish-speaking. They all just looked like a group of very excited and engaged teenagers — and that was the inspiration for me. That was the hope that these young people will be able to cross the divide, that they will be able to heal the island over time."
The number of Cypriot teens who can come to the United States for the program is entirely dependent on how many families are willing to host them, Haas said.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Cyprus Friendship Program or how to become a host family can visit the program's website or call Tammy and Vern Haas at 360-907-6991.
By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times