by Dana Alikhani
Extreme voices in the discourse on migration highlight the so-called evils brought about by foreigners living in Cyprus, whilst on the other spectrum of this discourse commendable efforts have called for us to abandon xenophobia. Unfortunately though, merely drawing attention to the negatives within all of us could lead to an oversight of instances worth celebrating.
Abu is an asylum seeker from Ghana who faced difficulties when he first came to Cyprus. On three occasions he went to Paphos Gate Police Station to make an application for asylum and was told to leave. On the fourth occasion, Abu went back unknowingly wearing an APOEL football jersey given to him by a fellow Ghanaian. “I had no money when I first came to this place so my friend helped me out and gave me this t-shirt to wear. I didn’t even know what it was.” This time Abu’s reception at the police station was different. “I was standing there and an officer called me over, he told me to go with him to. I was very scared but he told me not to worry. When I got to his office he asked about my t-shirt and called over the other officers. They were very happy and took photos of me with their mobile”. The officers took Abu’s asylum application from him and gave him his confirmation letter right there and then. “APOEL helped my entrance into Cyprus. Now it is my favourite team” he states. This shows how a simple commodity such as a football t-shirt can have a great impact on a police officer’s mind and in turn impact an African asylum seeker’s daily struggle. However rather than see this at face value; signifying the blatantly incorrect behaviour of the police officers not taking Abu’s application on the first occasion, perhaps we should see it as a means of cultural dialogue emerging through the most simple of means. If Abu sees APOEL as his entrance ticket of acceptance into Cypriot society, then so be it. It is indeed unfortunate that he would need such a voucher of acceptance anyway but the truth is that the outcome of the story is a positive one and Abu has been content in Cyprus ever since. If only police officers such as the one in the story learnt from this instance by becoming more open to other asylum seekers, even when they are not wearing a marker they identify with. We can only hope.
Today’s globalized age unfortunately does not mean that cross-cultural discrepancies have been abandoned for a greater understanding of “others”. Unfortunately that would be way too idealistic. There appear to be inconsistencies in our acceptance of what is “foreign”. It has become fashionable to dine on sushi in one of the many Japanese restaurants that dot our city’s landscape. On the other hand others regard Nicosia’s charming old town with disdain because it has been taken over by “foreigners” or even more concisely “Asians” who are destroying the character within the city’s walls. Who defines this “character” expecting it to be timeless? Thus our society is perceived as being opposed to multiculturalism. The picture that is painted is a bleak one of prejudice on behalf of mainstream society and a sense of rejection on behalf of the migrants wishing to settle in it. These migrants abandon their homes for reasons we owe it to them to be sensitive to. When one’s image of “home” is tarnished, people cross borders and settle in new, often very different places. However there is an important distinction between asylum seekers: those who flee out of necessity, for their lives and economic migrants, who leave for better opportunities. Part of the ongoing discourse of “aliens” in Cyprus should be to free ourselves of the prejudices that lump all foreigners together in one category, or as abusers of the system.
Perhaps it would appear easy for these “aliens” to resent this host society, being far away from your homeland out of necessity, living in fear of being sent home and feeling rejected by the society you wish you could call home. What is sought is merely acceptance on behalf of this host society. The truth is that, despite any hurdles they may have experienced, most asylum seekers are not negative in any way about Cyprus or Cypriots. One asylum seeker, a single mother of three residing at the Kofinou Asylum Reception Centre said that she felt Cypriots had been very kind to her. When she was lost one day and could not find her way back to the remote Kofinou centre, she hitchhiked and was given a lift back to the centre by a group of strangers. Regardless of whether this is an exception or the norm, it enable us to see that this benevolence exists. This is how change emerges. If we merely focus on the negativity within all of us we may end up trapped in a vicious cycle that perpetuates difference.
The story of a Nicosia public primary school teacher keen to integrate one of her students is one such instance of benevolence. The teacher had a boy of seven years of age in her class, a refugee of Middle Eastern origin who had been teased and bullied by the other children for being so different. As a result the teacher felt she should learn everything she possibly could about the boy’s country. She went to a shop selling Middle Eastern goods and was given books and materials on the boy’s country and cultural practices. This culminated in a class presentation where the young boy was turned into the star of the hour. Various intricacies about the boy’s culture were taught to the class, ending in a feast of traditional foods much to the delight of the other children. The schoolteacher’s positive initiative, served the purpose of arousing the curiosity of her other students and effectively turned the boy’s previously highlighted differences into a positive advantage.
Thus change can be brought about using the most simplistic of tools. If more of us subscribed to these tools to learn more about “others” living amongst us then perhaps we could glean from our differences to show how our cultural quirks are worth celebrating. Let’s celebrate our freedom to be you and me. In our context this also applies to people of different backgrounds. Examples here in Cyprus have shown that despite the negative odds, instances of positivity do exist. There are opposing cultural poles in every multi-cultural society but what about gleaning from the opposing pole in order to advance? Surely the advent of multiculturalism in Cyprus should be a cause for celebration. The reality is not as straightforward as it sounds, however that does not mean that we should give up trying.