by Zoe Christodoulides
March 1-7 2009

Wander around town and you‘re likely to see them. You may stumble across them at a university hall, a restaurant near you, or a café where you spend your weekend catching up with friends. You can’t really miss them, the two firm hands that unite to form a symbol of security. Security from what? Maybe the words from one little refugee girl will give you a rough idea.

“Life is: a classroom with smiling school friends; a street without machine guns and field without mines; quiet; a home with a mother and a father and brothers and sisters.” It’s not hard to grasp the basic concept. As part of a campaign by the UN Refugee Agency here in Cyprus, they are now calling out to the general public through a wide array of photos that make up part of an island-wide travelling exhibition.

First launched last June at the House of Representatives, the pictures now move around the country in an attempt to make everyone stop and stare – those interested, those disinterested and those who may know little about what refugee status actually means.

“We‘re not urging anyone to go into an exhibition space,” says Emilia Strovolidou, Public Information Officer of UNHCR in Cyprus. “Instead we‘re making it easy – we ‘re taking it out to everyone and making it obvious.”

With works currently on show at the popular Da Capo Café in central Nicosia, crowds can sip on a drink while taking in some of the messages that are desperately being communicated through each image. “We ‘re looking into plenty more places to put the pictures up in the future, with the next venue set to be the Rialto Theatre in Limassol for a couple of months,” says Emilia.

With Da Capo only having space for seven of the photos, others are currently being exhibited at an Engomi primary school. “We‘ve had some lovely reactions from young students who seem to grasp the basic idea, it‘s really nice to see such feedback,” Emilia adds.

In some of these photos, well-known and unfamiliar faces make the “protecting hand” sign, symbolizing their commitment and support towards the world’s most vulnerable while simultaneously making UNHCR’s logo widely known and synonymous with refugee protection. Other photos show destruction, plain and simple. No faffing around the edges – just broken down or bombed buildings. A crude reality and a major cause of forced displacement, refugees have often fled their homelands as a means of escaping conflict and destruction around them. Photos of internally displaced Cypriots post 1974 are also included in the campaign.

More specifically, the “protection hands” symbolize security and everything associated with it including shelter, food, clothing, medical care, education, birth certificates, identification documents, passports and family unity. In short, it‘s all the basic human rights that the most privileged of the world take for granted. “There’s no way we can properly protect refugees if there isn’t a welcoming society. We need to remove stereotypes and prejudices,” says Emilia.

The point is that although governments bear the prime responsibility for the protection of refugees on their territory, meaningful protection depends on the positive attitude of the population in the country of asylum. Welcoming refugees can only take place through knowledge of basic concepts and the real understanding that most refugees leave their countries not in search of a better life, but to save their lives.

As more and more sets of eyes catch a glimpse of these pictures and the messages they carry, it’s hoped that people will get to grips with the true circumstances surrounding the lives of refugees as confusion and prejudices are dispelled. So next time you see a pair of hands pressed together forming a triangle, maybe it’s time to go beyond the obvious as you take in some implicit connotations.

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