Cyprus Friendship Program: Youth Activism for a United Cyprus

Intense political and cultural division is a concept that I thought I would only read about in history books or newspapers. I learned about these revolutionary events of the past and present through secondary sources, giving me a detached stance on the topic. Yet, through the power of face-to-face communication among the engaging teens from the Cyprus Friendship Program (CFP) and the team at UNA-NCA, a cultural divide became more real as it was explained to me. Four teens from Cyprus discussed their experiences of being a Turkish-speaking or Greek-speaking Cypriot in a country where the North side mainly speaks Turkish and the South mainly speaks Greek. These experiences range from their struggles to see their Turkish or Greek-speaking friends to the description of the landmine-ridden buffer zone located through the middle of Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus.

After nearly 40 years of the politically-established divide, UN peacekeepers still try to keep a fragile peace between the two geographical sectors with a buffer zone, known as the Green Line, since 1974. Some support it, as it has reduced some of the tension between the North and South. Some oppose it, as it is difficult to cross the border due to the requirement to show passports and visas.

Ariadne, a teen from south Cyprus, described the buffer-zone as "dead" and eerie. "Unfortunately, the borders make our communication difficult. There are some people that refuse to cross the borders. But I believe that all the Cypriots, from both sides, when they see the buffer zone, without life, light and movement, it reminds them of the mistakes of the past," said Kyriakos, who also discussed along with his CFP brother, Barkin, about how once men graduate from secondary school they must join either the Greek or Turkish army for two years. He explains: "The two armies are basically training us to hate and kill each other."

This is exactly what CFP is trying to prevent; they want to stop the Greek and Turkish youth of Cyprus from hurting each other by engaging in a war that has been anticipated for centuries. The program brings two teens from Cyprus together, one Greek speaker and one Turkish speaker, to embark on a trip to the United States, where they live with a host family. The teens become close friends with one another, engage in team-building and conflict resolution activities throughout the month of July, visit organizations to raise awareness about the situation in Cyprus, and come back to Cyprus to spread around the idea that unifying the youth is a way to unite Cyprus. Realizing that the Turkish-speaking and Greek-speaking youth are more similar than different had a huge impact on Ariadne.

"I had lost hope in seeing Cyprus move toward peace and therefore I always used to say that after graduating, I wouldn't return home because of the situation. But once I joined CFP and came in contact with Turkish speakers, I felt ashamed for losing hope," Ariadne said. "Something inside me had changed. I came to realize that if not us, the new generation, who else will stand up for our country and bring peace?" CFP gave her a chance to speak her mind without being scared that she would be discriminated against, and she met a new friend along the way. Ipek and Ariadne met through the program.

"I felt weird right before I met them [the selected group], and to be honest a little uncomfortable," said Ipek. "I didn't talk with a Greek-speaking Cypriot up close before, and because of that I wondered how they are different from us [Turkish-speakers]. After meeting Ariadne, my fears slipped away!"

I found their stories of a politically-enforced division between friends very dismal and could not imagine myself being in a position like that. Ariadne described an event which, at the time, brought tears to her eyes. Coming back home from visiting her Turkish-speaking friend, she saw a young Greek-Turkish couple crying together because they had to part ways. "I will never forget the way he stood there watching her crossing the border to the other side. This is something common for people in Cyprus, and even though we are expected to get used to living in this way, tears never stop streaming down our cheeks whenever we cross the border. This is what keeps me motivated to keep on moving forward [to unite Cyprus]."

The CFP brings youth together from two groups that have experienced tension with one another. To ease future animosity, CFP draws teens interested in breaking down the cultural boundaries of their area and trying to make amends between the future leaders of Cyprus. Unfortunately, with the lack of host families in the United States, many teens from Cyprus who apply for the program are not accepted. This past application process, 140 teens applied, but only 60 could go visit the U.S. If you or a family you know currently lives in the District of Columbia metro area (MD, DC, and VA), southern New Hampshire, Atlanta (Georgia), or Portland (Oregon), you can volunteer to be a host family for one Greek speaker and one Turkish speaker from Cyprus. Of course, you can still apply if you do not live in these areas, as CFP is planning to expand across the U.S. over time. If you would like any more information on the program, explore their website.

Before meeting these four really engaging and determined teens, I knew very little about the situation in Cyprus -- I knew only the fact that there was a divide. The youth team and I discovered so much about how this divide affects kids my age, hindering their ability to see their friends and facing the cultural biases of those in their community. This program fuels optimism by creating friendships between many, sparking a populous circle of influence in Cyprus and the United States.