August 10, 2022 9:22 am
As happens in almost all cities, Nicosia is semi-deserted in August. The inhabitants of the Cypriot capital move to the seaside resorts, activities (mainly financial and commercial) slow down, the shops closed for holidays are confused with those closed due to a crisis. For a country that bases its economy on banks and tourism, the blockade of Russian and Ukrainian travelers was a significant blow: at least 500,000 fewer visitors, if not a million.
The summer thus brings out a mixed people, made up of tourists and homeless, migrants and the elderly, who become the only occupants of the streets. Meeting point is Eleftherias square, which with its benches, illuminated fountains and gardens along the walls built by the Venetians is a natural meeting place. Especially in the evening, when the sun does not make the white marble square blinding and young people take selfies or upload videos to TikTok, with many thanks to the free wifi. Some, Africans, are easily identifiable as foreigners. Others, on the other hand, have Middle Eastern features that could make them perfect Cypriots of Phoenician ancestry. And then there is the vast array of Asian, Afghan, Bangladeshi and Filipino migrants, especially women who work as domestic helpers. For them there are special employment agencies and food shops with exotic products.
It is they, together with some Congolese and Cameroonians, who animate the life of the parish of Santa Croce, wedged in the buffer zonethe buffer zone between the part of Nicosia which is part of the Republic of Cyprus and that occupied by the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara.
Here Pope Francis, on a visit to the island in December 2021, said to the Catholic community: “You are immersed in the Mediterranean: a sea of different stories, a sea that has rocked many civilizations, a sea from which people, peoples and cultures from all over the world. They come to ask for freedom, bread, help, brotherhood, joy, but they encounter a hatred that is called barbed wire ”.
In front of the church, seat of the apostolic nunciature, passes the barbed wire that splits the city in two and that perhaps inspired the pope’s words.
But in addition to the fences that sprout everywhere – and which make Nicosia the only capital in the world divided by a border – there are other walls not far from the center. Just reach the suburb of Kokkinotrimithia, half an hour by car, to find yourself in front of the Pournara camp, the first reception and registration center for asylum seekers. Leaving the city, past the new houses in the residential districts, you will find three large shopping centers (real cathedrals in the desert whose function one wonders) and then, in the middle of a dry, dusty ground and without even a tree, the metal fence of the camp, born in 2014 to accommodate a few hundred people and now come to contain about two thousand.
Cyprus is currently the EU country with the highest percentage of asylum seekers compared to the population: around 5 percent (in Italy in 2020 the percentage was around 0.13 percent). And the numbers are on the rise: according to United Nations data, in 2022 the requests were 2,560 (data from May).
From north to south
Every day about fifty migrants enter Pournara, while others wait outside the door for their turn to be registered and enter the system. They come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Nigeria, Cameroon, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan. The road that many of them have traveled is certainly safer than the Mediterranean or Balkan routes. They buy a study visa for Turkey and a plane ticket to Istanbul, from there they enroll at a university in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and then try to cross the border with the European side. Some try to stay on the Turkish side and take courses, but they are often victims of a market that exploits them with prohibitive university fees and rents. Then they take the road to the buffer zone. At the Ledra street checkpoint, the most central in Nicosia, photos of some missing people, who left from the north and never arrived south, are exhibited. On the other hand, those who make it show up at the door of the field.
The heart of Pournara is made up of containers, but around it are proliferated tents and prefabricated cardboard houses, supplied by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). The containers are intended for families and vulnerable people: unaccompanied minors, single women. For everyone else, accommodation is more fortunate. The small church built inside the enclosure is also used as a dormitory. In theory, the stay should be short, 10-12 weeks, but the times are easily lengthened, given the increasingly intense flow of new arrivals.
Refugees are forbidden to go out (“It seems to be in prison”, says Abdallah, who arrived from Somalia) and as soon as they arrive they are subjected to tests for TB, covid swabs and other tests, which are repeated cyclically. The health situation, given the overcrowding, is critical: many complain of the presence of cockroaches, little water, poor hygiene. Even those who complete the paperwork, and could go out, find it difficult to leave the camp, because to be authorized to do so they must provide an address where they can be found, but it is difficult to find an apartment and a job to pay for it. “There are seven of us”, says Mustafà, who fled Afghanistan with his wife and five children. “We could have been released a month ago, but nobody rents us a house, not to mention that it is really difficult to find a job”.
The days of asylum seekers thus pass between medical examinations, queues and interviews with the administration. Meanwhile, they wait, seeking escape from the sun in the few shaded areas of the field, such as the small play area for children, covered by a canopy: they huddle on the slide, in the houses, on the swings.
Infinite time is one of the sentences to which the refugees seem to have already been sentenced. For this reason, on July 25, the appearance of a tent inside a fence of the camp, slightly separated from the containers, immediately aroused much interest. Both because the tent will offer everyone, until 31 August, the opportunity to dine at the table; and because, for about twenty of them who have volunteered, it is the opportunity to spend their time and mind in a useful activity: serving meals, playing with the children, helping the most vulnerable.
They arrive on time to prepare the restaurant, set up for the first time in Cyprus by the Community of Sant’Egidio, which for three consecutive years had organized it on the Greek island of Lesbos. Volunteers from Italy, France and Belgium will alternate throughout August at the so-called Friendship Tent and at the English school, started at the Maronite church in Nicosia and offered free of charge to a group of minors housed in an adjacent family home. The group of Maronite elders who are stationed in front of the church, of Lebanese origin and who fled to the occupied part in the seventies, observes with curiosity this morning comings and goings of students, mostly Somalis. “There are many refugees, perhaps too many,” says Michael, one of the Maronite elders. “But on the other hand, what can be done but help them?”.
Young people on the way
At the camp the activities at the friendship tent begin at 4 pm. People in line are registered and seated at the table, everyone is given an appointment for the next dinner. At the table they are served by volunteer refugees: a hearty meal that ends with a dessert. After having exhausted the long and composed queue that had formed at the entrance of the tent, around 8 pm all those who have worked until then stop to have dinner together: some are the same age and no one seems to want to leave.
Morteza, a tall 20-year-old Afghan boy with a hint of mustache, said that the first attempt to cross the border was unsuccessful: “There were sixteen of us in the van, we had paid a trafficker. We tried to get through at night, but the police had just intercepted other refugees right in front of us. I heard that there were children: they were crying with fright, I wanted to do something, but the trafficker made us run back ”. Then, a month ago, he made it. In Afghanistan he was studying medicine, but now he would like to work to help the family who remained in Kabul. Now he is waiting for a response from the Cypriot authorities. Bismillah also recently left the Afghan capital: small in stature and very serious looking, he is an elementary teacher, but with the Taliban teaching freely had become impossible: “Up to ten years girls can attend school, but classes gift supervised. The Taliban control everything ”. As the two Afghans tell their adventure, Ahmed nods next to them. He managed to pass on the first try: he is Chadian but comes from Saudi Arabia where his whole family is located. At 28, even though he looks much younger, he completed his studies in the tourism sector, but he didn’t see a future ahead of him. His main role in these days as a volunteer is to translate from Arabic for those who arrive saying “English problem”.
A fundamental role especially with minors: they often do not speak English, they cannot write, not even their signature, and some do not even know their date of birth. Seeing their hometowns – Idlib, Daraa, Damascus – we retrace eleven years of war and face a generation that grew up with war and without school, but ready to leave. Together with them, a people of young people cross the world: Afghans, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Congolese, Pakistanis in their twenties. Stories that are the mirror of the news that occasionally emerge on the pages of our newspapers, and then disappear. Their determination not to surrender to an already sealed fate is a provocation to European immobility.
Cyprus, the homeland of Aphrodite, also shows its beauty in this way: the face of a country hinge between the Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern world, divided yet (or perhaps precisely for this reason) apparently ready to absorb the new.
On Sunday the church of Santa Croce is always quite crowded, even in August. Participation and responses to the words of the parish priest, Ghanaian, are facilitated by the two screens on the sides of the altar that help to follow the liturgical formulas and the readings of the day in English. At the end, a prayer for Ukraine is read aloud together. It asks for the wisdom of the rulers, the salvation of the refugees and the ability to be in solidarity with them. Perhaps the pope’s words left a mark: “May this island, marked by a painful division, become a laboratory of fraternity with the grace of God.”