A loving family stays together, despite all obstacles and an asylum application still pending after 13 years

© UNHCR/Cyprus

Zoe* (20) and Zacharias* (19) are not their real names. These are the names they will choose when they are allowed to be baptized, which until now the church in Cyprus has not permitted, as they do not have Cypriot identity. In fact they don’t have any national identity as they are Kurds who have been persecuted in the country of their birth, forced to flee, and remain stateless. The family’s asylum application in Cyprus has been pending for 13 years, with no end in sight.

Brother and sister, Zoe and Zacharias are from a loving family of six children. This family has faced, and are still facing, every obstacle in the book. And yet this is a family that continues to hold itself together, support each other, and express their love for each other.

Both Zoe and Zacharias speak fluent Greek and since the ages of 8 and 9 they have been attending public school in the Larnaca area. “We had help with the language at school through some extra classes,” they said, “but we have never had the opportunity for private lessons or help with our homework – it simply wasn’t something our family could afford,” Zacharias says. “I only experienced private lessons recently in high school, when a teacher offered them as a gift to help me with one of my classes.”

“We have been lucky to have such good people around us.”

Zacharias is the first refugee in Cyprus who has been accepted to study Greek Philology at the University of Cyprus, and is scheduled to begin his classes this upcoming academic year. He wishes to be a teacher, perhaps inspired by the positive role models he had growing up. Throughout their school years the siblings tell of how much support they received from their school communities, and how they were always made to feel welcome, from the headmistress of the school, all the way down to their individual teachers, and their peers. “There were times when we were having so many difficulties even to have enough food at home, and our school teachers arranged various types of help for our family,” Zacharias recalls. “We have been lucky to have such good people around us.”

Zoe’s dream from a young age was to study, a dream she has already achieved since she has been accepted in a Business Administration Bachelor’s programme at a private university, having earned a scholarship on academic merit. “More than anything,” Zoe says, “I want to finish my studies, and set up an organization that helps other people who are facing difficulties like those we have grown up with. I wish that we can receive a national identity here in Cyprus, which will enable me to build my dream and help others. This is the only country we know, the only place we remember, and this is where our lives, our memories, our childhoods and all our friends are rooted. This is our home.”

The younger siblings are equally ambitious, with one brother’s dream being to become a banker, and the other’s to be a professional footballer, while one sister is dreaming to become a cardiologist, and the youngest who was born in Cyprus dreams of one day being president!

Despite all the odds, this refugee family holds itself together. © UNHCR/Cyprus

Their parents have endured unimaginable struggles in order to give their children the possibility of a brighter tomorrow. Persecuted and living in fear in their village where they were born and where they met each other and married at the ages of 21 and 18, they left everything behind and moved to the city, in hopes that they would be less exposed there. Sadly their efforts to have a safer, more peaceful life was not possible, and the family eventually fled on separate journeys and arrived in Cyprus.

The oldest children in the family, Zoe and Zacharias remember nothing of their childhood before Cyprus, nor of their journey getting here. “The only part I remember,” says Zacharias nostalgically,” are the first few days we were all together in Cyprus. It was like some kind of dream. Like the happiest holidays ever.”

Since that time, the family has undergone unspeakable challenges, which over the years have taken their toll on family members’ physical and psychological health. Their mother, just 39, has experienced a heart attack and is struggling with a heart condition and various other health issues. Following the negative decision of the asylum authorities on the family’s asylum application, the whole family was arrested in the early hours of a July morning in 2014. A deportation order had been issued against them while the family’s asylum application was pending judicial review at the Supreme Court, contrary to international legal norms.

“Cyprus is all we know. After so many years here, even with all the difficulties we still face, this is our home. Going back is not an option.”

After UNHCR’s intervention, the mother and the children were released, but not the father who was later deported, leaving his wife and six children to fend for themselves for three years, not knowing if he was alive, or if they would ever see him again. A resourceful person by nature, their father managed for the second time to escape persecution in Turkey and joined his family once again in Cyprus. Despite the adversities he faced upon his forced return to Turkey, his spirit and humour rise above and he smiles and laughs with his beloved wife and children.

While the Supreme Court found in favour of the father stating that important elements of the asylum application had not been thoroughly examined by the asylum authorities, the family’s asylum application is still pending for review.

With this uncertainty always looming over them, and not allowed to work, the family has survived against the odds, living on coupons and meagre welfare assistance, as well as the goodwill of their neighbours and community members. “Even with all these difficulties, my father still believes we are better off here,” Zoe tells us. “I wouldn’t be studying, that’s for sure. I would probably have had to marry by now. Even though my parents are open-minded, that is what our culture dictates. We would still be living in fear.”

This summer the brother and sister had several work opportunities offered to them, including as a cashier at a local convenience store, and waiting tables at a hotel restaurant. “I wish to be treated legally as an equal human being,” says Zacharias. They were both eager to work and save some money for their university expenses, but they are not allowed due to their status as asylum-seekers. Even though both have earned entry to university, the cost of their student living expenses are beyond the family’s means, and since they are not allowed to work and pay their own way, both Zoe and Zacharias are concerned whether it will be possible for them to pursue and continue their studies at all.

“We are wishing and wishing for a positive answer to our asylum application, so that we can finally move on as a family, and build our lives,” Zoe says. “Cyprus is all we know. After so many years here, even with all the difficulties we still face, this is our home. Going back is not an option.”

*Names changed for protection reasons