Volunteer women form the ticking heart of the Paphos refugee support community
It was Aristotle who said, some 2,300 years ago, “What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” From a recent visit to Paphos by members of the UNHCR Cyprus team, it was clear that this ethos motivates a number of volunteers who are offering help daily to refugees living in the Paphos area. In Cyprus some 300 persons reside at the Kofinou reception centre; the remaining thousands are living in urban areas. In Paphos there is an increasingly diverse community of refugees facing uncountable daily challenges to survive, to rebuild their lives, and to raise their families. These are people who have been forced to flee violence, conflict and persecution, to leave behind everything they have ever known, and often the people they love, and embark on dangerous journeys just for a chance of a better life.
For those who survive all these perils and arrive in Cyprus, a whole new set of challenges begins. Rebuilding a life and raising a family in a foreign land where you do not speak the language, or where you stand out in the crowd because of your religion or your skin colour is daunting. Some of the refugees in Paphos are youngsters who arrived as minors in Cyprus, unaccompanied or separated from their families, and who now must fend for themselves having turned 18 and been required to leave state shelters. Getting sick and not knowing how to communicate with staff at the hospital; being turned down by an employer because of the hijab; being denied the possibility to rent a place to live due to one’s country of origin – these are just some of the indignities that a refugee may face.
At these trying moments, it is the kindness of people like Wendy, Mary and Rehab, volunteers for Caritas, who make all the difference in the lives of refugees in the Paphos area everyday. These women offer their time and their skills and resources to serve those in need, doing good to ease the struggles of others. And they do so with absolute humility. Our meeting is almost rescheduled as Wendy receives a call from a young French-speaking refugee who is scared and sick with stomach pains; she doesn’t know the way to the hospital, and is afraid she will not be able to communicate with the staff there due to language barriers. Wendy accompanies her to the hospital, and with her high-school French and native English she manages to assist this young woman, and makes it to our meeting after all. Rehab is a refugee herself, and a single mother of three children. Her experience as a Syrian woman in Cyprus means she is very able to empathise with others in her community, and her language skills enable her to help other refugees navigate the system and feel less alone. Together with Mary and Wendy, she is helping to run the Learning Refuge, which aside from language, art and theatre classes for refugee children, has become a community meeting place where refugee families can socialise and feel safe. Mary is a mother of two, and an art teacher. She offers workshops to children at the Learning Refuge, as well as friendship, fundraising initiatives and a range of invisible activities that help keep the Learning Refuge running. Mary tells us about the joy all the volunteers find from their time teaching at the Learning Refuge, and from sharing time with the children there. “It really seems to help people feel connected, have a purpose, even overcome depression – the joy people find here by giving is infectious.”
In another part of town we met two young Cypriot women who seem to live by the words of Anne Frank, who said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Souzie introduces herself as “the art historian who also makes cakes.” She is running her own café Let them eat cake in the centre of town. In this beautiful space, people gather for delicious food and the stunning cakes that are baked fresh daily, but also for literary, musical and other cultural events. Together with her friend and colleague Filonila the two young women recently took a spontaneous decision to host a tribute concert to the late Thanos Mikroutsikos at the café. In keeping with the wishes of the composer’s family to offer donations to help refugee children in Moria, Greece, Souzie and Filonila donated all the takings from this event to the Learning Refuge in Paphos. They felt that in this way, they would be respecting the artist and his family, while supporting a corresponding action in their hometown, honouring refugees and raising awareness in their own community.
The third group we had the honour to meet with were the ladies from the Women Arabic Cultural Club (WACC). Led by the formidable Alaa Khalil, WACC has become a haven for refugee women of Arabic heritage in Paphos, many of whom are refugees from Syria. We heard from individual women how WACC is bringing them together, enabling them to feel less isolated, and empowering them to feel better able to face their daily struggles. “We need to do more than sit at home and wait,” says Alaa, who also teaches Arabic to children in the afternoons. The women meet regularly and cook together, sharing their expertise in the kitchen in cooking workshops with others in the Paphos community. Being proud of her own Jordanian heritage, Alaa is keen to share “this beautiful image of Arabic culture” with others, countering negative stereotypes in the media, and building bridges with other communities in Paphos. The women have gone on to also create Joud Catering, a company that prepares specialty Arabic dishes, sweets and preserves. Through Alaa’s initiative, these women experience shared joy, despite all the loss they have experienced and the challenges they continue to face, as they raise their children and build their lives anew. Since our visit to Paphos, we were delighted to learn that the women at Let them eat cake have embarked on a sweet collaboration with the women of Joud Catering, whereby traditional handcrafted Arabic deserts made fresh by the women of WACC will be available at the café several times a week.