Refugee integration programs can enhance social cohesion in Chloraka, Pafos

Ελληνικά Various articles published recently in the domestic press have portrayed phenomena of increased crime and delinquency in the village of Chloraka in the Pafos District, largely attributing them to the Syrian refugees residing in the area. The UNHCR Office in Cyprus spoke with some of the Syrians living in […]

Mohamad has been an asylum-seeker in Cyprus for the last year while Feysal came to Cyprus long before the Syrian crisis.
© UNHCR Cyprus

Ελληνικά

Various articles published recently in the domestic press have portrayed phenomena of increased crime and delinquency in the village of Chloraka in the Pafos District, largely attributing them to the Syrian refugees residing in the area. The UNHCR Office in Cyprus spoke with some of the Syrians living in the area – refugees who fled to Cyprus due to the war and persecution, as well as migrants living and working in the village long before the Syrian crisis. Our meeting took place at The Learning Refuge, that operates with the support of Caritas Pafos, building bridges of communication with the volunteers at the centre and the local community.

The Syrian residents we spoke to condemn the relevant negative incidents. Yet, they are concerned with the negative image attached to all Syrian refugees and the adverse negative narrative that has ensued as a result. Their worries highlight once again the need for programs to support refugee inclusion and strengthen social cohesion in the area.

Young H* who wishes to remain anonymous has subsidiary protection status, and has been living in Chloraka for the last three years with his wife and their three young children. He decided to leave Aleppo in 2016, interrupting his studies in economics and business management. The ongoing war and the lack of prospects for an end to the violence did not allow for yet another postponement. “Shooters, bombers, bombings everywhere … you left your house in the morning but you did not know if you would return.” H* first fled to Turkey and in the summer of 2016 he journeyed cramped in a boat with 120 other Syrians to Cyprus, where his brother was already living. His pregnant wife took a similar journey and joined him a few months later.

In Cyprus, H* initially worked in construction at a well-known contractor company before opening a store in Chloraka selling Syrian and Cypriot products. “I feel safe at work, I am calm, independent … I do not want to rely on state aid.” His shop is doing well, and he pays his taxes and social insurance contributions. The renewal of the annual license for his shop is pending, and he hopes that the recent events will not stand in the way.

The way recent events were presented in the media has created a negative image that does not represent the reality. “It is a pity; it is unfair to target all Syrians because of the faults of a few. Syrians have always had a good name in Cyprus as honest people, hardworking, craftsmen … They work in construction, they are contractors themselves, oil painters, carpenters; they work hard and contribute to the economy and development of Cyprus,” says Faisal, who came to Cyprus long before the onset of the Syrian war. On misinformation and fake news he says, “You cannot show pictures of children holding weapons in Syria and present them as if they are in Cyprus.”

Mohamed, 27, an asylum-seeker, is a quiet person. With origins from Daraa, Syria, he studied medicine in his home country for two years until the war began, forcing him to stop his studies. He then began volunteering for international humanitarian organizations in his hometown as a nurse, first aid worker and other paramedic posts. He came to Cyprus a year ago and lives in the neighboring village of Emba with his wife and child. He rarely leaves his house. He did not even hear about the events at Chloraka until he read about them in the news. His dream is to complete his studies and to be able to practise as a doctor to help his fellow human beings. Meanwhile, he would be more than happy to volunteer for NGOs such as Caritas Pafos.

The Syrians who have been living in Cyprus for years are able and willing to facilitate the integration of newly arrived asylum-seekers. It goes without saying that crime and delinquency are to be condemned regardless of the origins of the perpetrators.

“We keep reminding that there are obligations to respect the laws and regulations of the country that has given safety and sanctuary from war and persecution,” says Mr. A*, ​​who has been living in the community for years and wishes to remain anonymous.

These concerned Syrian residents of the Pafos district acknowledge the need for enhanced policing. They also stress the need to develop collaborations with the local authorities and other relevant stakeholders to improve the prospects for the smooth integration of refugees, and to dispel the fears and prejudices that currently prevail in the community. More language learning and social orientation programs can enable refugees to learn about the customs and traditions, the culture of Cyprus – and vice versa.

“We could organize cultural activities with food, music, getting to know each other. Also, we could organize bazaars with Syrian and Cypriot products, all together …. Cypriots, Syrians, English who live in the area.”

Some refugees from Chloraka have been taking part in activities organized at the Learning Refuge, such as Greek and English lessons for children and adults, homework classes for children, dance and art classes. The volunteers are willing to accommodate more refugees and asylum seekers in their programs, while emphasizing the need for more volunteers and more transportation means to allow refugees to travel from Chloraka area to the Centre.

“We will find ways. We have to. We’re grateful for what you are doing … And if you also need help with anything, a repair or painting here in the centre, I will be happy to help, ” says Mustafa, a contractor by profession. “We are all brothers and we must help each other.”

As the Syrian crisis has entered its tenth year, the Syrian people continue to experience acute tragedy. Every second Syrian man, woman and child has been forcibly displaced since the start of the conflict in March 2011 – often, more than once. Today, Syrians are the largest refugee population in the world, with the majority having fled mainly to neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Year after year, the Syrian people have shown incredible resilience. While the majority of refugees in neighbouring countries live below the poverty line, they also strive to make a living and create a future for themselves and their families; while they long to return home they contribute to the economies of the countries who generously host them.

More than 11,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Cyprus since 2011 out of whom some 7,500 have been granted international protection.

Paving the way for the smooth integration of refugees in the host country is an obligation of the States that have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is also a challenge for most European countries, including Cyprus. There is no single, magic recipe for successful integration, but there are some general principles that can help in creating a sense of home for refugees. Programs that enable refugees to reach their potential, actions fostering acceptance of diversity and respect for any person regardless of origin, colour or religion can reduce marginalization and promote social cohesion.