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Minorities struggle with identity and discrimination in divided Cyprus
By Farah Mihlar
Foziye Tayim Ataya, is a Palestinian living in Cyprus. In 1948, her parents came to the country when war broke out in Israel. They never returned. She is now part of a 5 -6,000 small Palestinian community, mostly asylum seekers from Iraq and Gaza, living in southern Cyprus. Having lived her entire life in Cyprus, Foziye now works closely with recent Palestinian immigrants helping them to settle in, by assisting with Greek language courses and providing scholarships for school children to get a good education.
She, like other Greek Cypriots, has been affected by the country’s conflict, but she also faces discrimination because she comes from a minority community.
“When I was at school there was no racism. But when you grow up and go to government offices you begin to see the discrimination,” she says.
She gives two examples that deeply affected her because it concerned her children. One was where her son, when he first received his Cypriot national identity card, found nothing marked next to the line detailing his nationality. It had been left blank. Foziye believes this very unique occurrence was simply because her son has a Muslim name.
“According to the Greek mindset, Turkish Cypriots are their enemies because they are Muslims. Although we chose not to go and settle in the Turkish side and remain in the Greek side,” she says.
She explains that in the early 60s when Cyprus was to be divided, her parents had the choice of moving to the north – the Turkish part - but they remained with, and integrated into, Greek Cypriot society.
She however says that her family is officially registered as Turkish Cypriots living in the Greek section. She says quite often when she travels in and out of Cyprus she is kept back and interrogated in a way that other Greek Cypriots are not.
The second experience she faced was when her daughters were six months and two years old and were asked to leave the country because they adopted their father’s Lebanese nationality and were not permitted to stay beyond a stipulated time, despite their mother’s Cypriot nationality. She argues that this is multiple-discrimination, where her Cypriot nationality was not recognised, because she is both a minority, and a woman.
“I had to go to the Ministry of the Interior and fight for equal rights.” She finally got Cypriot nationality for her girls as well.
“I know my rights, I fight for them and I get them, but many other people do not know their rights, they can’t fight and they don’t get them,” she says.
She says, since Cyprus entered the EU, they have had to accept larger numbers of migrants and many people in the country are unhappy with this status. She says, for discrimination in Cyprus to be addressed people’s attitudes need to change and European human rights laws and mechanisms have to be fully implemented.
Across the border, Fatma Demirer is a Kurdish minority in the Turkish part of Cyprus. Her parents migrated in the early 70s, from Turkey to Cyprus, after the entire family was offered land by the Turkish government in compensation for the death of one of their members who was a soldier in the Turkish army.
Fatma faces discrimination at several different levels. In the Turkish part of Cyprus, she is looked down upon and criticised because she is Kurdish. She cannot even enter the Greek part of Cyprus as she is Turkish.
She recollects being treated differently from a very young age. In her primary school, she found herself being laughed and scorned at by Turkish teachers because she was a Kurd.
“If I don’t say I am Kurdish, I have no problem. The problem is when I identify myself as a Kurd,” she says. Kurds, she adds, are seen as ‘bad, poor, rude people who don’t know anything’.
Fatma says the Turkish Cypriotic state isolates Kurds, refuses to help them, and discriminates against them in jobs and cultural activities. “When we want to celebrate our traditional days, important days for us, we can’t do it in public. The civil police will always be there taking pictures of who is there.”
There have been moments when her family have been under pressure to leave Cyprus, but Fatma refuses to do so. “How can I go? Where can I go? I am a Cypriot and I am Kurdish,” she says.
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