Far from having his eyes glaze over when meeting a lawyer specialising in ill treated migrants THEO PANAYIDES meets an energetic anarchist
A few hours after meeting Michalis Paraskevas, I realise it’s impossible to explain to friends and colleagues why I’m so impressed with him. It’s a sad fact of life that people’s eyes glaze over when they hear words like ‘migrants’ and ‘human rights’, and that’s what 36-year-old Michalis does – he’s a lawyer specialising in cases of ill-treated migrants. It didn’t sound like the most exciting interview, at least on paper. I fully expected to be nodding piously while being lectured on how we can all Do Better – but instead I got rage, charisma and waves of furious energy. You wouldn’t think a small, second-floor office on a quiet Nicosia side-street could contain so much energy.
He spits out statute, precedent and relevant statistics with impressive felicity. “I know the law. I know their system – OK?” he explains, ‘they’ being the banks, vested interests and “media of mass deception” behind the system. That “OK?” is one of his repeated phrases (carrying a slight edge, as if to say ‘You got a problem with that?’, an impression reinforced by his savage crew-cut and prominent features), another being “re koumbare”, the Cypriot version of ‘mate’. But it’s not just what Michalis says that makes an impact – it’s also the way his green eyes flash, or the way he’ll rock back and forth in his chair as if about to explode, or the way he’ll bang a fist down on his desk to underline a point, or the way he’ll raise his arms, as if offering himself to an invisible firing squad, when he says something like “I’m an anarchist! Yes, I-am-an-anarchist! But I don’t mean Molotov cocktails and shit like that – OK?”.
Above all, perhaps, it’s the way his mobile phone keeps ringing – eight or nine times in the 90 minutes I spend in his office (there are no secretaries or other lawyers; he’s completely alone, maybe because helping migrants isn’t exactly lucrative work). Most of the calls relate to ongoing cases, though one is from his older brother Marios, who’s just arrived from Greece; there’s also a younger brother who – like Michalis – studied Law in Thessaloniki, the Greek influence being very strong because that’s the kind of family he grew up in, a nationalist family that flew the Greek flag and was proud of it (his dad was a teacher, his mother a school administrator). “My childhood influences were ‘Greece, Cyprus, Enosis’,” he recalls – and he’s outgrown that phase but retains a certain nostalgia: he runs a blog at osr55.wordpress.com (there’s also a YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/osr555, where he uploads videos on a regular basis), the ‘55’ standing, symbolically, for 1955, the year of EOKA. And the ‘osr’? That stands for ‘Only Solution, Revolution’.
It’s easy to scoff at such fiery posturing – but Michalis is one step ahead of the scoffers. “That’s automatism,” he points out when he talks of anarchist communities in Catalonia in 1936 and I wonder (as most people would) if that can really work in the long term. “What you just did there is an automatic response, which we’ve been taught by our family, the schools, the media of mass deception. An automatic response. Automatically, as soon as you hear something like that, you’re like ‘Oh, but human nature…’ and crap like that”. Anarchism can work, he believes, citing not just Catalans but Native American tribes – anarchism in the strict sense of living without a central authority. One of his dreams, which he and his wife are slowly putting into practice, is to build a house that’s entirely “autonomous”, with its own solar power, generators and a plot of land to grow vegetables and raise chickens; “So I won’t need anyone, neither governments nor corporations”.
But the real reason why it’s hard to scoff at Michalis’ revolutionary talk is because he’s not spouting these ideals from the comfort of a desk job or trust fund: he’s in the trenches, fighting the system – so he says – every day and twice on the weekend. He mentions lots of cases in the course of our 90 minutes, most of them punctuated with indignant cries of “they’re crazy, re koumbare!”. The case of the Iranian migrant who spent 55 months in jail while his case was pending. The case of Senthil Thevathas, a former Tamil rebel deported back to Sri Lanka (where he’s now hiding out, trying to avoid execution) – even though the Supreme Court specifically ordered that Thevathas shouldn’t be deported till his case had been examined, an order that was simply ignored by the Department of Migration. The case of a Syrian mother and her 12-year-old child, who only wanted to go to Sweden – and tried to leave Cyprus with a fake passport, which admittedly was wrong, but Migration’s response was to arrest her, leave the child to fend for itself, and order her deported back to war-torn Syria!
Migration is clearly his nemesis; the Department, says Michalis scathingly, “operates like a common racist”. Most of what he says about department head Anny Shakalli is unfortunately libellous, though he doesn’t care: “Let her sue me, no problem” (he’s already been hauled before disciplinary boards twice, and won his case on both occasions). The stories he tells offer few fist-pumping triumphs; mostly they involve applications for habeas corpus being dismissed, judges being apathetic (or worse), Michalis ranting and raving at heartless officials – all while migrants rot in jail and weep copiously. “Why are you treating us this way?” he recalls the Syrian woman asking, and shakes his head: “I was ashamed. I was ashamed of my country.”
But after all, I venture, there’s a crisis now. We don’t have room for migrants.
“That’s ridiculous!” he snaps back. “First of all, there’s a war in Syria. You think they know Cyprus, and they’re coming here for the halloumi? Most Syrians – maybe 99.9 per cent – want to go to Sweden or Germany. They don’t want to stay in this stinking place!”.
What’s his opinion of Cypriots generally?
“They’re skatopsyshi,” he replies vehemently, meaning they have ‘shit for souls’. “We’re among the most skatopsyshi nations. This society is rotten to the core, there’s no sense of solidarity – you can see that by how they treat the weakest. This society, when they see a weak person lying on the ground, they’ll go and kick them when they’re down. That’s all I have to say”.
The phone rings again. It’s one of his current cases (he has about 80 ongoing cases, which explains why he’s usually in the office from early morning) – an EU citizen married to an Asian man. They have a three-year-old child, with a legally-issued birth certificate naming the man as the father – but the authorities now claim it’s a marriage of convenience, and when the woman went to find out why she wasn’t allowed to work “our friends the stinking cops, the dirtbags, arrested her right in front of her child. Even though you aren’t allowed to jail a mother even for a criminal offence, only for drugs. And she’s a European citizen!” The woman’s been in jail since August 6 (it’s now September 20) – and indeed they’d been planning to deport her that same day, leaving the child behind. “They’re such liars, re koumbare, they’re such liars. I mean, they claim the man isn’t the father – so what, you’re going to leave the child with a stranger?” Michalis intervened, and blocked the deportation – but this morning, right before our interview, had an application for an interim order dismissed by a judge.
“Yes, hi,” he says on the phone now. His English isn’t perfect, and the woman is clearly distraught. “I’m – yes, Michalis, your lawyer, yes…”
A long pause. He listens.
“Listen, listen to me,” he says at last. “Today the judge, unfortunately, they reject the application. We have to make another application. But this will take at least one month…”
Another long pause.
“Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me. I understand. Don’t – listen – when they call you, don’t talk with these people. Don’t talk to them. Tell them ‘call my lawyer’. You understand what I’m telling you?”
Another pause. He raises his voice, as if to drown out her wailing.
“Don’t talk – listen – listen to me very carefully, what I’m gonna tell you. When these people call you, and they say that is from the Immigration, tell them ‘I have a lawyer. Don’t talk with me, talk to my lawyer’. And turn off the telephone. OK? I will make another application on Monday, and we will see what happens…”
He goes on for a few more minutes, ending with a promise to visit her later today at the detention centre where she’s being held “in the middle of nowhere”. It must take its toll, dealing with such cases day after day, trying to calm the distraught and desperate – but Michalis Paraskevas wouldn’t be half as impressive if he were simply doing good work, or even if his anger were a bitter, unhappy kind of anger. What’s great, and invigorating, is the way his anger is creative. It nurtures and sustains him, and goes hand-in-hand – despite everything – with dreams of a better future.
“I have no delusions on what I can offer,” he admits. “Anyone who thinks world revolution is going to start from Cyprus is out of his mind”. But he is nonetheless an anarchist – or a “libertarian socialist,” as he likes to call it – trying to be what 19th-century writer Peter Kropotkin called a “revolutionary spirit” (Kropotkin is one of his influences, along with Bakunin, Malateste and Berkman; he found their texts online, the internet being the new revolutionary frontier). “Nothing is ever lost,” he asserts. “Every struggle leaves something behind”. Even when it feels like he’s banging his head against a brick wall, he can make a tiny difference, or inspire some younger person. “Another world is possible,” he says. “It doesn’t mean it’s coming tomorrow, nor the day after. Maybe I won’t even be alive.” But the hope – the conviction – is there.
Michalis is an athlete. That’s important to note: he’s been cycling all his life, was a Cyprus champion in his teens, won the silver for the whole of Northern Greece during his college years. He talks like an athlete, as when speaking of a televised debate he had with MP Zacharias Koulias: “I demolished him in five minutes!” he says gleefully. “With arguments,” he adds, as if he and Koulias might’ve arm-wrestled instead, or raced their bikes. When he thinks about his life – his work, his beliefs, the seemingly inviolable System – I suspect he thinks like an athlete: it’s all about stamina and determination, and refusing to give up till you’ve wheeled across the finish line.
“Everyone makes their choices in this life,” says Michalis firmly. He cites Pavlos Fyssas, the Greek leftist killed by Golden Dawn supporters in Greece recently; not that he himself wants to die, he adds quickly, but that’s what you do, “you do what you believe in and hope for the best… Today we’re alive, tomorrow we’re not. It goes without saying that I have plans for the future, I want to start a family – but everyone makes their choices. If you want to be a slave, and a worm, and to crawl, then go ahead and do it, my friend – but I don’t accept that. OK? I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and let them do what they want to me.”
Some may despise him, and that’s okay too: “You see how I am as a person: you either like me or you don’t like me!” But the point is revolution, and “revolution begins in the mind,” he says earnestly. “I chose to be in society. I’m in the system – I’m a lawyer, obviously – and I’m fighting within this system.
“You know what the easiest thing in the world is, Theo? To wear torn clothes, and grow my hair Rasta-style, and go get my fix” – he makes the universal gesture for puffing on a joint – and say ‘I’m an anarchist’. No, my friend, that’s not being an anarchist. An anarchist is a fighting man, who’s fighting for a better society”. Like I said, impressive.