By Alexia Evripidou
THE ENERGETIC buzz of teenage voices reverberates playfully throughout Larnaca airport’s departure lounge. Hormonal boys and girls, ranging from 14 to18 years of age, banter, laugh, tease and flirt excitedly, waiting to board the night flight to Oslo.
On the surface, these English speaking teenagers seem like a regular bunch of friends. But they are more than just that; they are 17 hand picked Greek and Turkish Cypriot members of Peace Players International Cyprus (PPI-CY), carefully chosen to participate in the Lead for Peace project in Nesodden, Norway.
Connected by the love of basketball, they prepare for a week long programme of basketball, coaching Norwegian youths, learning about conflict resolutions and making Norwegian pancakes.
After the group lands in Oslo, an early morning bus takes the teens to Nesodden, winding through still lakes and luscious greenery whilst the visitors chat together plainly in awe of the Norwegian landscape.
One would never guess that they are from different sides of a divided country. Thanks to PPI-CY and the Norwegian Nesodden Basketball Club (NBC), they have enabled a space where these friendships can blossom into a safe and encouraging environment, with a little help from basketball.
The only evident problem between the youths is the language barrier as some struggle to express themselves clearly in English. But as Greek coach from Promitheas basketball team, Nick Nakis, informed the group: “basketball is the language here”.
With over 270 members this year and more than 3,000 since it was founded in 2006, PPI-CY is all about creating strong, confident and happy children, the well rounded leaders of tomorrow.
It uses “basketball to help Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot children play together, learn together and build positive relationships that can overcome generations of mistrust and formidable physical barriers to interaction”.
Discovering an unexpected meeting of minds in Norway, the project received a massive boost in April 2013 when the PPI-CY and NBC forged links.
Norwegian ambassador of Greece and Cyprus, Sjur Larsen, contacted Gøril Wold Wægger; chief executive and manager of the Nesodden Basketball club in Norway, and asked her if she would arrange to host a bevy of Cypriots.
Larson had said he wanted to ‘do something’ for Cyprus and the PPI-CY. Gøril, who also has a full time job, three children, runs a house and cares for a puppy, enlisted the help of local volunteers and host families who together with PPI-CY made it happen.
With funding from the Norwegian Embassy, the 2013 project was a success. Cypriot children got to spend a week in the warm generosity of Norwegian homes whose children also participated in the project.
The kids got to compete at the Hansa Cup in Bergen, one of Norway’s biggest basketball tournaments. For the first time in nearly 40 years, Greek and Turkish Cypriot children, played together outside of Cyprus as a united Cypriot team.
They returned home proudly boasting a well deserved silver medal.
The ball had definitely begun to roll and NBS and PPI-CY put their heads together to plan further collaboration. In March this year, the plan for ‘Lead for Peace’ came to life with ten Norwegian youths visiting and being hosted by Cypriot families on both sides of the border.
The visit strongly moved both Gøril and the Norwegian children. Gøril saw the reality of what Cypriot children had to experience. “I read about the situation in Cyprus, but I was not prepared for the shock of seeing children having to cross borders with passports daily to go to school.
But when I met the children of Peace Players, there were no borders between them. They play and co-operate together,” she said. “What the children are learning now through PPI-CY can help avoid further wars. These are the kids that will be going into politics and education; they can influence the future.”
More determined than ever, both groups began to prepare for the Cypriots’ June visit to Norway, by applying for funding.
This was the beginning of the 18 month project, which in turn, is part of PPI-CY’s Leadership Programme (set to inspire youths to cultivate social awareness and teach them skills to be young leaders).
For the Lead for Peace project, 30 children – 10 from each community, Norway, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots – were chosen. The project’s aim is to encourage children to ‘step up’ and help their individual communities, whilst empowering the children and inspiring others around them.
The youths are assigned a mentor to guide and support them. Projects range from helping local disabled children to cleaning up basketball courts.
This runs simultaneously with the basketball, allowing children to connect physically, putting aside language and cultural boundaries.
One of PPI-CY’s first employers Andreas Koulendis and basketball coach explained how these young leaders from Cyprus chosen for the project, are the children that generally have been with PPI-CY the longest.
“They understand the Lead for Peace project. They study and they’ve worked in bi-communal groups. They live the philosophy and now they are being helped to close the circle by coaching other children basketball, whilst still being coached themselves. The aspiration is that these kids will go on to coach for PPI-CY and continue making a difference,” he said.
“PPI-CY is using the present to build something for the future”.
Fortunately, with much hard-work and determination, the two organisers secured 21,000 euros in funding from a Norwegian organisation called Youth in Action (part of Erasmus+). This helped ensure the Cypriot teens got to Norway this week.
After some long sweaty days, the Cypriot visit to Norway came to an end yesterday.
The teenagers spent their time coaching junior children basketball, playing matches with the senior kids, winning the national tournament against the Norwegian children, exploring local food, celebrating midsummer and working with Conflict Resolution Specialist Roar Thun Wægger from whom they learned the art of communication and dialogue.
This however, is only part of the whole picture. Stephanie Nichols, Peace Player’s co-coordinator is encouraging parents to come along and see all the other projects running throughout the year.
“Anyone can join, there are no fees for basketball practices, nor do children need to know how to play,” she said. Working with both communities, PPI-CY offer bi-yearly mixed tournaments, leadership weekends, fortnightly twinning matches (where both communities join forces to form two mixed Cypriot teams), bi-weekly mono-communal basketball practices and an annual six day summer camp, which allow the children the space and techniques to really bond (next on July 30-August 4).
Whether in Norway or Cyprus, as Nick Nakis wisely pointed out: “the children show us that nothing needs to separate us, in fact there are many things that can unite us.”
Basketball just happens to be a good start.
For further information, take a look at Peace Players website: http://www.peaceplayersintl.org/our-programs/cyprus