Cyprus Mail

Hooray for the little guy

Salah Ghanim's (left) fight for his rights

By Constantinos Psillides

Tis’ that time of the year again, when instead of lying on your couch with a cup of tea and catching up on your favourite series you are forced to go to family gatherings with your partner’s annoying relatives. Especially that loudmouth uncle who not only has an opinion on everything – from space travel to professional football – but also considers it his mission in life to force that knowledge upon the world. Contemplating ways of getting away with murder isn’t a healthy way to spend the holidays – though in case you are going down that way, shooting people in the bathroom and afterwards claiming they were burglars can work.

Let me try and distract you from such negative thoughts.

At the end of each year, we are called upon to write about a story we covered that year. While I could go on and on about Vergas-gate or the local authorities’ legendary ineptitude on handling anything other than collecting taxes, this year I opted for a heart-warming story which, like all good stories, has a happy ending. It’s a story of how a family of political refugees fought and gained their right to be called Cypriots.

Our story begins eleven years ago, in neighbouring Palestine. Salah Ghanim is a peace-loving family man with a wife and two kids and the aspiration of being a furniture decorator. He had already visited Cyprus two times in the past, exhibiting his goods at the annual State Fair, and fell in love with the island. When it became evident that the volatile region was not safe, Salah decided to uproot his family, shut down his decorating business and come to Cyprus.

While here he went through all proper channels. He filed for asylum as a political refugee and started working in any job that was available, including lorry driver, despite a handicap that caused him to walk with a pronounced limp. The Palestinian patiently waited for the day he would receive Cypriot citizenship and be able to open up a business of his own. Meanwhile, he enrolled his two children to school in Cyprus and was fortunate enough to have a third one. Salah keeps his head down, learns Greek, pays his taxes and plans his future. Cyprus even inspires him to start drawing. War in Palestine was now a distant memory and Salah was counting the days before he could get on his feet again.

But his troubles were far from over, for he was unfortunate enough to be trapped in the slow moving grinds of the migration and civil registry department. Eleven years in, Salah is informed by the department that his application for permanent residency is rejected. Having exhausted all other options, Salah decides to go on a hunger strike in front of the interior ministry, demanding that his application is re-evaluated. That is where our paths crossed.

I met Salah and his fellow hunger strikers on a cold January day. They were camped outside the interior ministry and waiting for the minister’s limo to come by so they could wave their applications in his face. The hunger strikers didn’t want a hand-out or welfare; they were just fighting for the right to be able to live their lives the way they wanted without the restrictions imposed on political refugees.

Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos relents to the – obviously justified – demands and assures the hunger strikers that their applications will be re-evaluated and they would get their answer by May.

I’ll give you one guess as to whether the government stuck to that deadline.

Following the rejection of similar applications, the four hunger strikers – including Salah and his wife – set up their tents outside the UNCHR offices and warned that this time they would have their answer, or die waiting. A protest is staged outside the House of Representatives, while their plight hits the House floor when tabled for discussion by AKEL MPs.

The hunger strikers are interviewed by the media and the migration department’s practices in granting citizenship to political refugees are put under public scrutiny. Finally, in early July, Salah and his family get the piece of paper they have long waited for, making them Cypriot citizens after more than a decade of being political refugees. The Palestinian man cries with joy, thanking all who stood up with him and supported his plight.

I have since lost track of the man, meeting him only one time more at an art exhibition of his paintings. But the content smile that lined his face last time I saw him makes me confident that he will find a way to be happy.

I really like this story, for a number of reasons. First off, I covered a lot of immigrant horror stories this year, listened to countless more that didn’t even made the paper and it makes me happy that at least one of them had a happy ending.

Some of those stories are really heart-breaking and being faced with human suffering on a regular basis tends to make one cynical.

Secondly, it’s an oasis of good amidst the countless terrible news that go through our desks daily. Reporting on corrupted politicians, murders, thefts, the bleak prospect of our economy and people struggling to make do eats at your heart little by little. A story like Salah’s gets your mind off things, even for a little while.

And third, hooray for the little guy!

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