By Alexia Evripidou
That Michalis Michael and Sukran Ozerdem won one of Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s Philanthropic Foundation’s annual 10,000 euro prizes earlier this week was both inspiring and sobering in equal measure.
Each year the easyJet founder gives cash awards for joint Greek and Turkish Cypriot bicommunal projects, most of them small businesses.
But Michalis and Sukran’s venture is more binding than most – they won because they are married and have a baby, one of the first bi-communal babies born since 1974.
It was a clever PR move on the part of the foundation, but totally justified. After all you can’t get more of a bi-communal project than a mixed Greek and Turkish Cypriot family.
But that you can win because there are so few such relationships reveals just how far Cyprus has to go.
None of which is lost on the two 35-year-olds who know they are one of only a handful of such bi-communal relationships in Cyprus.
In 2004 they met as colleagues in the United Nations Development Programme where they worked. In 2009 they become a romantic item and in 2013 they wed in a civil registry service.
Sharing a common passion for their country, they decided their love was the fight they’d commit to, and together they crossed the physical and cognitive boundaries of geography, fear, ingrained prejudice and taboo. “It’s just a human relationship. You fall in love with the human being, not their history or nationality. That’s what happened with Sukran and me. We are no different to other couples,” says Michalis.
Sukran says: “I knew it’d be a big challenge when it came to how other people would see this relationship, but having a Greek Cypriot partner was never an issue for me.”
In 2014 their son Denis was born. As an acknowledgment of their values, the pair won the Stelios award on October 26 under the ‘Life’ category to put towards their business; their son.
“Stelios told us that this was one of his favourite ventures, as it truly reflects bi-communal living. We are not the only ones though, there are many of us trying to do this,” said Michalis. The money will go towards the toddler’s education.
They would be lying if the couple claimed no apprehensions about the potential publicity the award would bring them. After all, they belong to a minority group in this country.
“Bi-communal relationships are still a taboo here in Cyprus and our concern is for our son. There’s still much prejudice. Extremist groups in society exist with unpredictable behaviour towards each other,” says Michalis.
Still, there is progress. The Stelios Foundation claims that this year it received four times more applications than previous years. The record number is explained by “the positive political climate” and bi-communal business ventures.
“We’re a bi-communal relationship, something very human that has nothing to do with money but everything to do with feelings and we believe that this is a good example in general for society.”
Michalis himself is testament how people’s views can change.
In his younger days he describes himself as being ‘part of the system’, holding right wing ideologies and supporting marches against Turkish Cypriots. His grandfather was part of EOKA.
“Growing up in a divided island, I would take any opportunity to go to the green line and throw stones at the Turkish Cypriots. But this was mainly due to mental barriers passed down through my history,” he says.
University helped open his mind. He learnt about Cyprus’ history from both perspectives. “We both had reasons to fear each other. Barriers are there because people have been taught to have them but when they actually listen and meet people from the other community, then barriers can change,” says Michalis.
As their relationship grew, so did the inevitable realities and difficulties facing such a union. Initially they told only friends and cousins who readily accepted their situation. However when the parents found out, ancient fears of the ‘other’ surfaced and battles to help the families understand commenced.
Concerned questions were asked by both set of parents: what would society say? What about the religious differences? How would society accept a mixed child? They were told to stop their affair but after two years together, the couple chose to stand their ground.
“It was hard initially for my family to accept that I was with a Greek Cypriot. They had concerns about the taboos in the society,” says Sukran. “Nonetheless, when they eventually realised that I was going to start my family with or without their consent, they softened. On eventually meeting Michalis, all their concerns up to that day became history; they totally supported us and embraced our decision.”
Religion was a big obstacle for the families but the couple agreed to a registry wedding, allowing each other to hold onto their own religious beliefs.
“Respect is what every human being should be doing to every other human being. There’s no need to change belief systems unless you want to.”
They plan on raising their son with both religions.
“I cannot force our son to be Christian or Muslim. It’s the 21st century and he’s entitled to his own decision,” says Michalis. His biggest fear is his son having to do national service – for both communities.
The forward sighted couple have not always shared the same visions on Cyprus.
As young 24 year olds, they clashed in their ideologies. In the professional arena, they addressed these issues in a politically correct way but in the personal arena, they often differed heatedly on culture, history, inherited stereotypical beliefs and the problems of 1974. Each tried to understand the other’s different perspective on the same issues that deeply affected both of them.
“In these discussions, we were trying to defend the society in which we grew up in,” says Michalis.
Working with the Turkish Cypriots and getting to know them is ultimately what changed Michalis and others.
“My parents forced themselves to overcome the barriers in their minds and take that leap of faith,” says Michalis. “People, who love their country, don’t see a Cyprus problem. We share the same culture, the same needs, interests and mentality. The reality is, many can see that there’s no problem between us but some still like to hold on to their taught history.”
Michalis admits truths in many of the beliefs held by both parties but the problem lies in the system; it didn’t help people to move forward.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to learn to live together for the benefit of our island. We are a militarised island. We were brought up with fear. I don’t want our son to grow up with the same fears. It’s important to know and understand both sides of the story. It’s a fragile situation but there are so many examples of how it can work,” he says.
“If you look at my wife and me as a project, then you see two people joining their lives together. In the beginning the families wouldn’t accept it. Then they got to know each other and now meet up regularly making kebabs and drinking Zivania together; like a regular Cypriot family.”
He said that this had an impact on their extended family and the chain grew and continues to do so.
“We were happily forced to find solutions to our social problems like, Christmas, Easter, Eid and Ramadan. We enjoy celebrating each other’s traditions. As Cypriots we share the love of eating, drinking and socialising,” he says. “We are family now.”