By Annette Chrysostomou
“It is like a big family,” says 19-year-old Odai from Syria as he remembers his time at the Home for Children shelter for unaccompanied minors in Nicosia.
“People here have what they need,” says Max from Somalia, who lived at the shelter for 16 months.
Cyprus may not score well compared to other EU countries when it comes to how efficiently the government processes asylum seekers’ applications or how generously they look after the few they accept as refugees, but much more is being done for the children who arrived in Cyprus without their parents or other relatives.
And that is largely down to the humanitarian organisation’s ‘Hope for Children’ UNCRC policy centre’s two Home for Children shelters in Nicosia.
In practice, they are more shelters for teenage boys: the youngest current occupant is 12 years old and there are no girls.
Hope for Children opened its first shelter with a capacity for 24 occupants in 2014, followed by a second one for an additional 18 youngsters this year.
This means they are looking after a fair proportion of the 105 asylum applicants in 2015 who were considered unaccompanied minors. Of these, 45 were from Somalia, 25 from Syria and 20 from Palestine.
The organisation supervises the minors in the shelters though they remain under the legal guardianship of the welfare services.
Each day, the teens attend lessons and workshops.
Odai, who stayed at one of the shelters for eight months, commented that it provided a good, useful programme which still allowed for free time.
Max was in the government run shelter in Larnaca before being moved to Nicosia.
“There, all the boys were sleeping in the same room which was too full, maybe 29 of them. Here there are only three boys in each room. There was no education and no good food. When they sent me from there to here I thought it would be the same but it was totally different,” he said.
Even dinners in restaurants and trips to other areas in Cyprus are added to the activities on offer.
The Nicosia-based ‘Hope for Children’ UNCRC policy centre was founded in 2008 as an independent humanitarian international organisation. It’s affiliated with the UNCRC, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but doesn’t receive funding from them.
“For the shelters, we have received funding from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (90 per cent) under the EU funds unit and the Cyprus government (10 per cent),” said Andria Neocleous, director of the humanitarian division.
“We have funding until November 2017 with the possibility for renewal.”
The length of time the youngsters stay in the homes varies.
“The process to relocate them takes time, at least three to six months. Some have been here since 2014, when we set up the first shelter,” Neocleous said.
“They are here until we can arrange a reunification with their parents or relatives after being accepted by other European countries or until they are 18.”
To be accepted by other countries they need to have relatives in those countries who are willing to take them in and have the money to support them. The process for this and the reunifications is similar. First the relations need to be proven. The relatives then have to provide evidence of their financial means to support the minors.
Until this happens they attend public schools in Cyprus. In the shelters, there are some supportive lessons in the afternoons, such as language classes.
“It depends. Some have never even been to school and some for a very short time,” the director said. The afternoon activities are supported by the government and the EU fund.
Some professionals also provide their services voluntarily. “We have someone who comes and gives piano lessons. We have a piano at the shelter.”
Staff are a mix of professionals and include graduates in psychology, law, sociology and social work in order to cover all the teens’ needs.
Each of them looks after the whole group during their shift but is also a personal officer for a minor, which means that the employee has weekly meetings with the boy and takes care to develop a special relationship with their charge.
The staff also have to handle teens who have been under immense psychological stress in their young lives, separated as they are from all that is familiar.
“There are no serious problems but sometimes there are psychological problems like traumas and they become angry and start to fight,” said Neocleous.
But Max and Odai said they saw none of this when they stayed at the shelter.
“On the contrary, when some people left we were crying,” Odai said. “We became like brothers.” Some adolescents who are now in Germany and the UK still call to keep in touch and ask for help which Hope for Children staff supply from Cyprus.
“The staff help even those who are not here anymore, like us. We are now over 18 and live somewhere else, but when we have a problem we can come here and they help us,” said Odai. “They will come to a government office with us when needed, even if they are not working at the time.”
Altogether there are 20 supervisory staff plus support staff like cleaners, cooks and even a gardener for the big garden which the teens can help out with.
“But at that age they are not interested. The most important thing for them is the internet, so we have Wifi in all areas because that is a basic need. This way they also communicate with people from their country,” Neocleous said.
What happens when they turn 18?
“We help them to find jobs. If they are still at school, they can finish the school year.”
So far, few of those under 18 stay permanently in Cyprus though this depends on the decision taken by the asylum services after examining their case.
At the moment, the social welfare services are evaluating the possibility of establishing a system for finding foster families and are looking into identifying suitable families.
Like so many refugees, Max and Odai said they would like to go back home and rejoin their families if ever the situations in their home countries improve.
Until then, the Hope for Children shelters are doing their very best to provide a safe, happy environment for young people who have been forced to flee their countries.
For more info: www.uncrcpc.org.cy
Hope for Children’s other projects
In addition to the children’s shelters, Hope for Children also supervises the European helpline for children and adolescents and the European hotline for missing children and provides children with social, psychological and legal support for issues such as bullying and sexual abuse.
“We get funding from the EU Commission, and have in the past received some from the Norway grants,” said Andria Neocleous, director of the humanitarian division.
Another department is in charge of research and development. “The result of the research is the basis for the grass root programmes,” Neocleous explained.
“We do a lot of fundraising events, as the organisation has to contribute.”
The organisation receives a lot of support from celebrities such as composer Yiorgos Theophanous who has been their goodwill ambassador since 2011, Greek Cypriot singer Ivi Adamou and Chrysanthos Tsourroulis, the head of the Dias group.
One Hope for Children campaign is the anti-bullying programme under which children, teachers and parents are trained in how to identify bullying.
“There have been many requests from public schools lately, we are now known and schools are calling us,” said Neoclous. “We also cooperate with the education ministry which is important to get access to schools and with the justice ministry on the protocol for the hotline.”
The hotline for missing children 116000 is one of two important phone numbers for those who need the help of ‘Hope for Children’. It is a European harmonised line which is a tool for the prevention and handling of cases of missing children.
The second important line is also the same in the whole of Europe: 116111. This is the European helpline for children and adolescents providing psychosocial support directly to children and adolescents.
The two help lines are operated together with the association for the prevention and handling of violence in the family.
A child abduction alert has also been established in Cyprus. When a child is missing and in risk of serious injury or death, an alert to ensure public participation is activated and a photo of the child is circulated via the media.