PRESIDENT Nicos Anastasiades said on Friday the government is constantly striving to build a child-centred approach to society where a child’s needs and wishes are of primary importance, while it also maintains its policy of supporting children of immigrants.
In his address at an event to mark Universal Children’s Day – delivered by Education Minister Costas Kadis – the president said that the government continues its efforts to build a society of peace which respects human rights, especially those of children.
The event, organised by the office of the Children’s Rights Commissioner, Leda Koursoumba, aimed at raising awareness about the rights of children refugees on the international day which is marked every year on November 20.
“We stand by the children that arrive in Cyprus in an effort to seek a safe future, away from the destructive whirlwind of war,” the president said. He added that these children arrive in Cyprus “with their only luggage being their rights, having left behind their home, friends, family, sometimes even their parents”.
The government, he said, is striving to build a society “founded on respect for diversity and which is ready to welcome and accommodate each and every refugee and every child who arrives here seeking a better future”.
At the event, a teenager from Egypt, Virina Gunda, narrated her family’s struggle from the day they arrived on the island in search of a normal life and be allowed to remain in Cyprus.
The only reason she and her family are still here, she said, was not because procedures worked for them, but because they fought very hard and because they were the exception.
“The exception is what makes the responsibilities of those who decide the fate of such people look enormous,” Virina said.
The 17 year old was just three when she arrived in Cyprus in 2002 with her parents and her baby sister as refugees.
The day the family left Egypt, Virina said, was “the last day we took decisions as a family, the last day we had privacy, personal space, the last day of my childhood”.
Upon arrival on the island – due to the fear of deportation – the family was daily experiencing “the feeling of the last day,” she said.
By the age of nine, Virina said, she had the opportunity to utilise her Greek language skills she had learned at school to translate to her parents the documents sent to them by government services.
She said she felt very welcome in school in Limassol where the family had settled, and for the first time “I felt I belonged”. She said she was even elected as class president in first grade, “which I remember with pride”.
But despite her positive experience in school, she and her family were up against a faceless bureaucracy. “We are a number on a file and not people, we are the foreigners that invade the Cypriot society”.
Virina said how she had the daunting task to translate all government documents concerning the family’s stay on the island, talk to lawyers, and write official letters on behalf of her family. The first, at the age of ten. “Everything depended on me”.
When the family’s request for a residence permit was rejected in 2012, they filed for an appeal at the Supreme Court, which they won.
Virina, who is currently enrolled at the University of Cyprus, said that she does not want anyone’s pity nor her lost childhood back. “I just want to claim the rights of children who went through what I myself had gone”.
Koursoumba said that when the government rejected the family’s residence permit application, Virina had turned to her office claiming her rights as a child, and that due to her own intervention, the family was allowed to stay.
According to Unicef, Koursoumba said, one in 200 children in the world, or around 10 million, are refugees.
“Children, one of the most vulnerable groups in refugee conditions, need even more the protection of the international community, as they are faced with the worst forms of abuse and exploitation,” Koursoumba said.
She added that “it is a legal responsibility of the state, but also a moral duty of society, all of us, to stand by these children and their families. To ensure their access to their rights and to create those conditions that will allow them to grow in a healthy and safe framework within which to develop the full range of their abilities”.