In Cyprus, as with most of Europe, there is a growing number of people here not entirely because they want to be. THEO PANAYIDES meets two women who are trapped on the island but have found ways to make lives for themselves
Lives in limbo, people caught in-between; the reflection – and result – of a seismic shift in Cyprus in the past decade or so (it’s not just us, of course; it’s the whole of Europe). One shouldn’t wax nostalgic, or paint the past in too-idyllic colours – but it used to be the case, by and large, that people were here because they were born here or, failing that, because they’d made a free choice to be here. Now, on the other hand, there’s a growing substratum whose choice wasn’t free, or wasn’t a choice at all: refugees and migrants, victims of war or deception or human trafficking, those whose only choice was to go somewhere (not necessarily here), those who desperately long to leave but aren’t able to. Lives in limbo, lives on the margins; you can spot them, for instance, at the Mercy Centre in old Nicosia – which is also where I talk, in an upstairs room, to Mihaela Badiu and Joana Asia Andras.
The Centre (run by Stylianos ‘Lakis’ Georgiou and his wife Christine, though a handover to a new team is apparently imminent) is one of several charities trying to supplement a frankly overwhelmed government sector. They provide food, bedding, clothes and other necessary items. A young mother might, for instance, find a pram for her baby. “They also pray for people,” says Joana – the Centre is a Christian charity – and offer the intangible benefit of moral support.
“You know, to have someone to listen to you, it’s very important,” explains Joana. “Because all this time, the one year that was difficult for me, I could not cry. Because I had nobody to whom to cry. I have only my two kids, if I cry they will ask me ‘What’s wrong?’, and I didn’t want them to see me cry. So it was good to come to Mercy Centre and find somebody with who I can speak – and cry, finally.”
Mihaela and Joana, it should be noted, are part of the team at the Centre, helping out on a volunteer basis a few times a week – but they initially arrived seeking help, albeit not as lost as some of those they try to help now. Their lives weren’t entirely in limbo, even then; then again, their choices aren’t entirely free, even now. Joana, like many in this new class (or underclass), would actually prefer to leave Cyprus and return to Romania, but her hands are tied; Mihaela is theoretically freer – yet it’s fair to say she never dreamed of being here, or expected to spend eight years (and counting) on our fair isle. Neither is officially displaced – yet they’re both in-between, at least emotionally.
The two are very different, yet their stories are strikingly similar. Both are Romanians; both defy the stereotype that money is the ultimate force behind this mass movement of people, having come here for love (or the promise of love). Their backgrounds have little in common. Mihaela is 45, from the city of Galati near the border with Moldova; she spent 20 years as a teacher, making €1,000 a month – and still has a touch of the teacher, or perhaps librarian, with straight hair, glasses and a prim, soft-spoken manner. Joana is 33, a Gypsy (she doesn’t use the word ‘Roma’) and daughter of a pastor from the town of Sighisoara; she’s dark, voluptuous, wild-haired, with lively eyes, dangling silver earrings and a bit of a sniffle; she has better English, and does more of the talking.
Joana met a Nigerian man online, on a Christian website, and came to Cyprus to meet him personally. “I found a job,” she relates, “I stayed in Cyprus, eventually we married, we had two kids, and then he left me”. Mihaela met a Syrian (his daughter was one of her pupils) who told her of his friend, a fellow Syrian, who lived in Cyprus; she came for two weeks and is still here eight years later (she and her husband have a seven-year-old son). What’s it like in a marriage of two faiths? Religion can’t be allowed to take over, she says – though of course there are compromises: “I eat pork at the table, but I don’t give my son pork”. The boy was baptised, somewhat against her husband’s wishes, but has no official religion, the idea being that he’ll choose for himself when he turns 18. Still, adds Mihaela without cracking a smile, “to live together with a Muslim man – and me, I’m European, I’m Orthodox, two different religions – is impossible”.
Impossible? So how does she manage?
“Because I’m calm person,” she explains in her broken English. “You understand? And I grow up in a family with everything – with peace, with love. Not with shouting, not with fighting.”
Her happy childhood is a clue to her current situation. Some may wonder why a woman in her 30s, with a good job, should’ve chosen to leave her country – but the reason lies in the death of Mihaela’s beloved father, leaving her depressed and guilt-ridden. “My father one time told me, ‘Mihaela, I’m very upset for you and your brother, because you are not married and you don’t have children. I want to see grandchildren, and you don’t have’,” she recalls mournfully. “I didn’t give my father what he wanted. He gave us a good education, a good life. He wanted something simple.”
Coming to Cyprus to meet (and marry) her Syrian was a kind of tribute to her dad, a stab at redemption; yet it was also, inescapably, a step down. Her husband is now fully legal, being married to an EU citizen – but his life at the time was more sketchy, having lived in Cyprus (on and off) for 12 years without papers. He was one of those people in limbo – and the well-off teacher soon found herself working three jobs, “from five o’clock morning till two o’clock night”, cleaning, cooking and washing dishes at a well-known Nicosia restaurant. For six months, “I worked like a zombie”; then came pregnancy and the birth of her son – and now it was worse, because she couldn’t even work anymore. Going back to Romania wasn’t an option (“People look not nice at the mother”), and her husband wouldn’t have let her go alone with the child anyway. “They don’t allow their wives to travel with a boy,” explains Joana. “In Syria, the [male] is very important so they appreciate it, and they take care of it. They would separate it from the mother than have it grow up with the mother”. Inevitably, Mihaela found herself at the Mercy Centre.
Joana’s own story is equally sobering – not tragic, or especially depressing (there’s a happy ending), but somehow sordid, a tale of poor decisions and hand-to-mouth lives, a story of people in limbo. She came to Nicosia, met her online Nigerian, found a job (as a cook) and a house shared with several others. At first the relationship was good, but “after we married he started to change… And then, when we had our first child, he changed totally. He didn’t spend time with us. He was always finding an excuse to leave the house”. She went back to Romania; he came to visit, and they reconciled. “I came back, because I had a second baby with him. And when I came back for the second time, he beat me. Even though I was pregnant”.
The cops didn’t care, though she says he’d beaten her badly (just one time, for the record, though of course once was enough). Joana was afraid she’d lost the baby – her second daughter – and gave birth three weeks prematurely, by Caesarean; “That is when I left him. I could not go back”. She went to Immigration and asked to be deported (she couldn’t leave; her husband had taken her documents) but they couldn’t deport an EU citizen unless she’d committed a crime. She slept in a park, with the two kids, then made her way to a Catholic social centre. “I stayed there for 10 months, with 10 women in the same room, with a small baby. It was not easy. But the nuns there told me about the Mercy Centre.”
As with Mihaela, getting help was something of a turning point. Fast-forward a few years, and life for both women has improved dramatically – the only problem, for Joana, being that the court unaccountably awarded joint custody when she and her husband divorced, meaning that the kids (and, by extension, she) can’t leave the country, even for a holiday, without his consent, which he refuses to give. This can be bypassed by securing a court order, but that costs money – and money, unsurprisingly, is tight, though Joana (unlike most Cypriots) seems to have no trouble finding work. “I think, in Cyprus, if you want to work, you will find it. It depends what you expect from that job”.
She currently works as a cleaner, making €3.30 an hour. Not much, to be sure, but it’s better than nothing – and besides, her life isn’t just about work. Joana was previously a missionary back in Romania, travelling to nearby countries to help the homeless and “tell people about God” – and helping others is clearly important to her. Every Saturday she runs a kind of home-school along with a Cypriot woman, teaching a multicultural class of neighbourhood kids how to get along irrespective of language and religion. (Have they themselves ever experienced discrimination in Cyprus? I ask the ladies. “No,” they reply in unison – but add that it’s probably easier for Europeans than for Asians and Africans.) She also translates for NGOs dealing with trafficked women – and of course also talks to the various lost souls washing up at the Centre. “The fact that I come to Mercy Centre and I serve, and the fact that I have the children’s class on Saturday, it makes me feel that yes, I can settle. There was a time –”
“A sense of life,” puts in Mihaela, trying to define what the volunteering gives to her.
“There was a time, for me, when I felt I’m in prison, because I cannot leave this country.” In theory, her plan is still to return to Romania – but meanwhile she’s ‘settling’, as she puts it. Her kids go to local state school, and define themselves as Cypriots; Joana is learning Greek, the better to help them with their homework. They’ve gone to parades, and celebrated national holidays; on Sundays they like to explore, visiting mountains and castles, using the internet or TV travel show San Tin Kypron En Eshi to find far-off villages. Mihaela’s hobbies are more sedate, mostly reading and Sudoku – but she’s also doing a course in Hotel Administration, part of a scholarship scheme arranged with the Centre. The scheme was designed for victims of human trafficking but few of the girls took it up, their lives being presumably too hamstrung and traumatised to think about going to college.
That’s the catch, the hidden factor in our conversation – the presence of those other lives, the displaced and deceived and unable-to-function. Joana and Mihaela are a kind of halfway house in this debate, women who’ve been touched by the fear of being in limbo (Mihaela’s husband was initially illegal; Joana’s kids can’t leave the country without a court order) but largely overcome it to construct a decent life – but they also convey all the other stories (“My story’s small compared to what they went through,” says Joana), the ones on the margins, the ones still trying to find a way through.
I hear of Eastern European women tricked into marriage (mostly with South Asian men), thinking they’re coming to Cyprus to work, signing a form without being aware what they’re signing; “Then she finds herself married to this guy, and the guy takes her passport and locks her inside the house”. I hear of crooked bosses working new arrivals for a month, then refusing to pay them any salary and throwing them out on their ear. I hear of underage boys trying to get to uncles and aunts in Germany, only to be brought here instead by unscrupulous ship’s captains. I hear of mothers in Somalia selling their land so their son can leave in search of a better life – “and now he’s in Cyprus, on the streets”. I hear of refugees in Kofinou, waiting months for papers to be processed. I hear of the mess that results, all these idle, frustrated people living precariously in Cyprus but not really of it – and their lives going on, their kids growing up, their distance from mainstream society an obvious time-bomb allowed to tick on.
Joana and Mihaela aren’t just inspiring in themselves; they’re also an example of what can be done, still on the margins but trying to fit in and forging a life for their families. Are they optimistic about their future? “Yeah, why not?” shrugs Mihaela. “Now it’s okay for me,” she adds. “I’m not – down anymore. I find my way.”
As for Joana, she claims that she never despaired. “No. Because I believe in God, and I know that God is always there for me. This was – I considered it a lesson in life,” she says of her marriage. “That I didn’t take enough time to think before I acted, and it was the consequences I had to go through. Because it was my choice. I did not blame anyone for that”. She’s dating a “good man” (an African Muslim, as it happens), trying to get by as best she can; and then there’s the Mercy Centre. “It’s not easy living in Cyprus as a foreigner,” she concludes, “but to have the opportunity to help others, this – at least for me – makes me happy”. They smile and escort me downstairs, past the piles of clothes and array of colourful children’s toys.