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Asylum seeker: No choice but to leave

Cyprus has more than its fair share of asylum seekers and economic migrants. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman who fled a bad situation eager to make a new start, who has found the system in Cyprus frustrating at best

To be honest, Justine Matagang Nde wasn’t our first choice – and the reason why is instructive. The recent influx of African asylum seekers, most of them coming in through the occupied north, has been quite unsettling for many Cypriots (including many in the government, whose response seems increasingly panic-stricken), and a woman, like Justine, somehow doesn’t seem as representative of that vague disquiet as a man would’ve been – let alone a group of young men, like the jobless newcomers one increasingly sees idling on benches and street corners. Then again, the fact that we associate asylum seekers with fear and anxiety, rather than compassion – even when it comes to deciding who might make the best profile – says it all, really.

She’s unusual in another way as well. Most Cameroonian asylum seekers (much of our current influx comes from Cameroon) are fleeing the war in that country, an onslaught on the English-speaking minority that’s one of Africa’s hidden atrocities. “It’s terrible there,” Justine says sadly, telling me of a video she watched a few days ago which showed the army attacking a village and killing scores of young men – yet in fact she has no first-hand experience of the war, hailing from the city of Bafoussam in the French-speaking part of the country. She’s here because of “personal problems”, specifically domestic violence.

Is that enough to apply for asylum? “I apply, and I tell them what happened to me, and they allow me to stay,” shrugs Justine, her English impressively fluent for a second language. “I have a confirmation letter.” Admittedly, I don’t know the law – nor would it be appropriate to litigate her case in a newspaper article – but it does seem like she’d fall outside the parameters of political asylum. Then again, the way she tells it (sometimes pausing, overcome with emotion, while recalling the details), she undoubtedly fears for her life if she went back to Cameroon, indeed it may well be a more tangible and immediate fear than for many of her compatriots.

In any event, she’s here now, fleeing a bad situation and eager to make a new start, only to be stymied by the system. “I knew that it would be difficult,” sighs Justine, “but not so difficult like now”. She arrived in December, the dead of winter – and of course she came through Tympou (Ercan) airport, having paid two million CFA francs (the equivalent of about €3,000) to “a friend who knew about Cyprus. But he didn’t let me know that they have two Cyprus. So I discovered when I was here”. Do most Cameroonians even know that Cyprus is an island? “No. They don’t know. Like me, when I came I didn’t know”. Her escape happened quickly, she claims, and she didn’t have time to research a place which she’d never previously heard of – especially since she had her hands full preparing her kids (she has two girls back in Cameroon, seven and five) and arranging the details of the big move. Besides, “they say it’s in Europe” – and besides, she was desperate: “I didn’t have a choice than to leave”.

We sit outside a bakery in Nicosia, near the flat where she lives. Justine is 36, and very easy to talk to: smart, pleasant, cheerful, good-natured. This is not just idle praise, it’s a vital part of her story. If there’s one conclusion to be drawn from our conversation, it’s that the current system is so overloaded that asylum seekers often have to fend for themselves – and being a pleasant, decent-looking person is half the battle. “I’m simple, humble, smiling person as you can see,” she agrees when I mention this, “[and yet] it’s not really easy for me. Can you imagine if I was, like, strong” – she indicates some hulking male figure – “horrible person?”.

She’s been helped along during her time here, the proverbial kindness of strangers (not to mention charities like Caritas, which was instrumental in arranging this interview). Someone was supposed to meet her at the airport, but no-one did; she walked out in a daze, “it was really late, and it was cold” – but a friendly local named Ezgi approached her, she says, and helped her for the first three weeks. Later, in the south, she had no place to stay, “I had no money, I had nothing, nothing, nothing”. Migration sent her to Welfare, “when I reached Welfare they said ‘It’s full everywhere’” – but then a Cypriot woman met her at the Sisters of Perpetual Help in Nicosia and invited her to live, as a kind of unpaid helper, with her mother, who’s seriously ill with cancer. It wasn’t entirely a stroke of luck (the woman had come to the Sisters to find someone for this purpose), but she obviously saw something in Justine that inspired trust. “Now we are like a family,” she reports cheerfully; “Usually I call [the old lady] my yiayia, we are so close”. Still, it’s not like having her own place – which is why we’re sitting here, on the pavement outside the bakery – nor is her experience the norm; mostly, as she says, you’ll find “five boys living together, six girls living together”. The system needs to work for the unlucky as well as the lucky.

Here’s how the system works in Cyprus: asylum seekers get a monthly stipend of €186 in food coupons, plus a cheque for €75 (recently increased from €150 and €70, respectively). If they’re able to sign a contract with a landlord, the state will chip in €100 for rent – but “a lot of owners don’t want [to know] anything about contract. If you can pay by yourself, it’s okay. If you cannot pay by yourself, they don’t want to hear anything about government”. (Clearly, the state’s contribution doesn’t always arrive on time.) Even with the extra €100, finding a place is clearly impossible unless one shares with others – and let’s not even talk about finding a job. “Many, many, many don’t have a job. Many, many.”

So what do they do all day?

“What can you do? Stay at home, pressing phone! What can you do? Nothing. And, you know, it’s dangerous – because when you are not doing anything, you can drink, [get] drunk and cause a lot of problems. You can fall into a lot of things, bad things. Like me, for example, I was working when I was in my country, and here I’m not working. It’s difficult. You feel lazy. Even if they’re giving you food, it’s not enough.”

Of course. You want to feel useful.

“You want to feel useful,” she agrees, “that’s the word. You cannot be living just for eating… And when you are not working, you keep thinking about what happened to you in the past. You feel like you’ve saved your life, but not completely.”

What does she think of the other Cameroonians here? Are they good people?

“Yeah. We are good people. Not 100 per cent, but we are good people. And a lot of Cypriots need to know that, because they don’t know that. Sometimes, when you call online about a house, or a job, they make you feel like a – stupid person. They don’t say anything, but the way they behave, you feel yourself like a stupid person. We are not stupid.”

Available jobs are limited, mostly “jobs that Cypriot cannot do,” she notes wryly: recycling, farm work, taking care of animals. The list was recently expanded to allow asylum seekers to work in (some) hotels and restaurants, though only as cleaners. “You cannot show yourself,” she protests. “The only job that you can do is hide! Why we have to hide ourself? Are you shamed to have we in your country?”

Her own line of work isn’t, alas, on the list: Justine is a seamstress, a dressmaker, with her own shop (now shuttered) back home – and the change in her expression when I ask what she was like as a teenager (i.e. what her plan was for life) is remarkable. “My plan was to have a big company for sewing,” she replies, her eyes shining, “because, since from a child, I like sewing. When I was a teenager I was thinking to have a big company, sewing, employing people, and – anyway, it was my dream,” she breaks off, possibly derailed by my slight chuckle. “It was my dream.” I wasn’t trying to mock her, far from it; the chuckle’s involuntary, just because of how radiant and beatific her expression becomes while describing that dream. It’s like a Disney movie.

She’s trying to make it happen, or perhaps it’s just better than sitting around ‘pressing phone’ all day. Either way, she’s managed to buy a sewing machine and potters about on it, making stuff for herself (in the absence of clients); “I just want to be sewing, so I can keep what I know, because if I stay for a long moment without sewing, I will forget”. In some ways, the past few months have been good for Justine: she’s no longer scared, and – despite the €186 monthly food limit – has gained seven kilos, just through being calm and sleeping better. Cyprus is okay, though the climate is different: “It’s so hot here. It’s so hot, my God! It’s so hot, it’s so cold… In Cameroon, we have good climate”. Still, even a pleasant person like herself has had bad experiences. “You meet someone who doesn’t want you to touch him,” she reports, talking everyday racism. “You are in the bus, someone is sitting, when you came to sit down – she left!” Potential employers often hang up when they learn where she’s from (though probably because they don’t want an asylum seeker, not because of skin colour). Sometimes it’s disrespect as much as racism; one bad experience involved an old woman who offered her work as a cleaner, then yelled at her and tried to manhandle her. Don’t go, pleaded the woman, I still have work for you – but “I took my bag and I left,” says Justine firmly.

And of course there’s the sleazy side. Has she had men asking for sex? “Oh, a lot. A loooot, a loooot.” Sometimes it’s overt, they’re in a parked car “making like this” – she makes a suggestive gesture – “and they show you money” – she mimes a guy flashing money: “‘50 Euro? Hotel?’ It happens, it happens a lot”. Sometimes it’s more indirect, like the job she was offered in Limassol paying €30 an hour, allegedly as a private masseuse for a couple. (Justine said she wasn’t interested, but “I trust a lot of my sisters become prostitutes,” she admits sadly.) Sometimes it’s frightening, like the man who followed her down the street in broad daylight – God only knows what might’ve happened at night – then finally cornered her, asking ‘How much?’. “I said, ‘Can you do that to Cypriot lady? Can you do that? Or because of my colour you are doing that?’. Because I’m trying to say what I think. When you frustrate me, I try to say something”.

‘Frustration’ is perhaps the key word here – and it’s going to get worse. How long does the asylum application take? “I don’t really know,” admits Justine. “Since I came, they have not yet called me, I’m still waiting. I met a lot of people, [who have been] for two years waiting”. It’s a long time to be idle, for a woman so active and ambitious, not to mention being far from your kids and family. Does she ever regret having come here? “Sometimes, yes.”

Still, at least she’s safe (or safer) – and she’s now applied to take Greek lessons, and the work might become more fulfilling with time, and she still hopes to be CEO of that big sewing company someday. “I’m a good seamstress,” says Justine Matagang Nde. “I would like to let people know who I am, through my job… I will do it, I believe. I don’t know how, actually, but I know there will be way to do it. To find myself. To realise my dream”. Here’s hoping.


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