Helping the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed, one woman ends up combining the things she imagined she would be doing as a child. THEO PANAYIDES meets a charity case worker now consumed with the life of migrants, but not only
It’s not about the migrants – though of course it is, especially when you walk through the offices of Caritas Cyprus, near Paphos Gate and the Holy Cross Catholic church in old Nicosia.
Past the vestibule, with its photos of the Pope and other Catholic luminaries, the winding space teems with sharp reminders of the human influx that’s only increased in the past four years. ‘No-one Puts Their Children in a Boat Unless the Water is Safer than the Land’ notes a sign on the wall. Three plastic boxes on a shelf outside Gosia Chrysanthou’s office are labelled ‘Women’s Undies’, ‘Women’s Bras’ and, incongruously, ‘Sweets’ (the third box does indeed contain candy, when I peek inside). The place used to be overrun with donated items but Caritas recently added a small storeroom, just down the road. Gosia gives me a tour: boxes filled with jackets, shoes, clothing items in general – though in fact the need right now isn’t so much for clothes; the more urgent need is for diapers (the refugees include many new mothers), cutlery, kitchenware. “Pots and pans, we are desperate!”
Above all, there’s a need for food. Don’t be misled by that box of sweets; “Hunger, real hunger” stalks the land, warns Gosia, the charity’s Case Manager, so much so that Caritas have been forced to reduce the size of their food packages, to accommodate growing numbers. Don’t refugees get food coupons? Only if they apply for social welfare, she replies pointedly – and they’re only allowed to apply if they have an address, a tall order given the many landlords who’ve been burned by the system and are no longer willing to rent to asylum seekers. Besides, she adds, there’s such a backlog that coupons may take weeks to arrive. Newcomers, almost by definition, have to make their own way or starve.
Yet it’s not about the migrants – or rather, it’s not just about the migrants. Caritas’ mission is broadly expressed, viz. “helping the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed” (“At some time in life, any one of us actually falls into this category,” adds Gosia wryly). It just so happens that in the past few years – ever since refugee numbers exploded in 2016 due to the war in Syria, followed since 2018 by an influx from Africa – the poorest, most oppressed and vulnerable have been refugees and migrants. “But tomorrow it could be a Cypriot population. In fact, right now, with coronavirus, we’re already looking at who, in the new reality we face, is the most vulnerable. Maybe we’ll identify that it’s our elderly”. (How might Caritas help? Maybe by shopping for senior citizens who can’t leave the house, or keeping them company so they don’t feel so isolated.) “Five years ago it was victims of trafficking, it was domestic workers.” Back in 2004, she recalls, it was probably the Eastern European EU citizens who’d come to Cyprus after it joined the bloc, and found themselves stranded.
Way back in the 90s, it may even have been women like Polish-born Gosia – albeit not Gosia herself, who arrived with her husband (a South African Cypriot who, like her, had never been to Cyprus) and worked in the corporate sector before drifting into NGOs and charity work. Still, she recalls waitressing for a while around 1994, when she was in her 20s (she’s now 50), and being blatantly ogled – as a Slavic-looking ‘foreigner’ – by male customers, some of whom were brazen enough to flirt with her right in front of their wives (the wives would look away in embarrassment, but say nothing). “If I said [I was] Polish, people would say ‘Which cabaret?’.” A trivial hardship compared to the pain of a starving migrant or trafficked woman, of course, but the point remains: pain is pain – and any vulnerable person contains an echo of our own vulnerability, if we only embrace that instead of pushing them away. “I like what the Pope said,” she muses: “‘It’s not about migrants. It’s about us’”.
Not everyone would quote the Pope approvingly – but Gosia is devout, of course, she could hardly be otherwise. (Caritas Cyprus is a Catholic charity, one of 165 organisations working under the Caritas banner around the world.) That said, her religious fervour isn’t accompanied – as quite often happens – by pomposity and self-regard. Her energy is gushing and mercurial, a rollercoaster energy, enormous grey-blue eyes amid fine, elfin features giving her a touch of the anxious bird – and she’s far from settled about her own virtues, referring to herself (or her past self) as “very obnoxious” and “a terrible person” at various points in our conversation. She talks very fast, as if trying to exhaust every point by sheer force of verbiage; she’s the kind of person who’ll send a lengthy email the day after our interview, clearly having looked back on her answers and found some ‘i’s to dot and ‘t’s to cross. “I am a very difficult person to be with, to work with, because I am a perfectionist,” she claims. “So I am never pleased with anybody – including myself!”
She’s “a control freak by nature,” she tells me (all this, I hasten to add, with a jocular air, though I take it she’s not entirely joking). She’s tenacious, and a workaholic. She’s sensitive to cold, but equally unhappy in the heat; she’s “a very energetic person,” so the summer heat in Cyprus leaves her feeling drained and out of sorts. Her major passion – “my drug!” – is hiking; she loves to walk for hours, climbing mountains, offering up all that energy to the majesty of Nature. “I love to tire myself physically,” explains Gosia. “I am not a person to lie on the beach. I don’t like the beach. I find the sea powerful – too powerful for my liking”. There’s the control freak again.
Was she always like this? Yes, she replies with a fervent chuckle – though, again, not entirely. “Whatever I planned in my life, whoever I wanted to be, whoever I thought I was, I am caught by complete surprise,” she declares, with the air of a supplicant sharing her personal testimony. “I am where I never thought I’d be. I could never imagine I’d be doing today what I am doing. And yet it was planned for me, designed for me, in such a beautiful way that I could never have done it better.”
She was born in Ostrowiecz, a small industrial town halfway between Warsaw and Krakow, and couldn’t wait to get out; she felt restless in a small place and pined for a buzzing city like Lodz, where she studied Linguistics – though the big city had to be in Poland, as she had no intention of ever leaving her country. (The irony of what actually happened isn’t lost on her.) Gosia is both restless and “domesticated”, as she puts it, an odd contradiction: she’s very attached to her home – her space – but the space can’t be narrow and constricted; she has a touch of the fierce-but-loving parent who keeps pushing her child to improve themselves, out of love. (She also has two actual children, a son and a daughter, now 24 and 20 respectively.) She feels at home in Cyprus, after that initial culture shock, but ultimately may prefer not to fit in entirely. “I would like to remain discerning,” she says cautiously, “and have a very sharp view of what could be done better and not.”
Her compassion is also a lifelong trait – which she lays at the door of her mother, a compulsive do-gooder. “I was a delivery person,” chuckles Gosia, thinking back to her childhood, “of cakes to orphanages, to elderly ladies, doing their shopping, carrying bags.” She laughs at the memory: “So my mother instilled this in me. I’m sure it’s all her fault!”
And her dad?
“My dad was a very strict person. I had a fantastic family, I come from a very – a rather poor family, but loving in the right way”. Growing up, she wanted to become a nun, a social worker or a lawyer; looking back, she realises she could never be any of those things. The strict dad left her with a rebellious streak which would surely have put the kibosh on any vow of obedience; “I would be thrown out of the nunnery in no time!”. A social worker is closer to what she does now – but a social worker operates with boundaries and procedures, whereas Gosia has no boundaries: “It’s very difficult for me to say no, especially to a suffering person”. As for being a lawyer, “I could not face a defeat,” she explains, i.e. couldn’t have lived with herself “if somebody went to prison because I was not good enough to defend them”. There’s the perfectionist again.
In a way, it’s a strange objection; after all, isn’t her job now fraught with defeat? She may well laud her team at Caritas (not a big team, around a dozen people) as “miracle workers”, and of course their work is invaluable – but our system remains inefficient, and there’s something else too, something more essential. It strikes me driving down the half-empty streets of Nicosia on my way to Caritas, the Saturday buzz depleted by coronavirus: ‘social distancing’ seems scary and outlandish – but in fact we already had social distancing, one tranche of society (the suburban population) physically distanced from another (the migrants living four to a room in the ghetto of the old town, incidentally making them more susceptible to the virus). Is the current paranoia about others being contagious really so different to the old paranoia about others being alien? Even after 12 years helping the disenfranchised – starting as a volunteer with Pregnancy Care Centre and Cyprus Stop Trafficking, before moving to Caritas in 2012 – has Gosia Chrysanthou really changed anything, on a fundamental level?
Maybe not; but I guess that’s where God comes in. “I know that my life was completely designed by God,” she assures me, “and, if you take God out of my life, there will be nothing left. There will be absolutely nothing left!”. God has a kind of twofold function. In the first place, He keeps her humble; I get a sense (and Gosia agrees) that she might be insufferably critical – even arrogant – if she weren’t so grounded by her faith, and the knowledge of her own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. In the second place, however, God is the planner, the designer. Everything that happens – even, I assume, the failures – is redeemed by being part of His plan. “Somebody inspired this work, and there is a purpose for it. And I feel a part of this beautiful purpose.”
But then why doesn’t He just get rid of war and poverty, and make the work unnecessary?
“Because the work has to be done – through the people, by the people, for the people,” she replies soberly. “We need to be the blessing to each other.”
It’s a lovely thought, as Gosia tries to deal with migrants being evicted because the landlord’s cheque didn’t come from the social welfare office, or tries to offer moral support to bewildered refugees in a doctor’s office. (Records show, “to our absolute shock”, that the three Caritas field workers made a total of 1,800 hospital trips in 2019.) ‘We need to be the blessing to each other’ – and indeed, the blessing is mutual. She’s learned so much from her so-called “beneficiaries”; she’s admired their resilience and patience, and bonded in a way that goes beyond charity work. ‘Gosia Mama I Love You Forever’ reads a letter from a Somalian woman, pinned to the wall behind her desk. ‘Thank you to my friend on whom one can count at any moment’ begins another letter, from an obviously more literary Cameroonian gentleman.
It’s a great thing, muses Gosia, “when I meet Christ in another human being and it’s so real, so obvious… I’ve got this feeling very often that I’m so close to God, it’s like Moses approaching the mountain!”. Being in Cyprus, doing the work she does, was never the plan, says this self-proclaimed ‘difficult’ woman – then again, on a deeper level, it was always the plan. You might say she’s become all three of her childhood ambitions: lawyer, nun and social worker. “I am a complete mystery to myself,” she sighs happily. “If you ask me who I am, I’ve got no idea. And yet I find a complete comfort in it. I find a complete joy in it”. It was never just about the migrants.