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Aspiring MP talks dogs, Covid and personal responsibility

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For an outspoken animal-assisted therapist, standing for MP is a long shot. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man with a sense that life is getting worse who is keen to overthrow the old way of doing things

Avraam Themistokleous is well-known on social media. His top video, from 2017, has around 850,000 views, which is huge for Cyprus. He’s been on TV, often gets recognised in the street, and is constantly getting messages from strangers asking him to help shine a light on this or that problem. He shows me his phone; he has 944 friend requests. A speech he made back in October, at an anti-lockdown protest in Limassol, got shared 2,500 times on Facebook, and inspired over 700 comments.

And then there’s Zouzou, sitting obediently at Avraam’s feet and taking the opportunity to jump up on his lap when he sits back in his chair. Zouzou isn’t a social-media star. She’s just a dog – but not just any dog, she’s a therapy dog (one of two employed for that purpose, the other one being Scooby), Avraam’s faithful sidekick in his work as an animal-assisted therapist. The dog “serves as a bridge of communication with the person you’re working with,” he explains, fostering trust and putting the person at ease, whether that person is a senior citizen with dementia, an abused child, or perhaps severely autistic. Zouzou “also rehabilitates other dogs,” he adds, the little mutt being obviously a dog of many talents; “She reads a lot of animals for me”. Working with troubled dogs is Avraam’s only paid employment at the moment, along with helping out in the family’s taxi business.

Some might say he doesn’t really merit a profile. After all, he’s only 33 (he’ll be 34 next month) and hasn’t really done very much yet – but it’s not for want of trying, and the fault lies more with the system than Avraam himself. “In the EU it’s acknowledged as a paramedical profession,” he explains, of animal-assisted therapy (his English is fluent and indeed he speaks three languages, the others being Greek and German) – but in Cyprus he had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get a certificate, and even that was rather garbled and provisional; he’s created the sector more or less from scratch. He’s also standing for MP in this May’s parliamentary elections as an independent (having previously stood for MEP with the Animal Party), either by himself or in coalition with other independents – but freely admits it’s something of a long shot.

profile2 using a dog to assist therapy“To be frankly honest with you, the possibility of me getting into Parliament is close to none. Because, historically, no independent person has ever made it into Parliament.” You’d think his social-media following might provide a way in; he needs around 5,000 votes, after all, a small fraction of the number who follow him and watch his videos – but most of his followers are young, and most of the young are part of the missing 40 per cent in Cyprus politics. “Let’s break it down,” he says briskly: of our approximately 550,000 voters, maybe 300,000 are “involved” with the status quo, being civil servants or personally linked to the big parties. The key lies in the silent, often apathetic minority – but “what do they want? Who are these people? They’re the ones who are losing their homes, their business has been destroyed, they used to be middle-class and now they’re poor”. They also include many of his peers, the ones who identified so strongly with that speech last October.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the first lockdown, making the speech even more topical – yet in fact his six-minute spiel, delivered (in Greek) without notes in a rapping, crowd-pleasing style, didn’t mention the pandemic directly. Instead, Avraam spoke of a general malaise, a sense of life contracting and getting worse. He’s lucky to have grown up in the 90s, he told the crowd, “that was a golden age for this country… Doors unlocked, cars parked with the key in the ignition, kebabs at 90 cents a pita. Where are these things now? In 20 years we’ve ended up shutting ourselves in our homes”. He has a child, he told the crowd, and would like to have more (he and his partner do indeed have a four-year-old daughter): “Our parents managed to have four, five, six kids. These days, having a child is a luxury”. He’s unemployed, he told them, waiting for his €500 to arrive to pay the rent – then called eloquently for unity, and the overthrow of the old way of doing things.

The passion is real, though I guess you could nitpick the details. He’s not jobless per se, though the taxi business (which depends almost wholly on tourists) is languishing badly. He’s vegetarian, so he wouldn’t be eating any kebabs even at 90 cents a pita. Above all, his own personal 90s weren’t entirely idyllic – especially after 1994, when seven-year-old Avraam moved from Hamburg to Oroklini with his family.

His mum is German, his father Cypriot. Dad worked as a driver – tourist buses, then taxis – Mum stayed home raising the kids (three boys and a girl; Avraam is second in line). Oroklini was a small, clannish village, pre-development; Avraam didn’t speak a word of Greek. He and his older brother were enrolled in the local primary school, and trouble erupted: “We were bullied, we were beaten by teachers… Even our neighbours were doing birthday parties for their kids and not inviting us”. The teasing was standard kid stuff – the ‘Germans’ subjected to Nazi salutes and ‘Sieg Heil!’s – but Avraam took it badly. His mother, trying to help the boys channel their frustration, enrolled them in taekwondo classes, “so I’ve been doing martial arts for the past 27 years. I’ve got a black belt in taekwondo, brown belt in judo, white belt in jiu-jitsu. I’ve done boxing, also”.

Sports allowed him to release some of the anger (he was angry throughout his teens) – but animals were the real life-saver. “That was when the dogs came into our lives,” he recalls of his childhood; there’s a hill above Oroklini and “I grew up there, I know every stone”. That was his escape, roaming the outdoors with a canine companion – leading directly to his work as an adult, which he defines as “the co-existence between humans, animals and Nature”. (He also tried a degree in English literature and translation studies but dropped out in the third year, finding it unfulfilling.) “The psychosomatic benefits of connecting to Nature and animals, that’s my personal interest. I’ve lived it personally… And it keeps me grounded, it keeps me concentrated. It teaches me patience. Dogs taught me patience.”

They did, and presumably still do; yet it’s also true that the dogs know who’s boss. Zouzou doesn’t just jump on his lap, she asks permission first. At home, the dogs always eat last, he tells me. This is not being cruel, it’s treating dogs like dogs – because they’re naturally pack animals, tending (like humans) to think hierarchically. They’ll defer to an alpha, it’s their nature – and Avraam is indeed an alpha type, his energy assertive and competitive.

It’s absolutely no surprise that he’s an athlete and martial artist; his whole demeanour is sharp, laser-focused. He has a touch of the attack dog (speaking of dogs); there’s a Zoom debate with a Ministry of Education official on his Facebook page – their subject is the fuss around rapid tests – and you can see him champing at the bit, trading barbs with his opponent as things get heated. His is the kind of personality that might’ve turned criminal (he admits as much, once again crediting dogs – the discipline of taking care of dogs – for keeping him out of trouble as a teenager), but instead it sprouted into a kind of ferocious nobility, with a focus on protecting the weak. He recalls beating up three boys who were picking on a disabled classmate, back in high school; “I beat the shit out of them,” he recalls grimly – and indeed he was going to be suspended, till the disabled boy’s mother intervened on his behalf. He wouldn’t do that now, of course, he adds quickly. He’s learned to control his emotions.

Does he still come on a bit too strong for some people’s liking, though?

“Yes, they’ve told me that,” he admits with a shamefaced grin. “They’ve told me that. Especially after training, when I’ve got my blood pumping and my testosterone up!” Avraam chuckles. “I’ve worked a lot on my listening,” he adds – then pauses thoughtfully. “I need to work on it a little bit more.”

Maybe so, though he’ll surely always be happier talking than listening – especially as he does in that Limassol protest, rousing a crowd with his words. After all, the man who talks is usually the man who controls the conversation – and control is important to Avraam, whether it’s control over his life, his emotions, or control in general. He has no addiction issues (which imply a loss of control), but a definite touch of OCD: “When it comes to my food, I need to organise my plate before I start eating… I don’t like [the food] mixed up, and I like to have everything I want on my plate and then start eating”. Back when he used to eat meat, souvlakia was a challenge, necessitating the separation of meat, chips, bread and salad before the meal could commence. Speaking of which, he became vegetarian five years ago, after visiting an animal farm and being shocked by what he saw. Seeing how the animals were raised and slaughtered, he realised “that wasn’t a healthy animal for me to eat,” he recalls – which is not exactly how most vegetarians would phrase it, and indeed he’s not opposed to eating meat per se, merely opposed to this inhumane agribusiness. “You want to eat meat? All right, you kill your own animal and you eat it,” he challenges. “Let’s see how many will do it.”

profile3Avraam himself doesn’t do that, at least not yet – but it’s the kind of thing he would do, independence and “personal responsibility” being a big part of his brand. (His personal anthem is Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’: “If you want to make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself and then make the change”.) That’s mostly why he’s come out against Covid measures, not because he’s a denier – he could hardly be one, having caught the virus himself back in April; three days in bed with fever, even with his healthy lifestyle – but because they’re being imposed, making people dependent instead of trusting and encouraging them to run their own lives.

“The best weapon we have against any virus is our immune system,” he tells me. “Have they ever told us to take that into consideration and boost it?” He himself tries to eat properly, trains every day, doesn’t watch the news, goes out walking with his dogs in the fresh air; “I keep myself healthy – and I’m not afraid,” fear being the worst thing you can do to your body. “There’s never been a conversation about this aspect of the whole thing,” notes Avraam – even now, a whole year after that first lockdown. People aren’t being told how best to face the virus, only how to cower and run away from it – which of course only adds to the sense of helplessness. “Why doesn’t the scientific community do tests on the chemicals of the immune system? Have they lowered, have they spiked [in the past year]? They’re not asking different questions. They only ask one question, and that is Covid.”

A man who speaks his mind. A man who wants to be free to make his own decisions. A man who believes in personal responsibility. A man who enjoys locking horns with the strong to protect the weak. Even if, by some miracle, Avraam Themistokleous made it into Parliament, it’s unlikely that he’d thrive in the chicanery and horse-trading of politics – but in fact that’s okay, he assures me: “I don’t want to be a politician”. Society’s going to hell in a handbasket, whether it’s Covid or corruption; “We’re missing €100 billion, from lost money and stolen money,” he calculates, adding up the scams (Marfin, the Co-op, the passport scheme, the Sewerage Board scandals) of the past 20 years. That’s why he feels the need to go into public life – but not as a career, just to try and make an impact. Should he ever become an MP, he won’t seek re-election. There’s a lot you can do in one term, he insists.

Besides, his life is still taking shape. “I’m still 33, I’m young.” He’d like to do another degree, in Veterinary Medicine, then maybe study neuropathic medicine – then, someday, his dream would be to open up “a sanctuary”, working as a vet in the midst of a big park dotted with small ‘mushroom houses’ where people could come as a kind of retreat: “If they feel too stressed in the city, they can come there with their pet for the weekend”. It would be the perfect co-existence of humans, animals and Nature, says Avraam – young enough to dream, old enough to try and make it happen. Meanwhile Zouzou sits on his lap with a faraway look, doubtless dreaming her own doggy dreams.

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