In a documentary about those who abandoned their beloved island forever, ALIX NORMAN finds a legacy that has been hidden for decades

“In 2016, my mum and I sat down in our Birmingham garden. Over shots of zivania, she told me her story. Those four hours changed my life.”

Over the course of a quiet afternoon, documentary film-maker Panikos Panayiotou heard the hidden histories that exist in every corner of the Cypriot diaspora – the shocking hardships, terrible losses and incredible triumphs of women forced to leave all they loved in search of a better future abroad.

“The life, the advantages, the privileges my generation take for granted – it was all built on the strength and sacrifice, the willpower and resilience of Cypriot women. But such stories often go unheard,” laments the 43-year-old. “History records the tales of men. Our women’s voices have been lost. Until now…”

feature3 queens of amathusIn 2019, Panikos released Queens of Amathus, a full-length documentary focusing on four remarkable women forced to leave Cyprus for Birmingham… Two years later, in Queens of the Commonwealth, he broadened his reach, interviewing women who’d left commonwealth nations for Britain. And now, his upcoming Queens of Aphrodite will look at women across the diaspora who have made the same journey – left all they loved in Cyprus for the promise of a brighter future in another country.

“Until now, these untold narratives, these remarkable legacies have often been carried in silence,” says Panikos. “Like so many other second- and third-generation Cypriots before me, I knew little of my own mother’s life before I sat down with her that afternoon. Her story, like those of many other Cypriot women abroad, is heart-breaking…”

In 1972, Panikos’ father left Potamiou for Birmingham, intending to stay just two years. He worked hard, saving the money to buy a family home in Cyprus, purchasing furniture and stashing it in a container ready for shipping. In 1973, Panikos’ mother joined her husband in this new land; the understanding being that the two would return to the island within the next 12 months.

“She hated it in the UK,” Panikos recalls with a sad smile. “She actually tried to turn herself in as an illegal alien purely to get back home to Cyprus! But her English was limited, and the police didn’t understand ‘ase me na mbao piso stin Kypro!’ (‘let me go back to Cyprus!’). And so she remained in Birmingham for almost a year, missing her homeland more with every passing hour.”

But, by mid-1974, the penance was over. The money had been made, the furniture bought, passages booked; the husband and wife were returning home, home to the island they loved!

“And then,” says Panikos, “the morning they were set to leave, they turned on the BBC for the last time. And their dream disintegrated. It was July 20.”

Panikos’ mother collapsed, hysterical at footage of her own brother – immediately identifiable among the prisoners of war – being led away by invading forces. His father went straight outside and set fire to the furniture container.

feature3 some of the women in queens of amathus

Some of the women in queens of Amathus

“There was no going back,” says Panikos. “There was no going back to Cyprus. They both knew it. Their lives, like those of so many other Cypriots, had changed forever.”

In the months that followed, the young couple worked twice as hard – first to find and then to support the remaining members of their family. “So there my mother was, living above a chip shop in a land she hated, vowing to work day and night to support her brothers and sisters in Cyprus, and raise a family of her own in a foreign land. And that,” says Panikos, “is what she did. Her story became the inspiration behind Queens of Amathus.”

Working with the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund and LGK in the Community (a UK-based charity set up in memory of his father, Lakis Panayiotou) Panikos released this first documentary in 2019, detailing the voyage of Greek Cypriot women from Cyprus to Birmingham.

“As a documentary film-maker, I knew it was my duty to ensure these tales were heard, were shared with the world,” reveals Panikos. “In every house across the diaspora, in every quiet kitchen and front room, there are incredible, untold stories of the dreadful losses, terrible journeys and new lands experienced by Cypriot women. With Queens of Amathus, we began recording and sharing these stories…”

A hit across the diaspora and beyond, Amathus detailed the lives of many remarkable Cypriot women forced to make a new life in Panikos’ home town of Birmingham. Such was its success that, just two years later, the film-maker went on to release Queens of the Commonwealth, a project that highlighted 22 British-based women from commonwealth countries.

Currently, Panikos is busy completing a short film entitled Queens of Cyprus, in which prominent Cypriots (including renowned psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, and Chanel supermodel Sophia HadgiPanteli) around the world pay tribute to the women who have made them what they are today.

And all this is leading, he reveals, to the grandest project of all, Queens of Aphrodite

“From the very start, my aim was to share the untold stories of female Cypriot emigrants with the world,” he explains. “Like my own mother, many are now in their 70s or 80s; unless we record these incredible stories, they will be lost forever.”

With Queens of Aphrodite, Panikos’ journey comes full circle, as he returns to the stories of female Cypriot emigrants. But this time, his interviewees will be not from Birmingham, but from the wider diaspora – from Canada, Australia, the US and South Africa to name a few. And he hopes to represent members of all five major Cypriot communities: Greek Cypriot, Turkish Cypriot, Maronite, Armenian and Latin.

Queens of Aphrodite is a pan-Cypriot film that will celebrate the island’s female emigrants regardless of their ethnicity,” he explains. “It’s a full-length feature that will look at women who migrated in search of a better future, and yet whose Cypriot spirit remains strong even in exile from the land they love.”

Panikos is still searching for the women whose stories will most resonate with viewers around the world.

“Those women – they’re out there,” he concludes, “their untold resilience a testament to the strength of Cypriot women everywhere. And their stories, just like that of my mother, need to be shared. Before,” he warns, “it’s too late. Before they’re lost forever…”

For more information on Panikos’ films, visit Queens of Amathus is currently available for free on the CytaVision Video On Demand platform