By Liana Liu Ioannides

One programme in Cyprus brings together Greek and Turkish Cypriots to build a peaceful future together

The Cyprus Friendship Programme, also known as Creating Friendships for Peace (CFP), brings together over 100 Cypriot teenagers every year for a series of peacebuilding programmes that take place across the island and the United States.

It has its roots in the Children’s Friendship Project in Northern Ireland, which saw more than 2,000 teenagers participate during its 20 years of operations. It currently operates in Cyprus and the Middle East (Israel and Palestine), bringing together youth from divided communities to break down existing barriers and foster friendships across the divide.

In my four years in the CFP family I have attended peacebuilding programmes in Troodos, Kormakitis, Strasbourg (Euroscola) and Maryland, USA. Through these programmes I have been incredibly lucky to gain a world-class peace education; from a public speaking course in Maryland by ex-President Bush’s INS Commissioner James W Ziglar to workshops in Troodos on identity, human rights, negative and positive peace. My experiences have also included open discussions with prominent diplomats, such as members of the House in Washington DC, European Parliamentarians, the Deputy British High Commissioner and former Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci during which we got the opportunity to ask questions about US Foreign Policy, the post-colonial struggle of Cyprus and the Crans-Montana negotiations.

365473240 7175331509148285 7099501434302836765 nBut these meetings were not just for the politics nerds, joining me on these programmes were teens with career ambitions varying from sports to humanities and science. What united us was the human education offered by CFP, where we got to explore the island’s and our families’ history, while developing critical thinking and creativity skills that will accompany us for the rest of our lives.

Along with a world-class peace education, CFP has given me another lifelong gift: the opportunity to meet and get close to incredible people, and build lasting friendships. I cannot help but smile when remembering my US host parents, and the love they shared for each other and for making their home ours. I remember nights with my Turkish Cypriot pair Defne when we would stay up binge watching TV shows or karaokeing in the basement or talking about our dreams, crushes and families; even all in the same night!

In the month we stayed in their home in Maryland, David and Rita created a warm stay for us. They taught us how to sew a mattress and bake a cake passed down through the generations for Defne’s birthday, taking us to their churches and driving us to Washington DC to see the sites. Their own story as a Protestant and Catholic couple underlined what CFP works to tackle; the need to deconstruct the walls of stereotypes and hate-projecting narratives that exist in every small and big island of our world.

Closer to home, my heart breaks a little as I remember the stories told by Maronite families in Kormakitis and relatives of missing persons; with how much warmth and empathy they shared their stories of lifelong suffering, and their hopes for a different future for our generation.

I cannot describe how much it means to me that in these four years I have been surrounded by the incredible women leading CFP and other peacebuilding efforts; women who have refused to fit within the images of the textbooks, and actively lead the peacebuilding process. When schools parade all these political and military ethnic heroes – all men – in front of us, they reduce women’s role in our history to just black-and-white pictures of suffering.

Through the CFP I have been able to find my identity and voice as a Cypriot changemaker; receiving education, courage and bicommunal empathy and understanding needed to be part of building a different future. As thousands of Cypriot, Israeli, Palestinian and Irish youth have been brought together and given a life-changing education, it is important that we keep going, that we stop teaching children to seek a future drifting along with the open wounds of the past. In a world exasperated by ongoing conflicts, the only way to build a different future is by giving every child an education that believes in peace.