South African’s Personal Reflection: Prejudice/Racism in Cyprus

Yesterday, I shared my personal experience of racism in the U.S. that shaped the way I view and experience life as an expat in Cyprus.  Today, my friend, Ms. Master of the Arts (M.A.), shares her perspective in a Q&A. She and her husband hail from South Africa, and they have been living in Cyprus for three years. They have four children who attend school in a Greek public school system.

Q: Where did you live previously and what brought you to Cyprus?
A: I was born in South Africa and lived there until six years ago when my family and I left in search of some adventure and life experience. We landed up in the Middle East for three years before moving to Cyprus where we have been living for the past three years.

Q: How have you found transitioning to life in Cyprus?
A: Living in the Middle East kind of paved the way for us to adjust to living here in that it wasn’t the first time we were away from our home country. We had anticipated that it might be more difficult to adjust here because there is less English being spoken. Also the Cypriot people have close-knit families and, therefore, may not have as much time/need to develop friendships. I guess thinking that, meant we were more prepared for any challenges.

Q: How did you decide to send your kids to a Greek-Cypriot public school system?
A: When we lived in the Middle East, we only really interacted with other expats and migrant labourers. We hoped that moving to Cyprus would involve more interaction with the local people, so we were keen for our children and us to learn the language. We also did not feel we could commit to paying private school fees for four children within our budget.

Q: What benefits/disadvantages have your children experienced at school?
A: We have been absolutely amazed at how our children have picked up the language. Within three months, they could understand and say quite a lot more than we had expected and were able to master much of their schoolwork. Sadly, they have had a harder time culturally. One of our children displayed signs of stress in the form of persistent stomach aches during the school day. The noise level in the class took some adjusting to, as did the methods of discipline. She was also lonely during playtimes. One of our other children experienced rejection and bouts of bullying from others. These circumstances led us to move to another village with a school that has a reputation for being more accustomed to foreigners. The children are happier there and, though the same challenges still exist, the environment is more positive and inclusive and it was good for them to have a new beginning. The school education does emphasize a lot of the Cypriot interpretation of history, which can be summed up as Cypriots (and after that Greeks) are always right and have always been wronged by the rest of the world, of which the Turkish are at the top of the list, followed by the British. It borders on indoctrination and we feel the need to challenge it frequently in our discussions with our children. Our travels to North Cyprus allow us to further explore these issues with our children and present a more balanced, humane understanding. This may sound exaggerated, and may well not be the actual school curriculum, but this is how our children retell it to us.

Q: Did you find that it was easy to build a (within the Greek-Cypriot and expat) community in Cyprus? If so, how did you accomplish that?
A: As I mentioned above, trying to anticipate some of the challenges ahead of time helped, in that when we did experience welcome and hospitality within the Greek-Cypriot community, we were pleasantly surprised. We have met some lovely people who are interested in getting to know us and, in turn, happy to share their culture with us. We have also encountered those who treat us with more caution or wariness. In the midst of all this our expat community, which consists of a few international friends in our village as well as our church community, have helped us through the tough times. Through them our children have been able to play with others in their home language which has been quite a comfort. One of the things they have missed is regular playdates which seem less common in our school community.

Q: Have you experienced racial prejudice in Cyprus? What were some of the struggles in dealing with how to handle the situation(s)?
A: Our first taste of racial prejudice was from our former neighbours. The father forbade his children to play with ours, apparently because we were foreigners. The children chose to come and play anyway when he wasn’t around. Some of the older boys in the neighbourhood picked on us during one festival by targeting our home and our children with water bombs. They refused to listen to our requests to stop and it escalated to the point where one of our children was injured. My husband and I confronted them on their behaviour and I think they were more willing to listen having seen someone get hurt. I can also remember our oldest child having an argument with her friend next door about whether we were real Christians or not because we were not Orthodox. Fortunately it did not affect their friendship.

Q: Do you think that racial prejudice experienced in Cyprus has a lot to do with a cultural misunderstanding? Or are there pieces missing in this puzzle?
A: Recently I read a paper written by an acquaintance that helped me understand something of where Cypriots are coming from. Historically, Cypriots have had to work very hard at preserving their national identity in the midst of colonialism and the occupation of 1974. As a result, they have a wariness/distrust of foreigners. As a result ‘being different’ is very unsettling and almost feared by parents in the education system. There is a great emphasis on blending in with the others to maintain their national identity. We have noticed that even Cypriot families who have lived abroad previously also seem to be singled out as ‘different’. There is also at play an “island mentality” where some regard anything not of the island as substandard eg. medical practices / child raising techniques / food.

Q: What do you think expats/foreigners living in Cyprus can do to bridge the cultural gap in Cyprus?
A: I think learning the language is a key factor and a respectful, honorable attitude towards cultural practices even if we disagree with some things. Not being so defensive about our own practices when feeling ‘judged’ is also helpful. I have struggled at times not to be defensive especially with our former neighbors (as well as some strangers), some can be quite critical about what we do differently.

Q: What are some ways Greek-Cypriots can do to bridge that gap?
A: I think being respectful of the fact that there is more than one right way to do something would be helpful and to respect each person’s freedom to make their own choices. Also a greater awareness of global culture and highlighting some positives in different cultures could be encouraged. My husband’s comment is that the Greek-Cypriots seem to have a deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong and will not accept giving up their right to be right. However, from our Christian and South African experience, there are times when one needs to give up that right for the greater good. In particular, we all need to give up our right to be angry to allow forgiveness and peace to have a chance.

Q: What has been your overall experience of living in Cyprus?
A: Living in the Middle East was an adventure but it felt unreal in terms the fabric of society. Hence we have found it very refreshing to live here. There are times when not understanding the language can be frustrating and complicated but for the most part it is a challenge to be overcome. The Cypriots have such a strong sense of family and community and have very generous hearts. We love the food and all the lovely fresh produce, not to mention the beauty and variety of the landscape and seasons.

Q: Are there any other anecdotes you would like to share about living in Cyprus?
A: My husband decided to make marmalade one weekend when we had received bags of oranges from a friend in the village. One of my daughters and I popped into the shop down the road to get some sugar and got talking (in my very broken Greek!) to a visitor in the shop who was chatting to the owner. The two men chuckled at my daughter who was standing behind me grinning sheepishly at each error I made. The guy recognised us from the nursery school and knew where we lived as he had seen us on the way to his mother-in-law’s house. So, half an hour later, he arrived on our doorstep with a huge bag of lemons for us to make lemonade! He agreed to stay for coffee (which I’m sure I burnt!) Once again, the same daughter came to the rescue with translating in a very comical way.

Thank you, Ms. M.A. for sharing your perspective. Tomorrow, check out Ms. J’s reflections as a working expat professional in Cyprus.

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