Today, we conclude our series on prejudice and race issues in Cyprus. I am glad to share with you an academic’s point of view about this very complex issue. Dr. S holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology at Binghamton University. Her dissertation studied the “transnational migration for domestic workers (from Sri Lanka and The Philippines) who live and work in Nicosia, Cyprus.” Here is a Q&A interview from Dr. S’s perspective on race and prejudice within the Greek-Cypriot and migrant worker communities in Cyprus.
Q: What brought you to Cyprus and how long have you lived on the island?
A: I’ve been living in Cyprus since 2001 when I moved here to be with my now husband. He was a Fulbright scholar in the U.S. and needed to return to Cyprus to fulfill the J1 visa requirement of returning to his home country after his scholarship, and I joined him shortly after he returned to Cyprus from the U.S.
Q: How did you decide to pick this topic for your dissertation?
A: I had been interested in pursuing the topic of migration, because it’s so relevant to many parts of the world. It’s something I became interested in while working in the highlands of Bolivia where I was fortunate enough to have spent a summer with a team of archaeologists on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I noticed that many of the young indigenous, Aymará-speaking young people were leaving the community to migrate to the capital city of La Paz. Of course there is a great deal of prejudice among the Mestizo middle class urbanites towards the rural indigenous people, and yet, during national celebrations when they would make the 3-hour drive to the rural community, these same people would be eager to claim the same indigenous heritage as their own, as a way of authenticating their identity as being truly “Bolivian.” So migration (in this case rural-urban migration) brings with it issues of national identity, of “belonging,” and of course, race and racism.
When I came to visit Cyprus for a few weeks before moving here, I remember first traveling downtown on a Sunday shortly after I had arrived in Cyprus and being absolutely shocked at how the physical spaces of the downtown area seem to transform completely—most shops geared towards locals are closed on Sundays, while at the same time hundreds of “visibly different” women were utilizing park spaces for socializing, picnicking, walking and gathering with friends and even family. And a whole informal industry (wire transfer shops; second-hand stores and outdoor flea markets) had sprung up to cater to these same people. These were people that were all but invisible in Cyprus every other day of the week. I thought this would be interesting to think about as a dissertation topic to look into this migration phenomena as it unfolds here, as the global migration of women has recently surpassed that of men dominating global movements for labor.
Q: What important observations or lessons would you like to share from your dissertation?
A: Well, my dissertation was focused largely on interviewing migrant women to understand their experiences and how they thought about why they came here; to understand more about their lives—who are they? What have their life circumstances been like to send them on this journey? As I started interviewing women, more and more wanted to share their own stories with me. Some—many—had truly heartbreaking stories; young children left behind; terrible mistreatment and abuse here in Cyprus, or in other previous destinations. Yet others saw the migration experience as a positive one—an opportunity to leave behind a bad relationship; a chance to travel and make money and see the world. This would be one thing I would want people to take away from my dissertation: not to look upon a group of people and necessarily see them as “victims.” Many felt empowered by their ability to leave structured, difficult circumstances in their own countries. This is not to say that the global migration of women is all a positive thing: in fact, there is an entire, state-sanctioned process that profits off of exporting female labor on a global level, without much regard to regulating or monitoring the actors in this movement who often get forgotten about when they need help.
I also wanted to contextualize the relationship that Cypriots have with these migrants by looking at the larger picture of Cyprus geopolitically. At the time, Cyprus had just become an EU member; how does Cyprus’ positioning—as an EU border country, with a political problem and unofficial border running through the country, culturally focused towards Europe, yet geographically closer to the East—how does this affect attitudes towards these women? What is happening at the borders is critical for understanding how Cypriots understand who they are in relation to the Cypriot state—their national identity and their European one. One thing that I felt gave me insight into this was to also include interviews with Greek Cypriot employers, as well as officials of the Cypriot state. How employers felt about their employees reflects very much the larger society’s attitude.
It’s also not a simple, victimizer-victimized relationship; there is a massive, informal system where some migrant women manipulate the system in different ways to their advantage. I met several Sri Lankan young girls who were more or less tricked into arriving in Cyprus and indentured to work by another Sri Lankan woman who arranged their work in Cyprus in exchange for their first 8 months salary, in addition to other money paid.
Q: Did the Sri Lankans and Filipinas interviewed in your dissertation find that it was difficult to deal with racism? How did they deal or handle the racial divide in their workplace and living in Cyprus?
A: I found the gamut of experiences—from women describing terrible isolation and mistreatment—feeling like they are treated like robots that should be superhuman and then “switched off” and put away when they are not needed, or like “a shoe” as one woman described—to being treated “like one of the family.” Many run away, or try to find other employment. And yet others had tremendously positive experiences, where the relationship between the family of the employer and that of the domestic worker have been long lasting, and have even created financial ties between families.
Q: From your study, what things can one do to help bridge the racial and ethnic divide between the Greek-Cypriot community and Sri Lankan/Filipina communities?
A: I think there is something fundamentally wrong that allows an entire population from another country to be brought in and channeled specifically into one kind of low wage, low pay, undervalued work—because we know that “women’s work” is almost universally devalued as not being considered “real work.” For sure, these women fill an important gap in a place that has experienced rapid development over the last several decades. In Cyprus, traditionally the females in the family, and/or grandparents, have the majority of the family responsibility, especially in feeding and caring for children while the men work outside the home. However, as more women entered the workforce (and even those who are now grandparents continue to also work outside the home), the state has not stepped in to offer any help in the way of child care or elderly homes. The answer has been, since the early 1990’s, to open the way to bring in people from other countries to do the work that no one else can, or wants, to do.
So, to go back to your question, I think a system which encourages an entire ethnic population into a small country like Cyprus specifically for one small, undervalued economic sector creates a stereotype about a whole entire population. When someone in Cyprus sees a woman from the Philippines, for example, they automatically assume she is here as a domestic servant. And assumptions like that can be harmful and create more assumptions about an entire people. One comment that stuck with me was, “my Filipina is a Sri Lankan!”—a sentiment that encapsulates this issue.
Q: Now that you are living in Cyprus, do you find that racism/prejudice in Cyprus is growing, lessening, or remaining the same?
A: I think here it’s fair to say that most people, in every country, hold assumptions about other people when they first meet them, based on a variety of visible characteristics (i.e., their “race,” sex, etc.) that are not necessarily true. In a small place like Cyprus that has had a relatively short modern experience with diversity (relative to a place like the United States for example), the rapid changes that this opening of borders and channeling specific people into certain economic sectors has created this to a large extent. And I found in interviewing employers specifically that people tended to not monitor themselves for “political correctness,” and made some pretty shocking comments to me. But those comments are revealing about the assumptions held about various “others” and I can’t say I’m confident that things have changed a great deal. As you know, these changes need to happen on many levels—political, judicial, educational—before they start to be reflected positively in the society.
Q: What has been your overall experience of living in Cyprus?
A: Personally I’ve been very lucky in my experience here—I have married into a wonderful, open-minded family, and have a tight group of friends who rely on each other a lot. It took some years to feel comfortable but I do feel in many ways at home here now. It is too hot for me, though ☺. I’m more of a snow kind of person!
Thank you, Dr. S for sharing your research findings. If you didn’t get a chance to read the other two articles on prejudice and race in Cyprus, you can check them out on the links below: