In Their Words: Six Insightful Essays
Participants of AHIF College Student Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus Describe their Personal Experiences
WASHINGTON, DC —Six essays authored by participants of the third annual American Hellenic Institute Foundation College Student Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus were published in The Hellenic Voice, The Hellenic News of America, and Greek News. The students’ insightful essays describe their personal experiences from the trip to Greece and Cyprus held June 8-24, 2011. The two-week study abroad program provided students with the opportunity to learn about the foreign policy issues affecting Greece and Cyprus, their relations with the U.S., and the interests of the U.S. in the region.
Is Cyprus Ready?
By Alexi Antoniou
Cyprus is a place of intense contradiction. The flag itself speaks of this contradiction, portraying the landmass of the island but hiding the political reality of the division. Seeing the desecrated churches alongside well maintained mosques painfully reminds one that the island used to be harmonious between the two populations. These contradictions were painful for me, as a Cypriot, to see firsthand. The most painful experience was seeing the ghost city of Famagusta. Famagusta was once world famous for its pristine beaches and luxurious resorts. Since the Turkish occupation it has been completely fenced in and abandoned. The once proud city is now as empty as Chernobyl, and instead of fallout keeping the people from their homes, it is politics.
For such a small island, Cyprus has been the subject of intense conflict which ultimately resulted in the invasion of the island by Turkey and the division of the island between the ethnic Greek majority in the south and ethnic Turkish minority (and a large garrison of Turkish soldiers) in the north. This division, along with the atrocities and inequities it espoused, has continued for 37 years with nearly no move toward resolution. The problem was deemed to be a regional conflict, and the outside world treated it with little interest. Now, as Cyprus prepares to be president of the council of the EU, the world is ready to solve the Cyprus problem. But is Cyprus ready?
I spent the entire summer trying to find out if Cyprus was ready to move forward in the peace process. As part of the American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Cyprus and Greece I was able to see the problem first hand. I was unique participant on this trip because I was the only American of (Greek) Cypriot descent. In essence, I was the only one with skin in the game.
This made me stand out when meeting with Cypriot, United Nations, and American officials to discuss the latest issues in the Cyprus problem. During a meeting with the American Ambassador to Cyprus, Frank Urbancic, he outlined America’s policy regarding the Cyprus problem. The U.S. now supports a Cypriot solution to the problem whereby Cyprus will work out its negotiations without intervention by a third party. When I pressed Ambassador Urbancic about the involvement of the Turkish army's 40,000 troops on the island and their role as a third party to the process he said that the negotiations have not reached that far. Because the negotiations have not addressed the occupation of the island yet, the U.S. does not view Turkey as a third party, even though Ambassador Urbancic admits that Turkey is largely controlling the negotiations for the north. So the U.S. supports an internal solution as long as Turkey is considered an insider to the solution. Essentially the U.S. supports a status quo policy.
The U.S. status-quo policy seems to be outdated for three main reasons. First, the United Nations, still stinging from the overwhelming rejection of the Annan plan by Greek Cypriot voters in 2004 has recommitted itself to the peace process—this time under the Good Offices of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as administered by Special Advisor Alexander Downer. These talks are very different from the Annan talks of 2004 because they allow the Cypriots themselves to manage the negotiations, which is something the Annan plan did not.
Second, Turkey has backed itself into a political corner by threatening to cut off diplomatic relations with the EU when Cyprus assumes the presidency of the council of the EU in 2012. Cutting off diplomatic relations with the EU would not benefit Turkey. So now Turkey is faced with a choice: either cut off ties with the EU (unfavorable for Turkey), lose face and recognize Cyprus as the presidency of the council of the EU (also unfavorable for Turkey), or work to resolve the Cyprus problem. Turkey may very well seek a resolution to the Cyprus problem, especially in the face of their aspirations to join the EU and the recent criticism that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aimed at Turkey for their human rights violations.
Finally, the U.S. has new interest in Cyprus which has not yet affected U.S. foreign policy: natural gas. Noble Energy, a Texas company, has invested significant capital in natural gas exploration off the Cypriot coast. If Noble Energy finds the natural gas they expect, the U.S. will have a strong interest in seeing a stable, secure Cyprus. American foreign policy will quickly change to reflect that interest.
The next year is a rare opportunity for Cyprus; the world seems ready for a solution. Is Cyprus ready?
Opinion polls conducted on both sides of the island show that the Cypriot people want the island to unify (www.cyprus2015.org). However, the devil has always been in the details, not the will of the Cypriot people. The difference this time around is that the world is on the Cypriot peoples’ side. Cyprus is ready.
Alexi Antoniou has a BA in political science from the University of California at Irvine, and currently attends the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law where he focuses on international dispute resolution.
Fear and Disrespect: The Turkish Occupied Area
Constance Valarie Baroudos
As a participant of the AHIF Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Greece and Cyprus, I personally experienced the Turkish occupied area located in northern Cyprus. Turkish troops invaded the island on July 20, 1974 and continue to maintain their presence in the northern part of the country. While the state of the area can be read in books and discussed by pundits, the only way to truly relate and understand the state of the occupied area is by experiencing it in person. If I had not visited the occupied area, I would not be able to feel as passionately about the unfairness of the region as I do today. During my visit, I felt as though I had stepped into a horror film. What personally evoked the most emotion out of me in the occupied area were the desecrated churches, Turkish troops holding weapons in an offensive posture, and the deserted city of Famagusta.
As a Greek American, I hold my Greek Orthodox religion close to my heart and value its ability to keep Greek Americans close together in the United States. Unless an individual has been brought up in the church from birth it is impossible to understand the sadness I felt as I saw the way in which several churches had been destroyed. As I entered one of the desecrated churches, emotion overcame me. This church was extremely ill kept on the outside with weeds growing around the building and broken crosses carelessly piled in an open shed. Inside, the church was bare with mountains of pigeon feathers and feces.
I found myself trying to imagine what the church looked like with its proper interior of icons, pews, altar, and other components of Greek Orthodox Churches. I found myself experiencing chills and reminiscing about my childhood holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, which I spent inside my Greek Orthodox Church with my family close to my side. I wondered how many families once spent quality time in this very place, which was reduced to a bare building.
At the Byzantine Museum in Cyprus, I learned that many Greek Orthodox religious icons in the occupied area were stripped from the walls of churches and sold on the black market. When I first heard this, I felt a pain inside my chest, which made me realize how important the church is to my culture and how disrespectful it is for Turkish Cypriots and Turkish settlers to disregard valuable structures that symbolize our faith. As I left the church, I felt depressed and, ironically, motivated. I experienced a rush of passion to bring awareness of the occupied area to the masses and assist with a successful negotiation between the north and south of Cyprus. A successful negotiation between the communities would lead to the restoration of desecrated churches in the area, allowing them to be the beautiful buildings they once were.
As we drove along the road in the occupied area, I looked out the window and saw that one side of the road had deep ditches in the ground that looked like huts. Under these huts, Turkish troops stood and held M-16s in an upright offensive posture. I felt instantly violated and almost ducked to make sure I was safe if a Turkish troop were to shoot at me on accident or on purpose. The area was particularly peaceful and tranquil, which made their presence and arms completely unnecessary. When I learned that there are two Turkish troops per Turkish Cypriot in the north I was appalled! Turkish troops maintain presence in the occupied area as though they were in war.
Emotion completely overcame me as I drove around the city of Famagusta. As I peered through the wired fencing and barrels that surrounded the city, I saw the property and belongings of Greek Cypriots. I imagined myself as a Greek Cypriot that came home from work on July 20, 1974 only to find that I am being forced to leave the home I own and the belongings I purchased. I began to cry. After all, the property was not being used for anything useful. Homes were just deserted and not occupied by anyone. Greek Cypriots were removed and made homeless so that their properties and belongings could stand and serve no purpose.
The Turkish invasion and continuing presence in the occupied area of northern Cyprus is inhumane, violates international law, and the Geneva Conventions. While I was in Washington, DC I had the opportunity to view a documentary presented by The Assembly of Turkish American Associations. As expected, the documentary convinces its audience that Turkish troops must maintain presence on the island to keep Turkish Cypriots safe. This cannot be further from the truth. Turkey needs to remove all of its involvement in the area and allow Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots to reach an agreement that is tailored to their needs. It is absolutely unnecessary for Turkey to act as an imposing third party in the area and should remove its troops from the occupied area to allow the two communities to reach a workable agreement.
Constance Valarie Baroudos is currently an intern at Congressman Randy Hultgren’s (IL- 14) office in Washington, D.C. She received her M.A. in political science at California State University Fullerton. Baroudos was Treasurer of Pi Sigma Alpha (The National Political Science Honor Society), and a member of Phi Beta Delta (The National Honor Society for International Scholars).
A Stranger in Famagusta
By Joanna Kocani
The AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus was a remarkable experience. It ignited a flame within me that will burn for the rest of my life. Every morning prior to our meetings, I would enthusiastically walk to the lobby of our hotel and anxiously await going to our next meeting to listen to the speakers brief us about Cyprus’ unique regional survival fiasco. Sometimes, I would agree with the things they were saying and other times not so much. Nonetheless, they were sharing their experiences with us because to them we were a glimmer of hope.
We also visited ancient ruins to help us understand the rich history of Cyprus and the important role the country has played over the centuries and the millennia. In addition, we met with state officials to learn about the country’s current state of affairs. At first, they would speak to us about Cyprus’s bright past and then turn to the country’s complicated present. I learned that Nicosia is the only divided capital in the world and that the mayor of the ghost-town Famagusta leads only a small part of his acclaimed municipality because its’ northern areas were illegally invaded and have been occupied since 1974. Another puzzling fact about Cyprus is that as a member of the European Union it is living the dream of the EU’s founding fathers that of a united, free, and a prosperous Europe. Yet, the latter is only a dream for Cyprus because in reality it is divided and locked in the chains of Orientalism.
At last we visited Famagusta to see for ourselves what it is like to live in a country divided against its own will. It was one of the most exceptional experiences in my life. Not because of the desolate and demolished homes of an abandoned city but because of a peculiar encounter I had with a stranger.
We went to Famagusta on the Cypriot national holiday, the day of the Kataklismos (Flood Festival). As we exit the bus, I grabbed my camera while being instructed to use it with care. Frankly, I did not understand the purpose or necessity of such an order. We were outdoors in what looked like an “abandoned” city with a beautiful coastline and any photographs would be my printed memories of these moments. However, I would quickly learn through my own experience why cameras were considered a hostile “weapon.”
We all arrived at the coast. Everyone is scattered enjoying the few moments they had on the beach. I took out my camera and started taking pictures. First, I started to take photos of the deserted ten-story building facing the Mediterranean Sea, then of the Greek Cypriots celebrating in their hometown, and finally, images of the beautiful crystal clear blue water. All of a sudden I hear a male voice nearby hastily calling out “Miss., Miss., Miss.,” finally I turn my head and realize he was speaking to me. I responded “Yes,” and he said “Miss. No photos, no photos, no photos!” I replied, “OK. I’m sorry.” and put my camera down, terrified that he would attempt to take it away from me. Right then and there, I realized the scope and magnitude of the issue and quickly adjusted to its dimensions.
At that moment, I realized I was not in the European Union, but instead, a long distance away from freedom. It was and continues to be very difficult for me to understand the reasons behind such hidden motives. Does that “gentleman” truly believe that just because I put my camera down and stopped taking photos that the world would not find out about the hidden mysteries of occupied Cyprus? If he does, then he is living in darkness. Although frightened at the time, now I am glad I encountered that stranger because he allowed me to experience real life in Famagusta. Because of his reaction, I have a better understanding of the situation in occupied northern Cyprus and the discomfort the Greek Cypriots feel in their own home.
My conclusion from this trip with regard to Cyprus is that U.S. foreign policy has failed in one of the most critical areas of the world. Sadly, “history repeats itself.” Secondly, if the dream of the founding fathers of the European Union, Jean Monet and Robert Schuman, was to create a free, united, and prosperous Europe, then the EU was a disaster and Cyprus was the test.
Joanna Kocani is currently an intern at Congressman Gus Bilirakis’(R-FL) office in Washington, D.C. and pursuing a Certificate in Paralegal Studies at Georgetown University and received her BA from the University of "New York" Tirana.
Turbulence in the Eastern Mediterranean
By Alexandros LaBua
It has been thirty-seven years since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Yet, some 40,000 Turkish troops still maintain a presence on the island, making the Turkish occupied area one of the most militarized places in the world when compared to the number of civilians living there. While the Cyprus question remains unresolved, Greece has undergone sweeping change and currently finds itself in the midst of an economic crisis which may be the beginning of the most difficult and volatile era of its modern history.
The AHIF College Student Foreign Policy Trip to Greece & Cyprus gave me firsthand exposure to the political dynamics of these two nations, their policies, and how they relate to the United States. The program coordinated a series of meetings at which we were briefed by government officials, religious leaders, representatives from think-tank organizations, members of academia and the private sectors of both countries. The closing remarks of nearly everyone we met echoed a call for our generation to help shape the future of our ancestral homeland. Given the decisive role U.S. policy plays in the eastern Mediterranean and the ostensible influence we as American citizens have over that policy, this message was meant to resonate and inspire us. My experience overseas reinforced this view that the U.S. should reexamine its relationship with Turkey and take a more active role in forging a just solution to the Cyprus issue.
Ambassador Andreas Kakouris, director of the Office of the Foreign Minister in Cyprus, depicted current U.S.-Turkey relations as a “marriage of convenience” in which the U.S. seems fixated on not alienating Turkey. As a consequence, U.S. policies in the region, particularly vis-à-vis Cyprus, are consistently at odds with American democratic values such as the rule of law and basic principles of human rights.
We spent a day touring the occupied territory of Cyprus, an area that is only recognized by Turkey and that the UN has repeatedly declared to be an illegal and secessionist entity. With no international legitimacy, the occupied area doesn’t have any trade partners or an economy of its own; thus, the region’s impoverishment and vast underdevelopment comes as no surprise. To make matters worse, the Turkish government has sent over 200,000 Turkish settlers to live there. This practice breaks a wide range of international laws, is contrary to the Geneva Convention, and is radically changing the island’s demography.
Since the invasion and occupation began, approximately one-third of the Turkish Cypriot population emigrated from the island. Most of the remaining Turkish Cypriots disassociate themselves from the ethnically distinct mainland settlers and would prefer to see the island unified so they can absorb EU citizenship and improve their socio-economic status. Ironically, the Turkish government is doing just the opposite in its efforts to legitimize the occupied area.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of our tour was to see the overall attempt to rid the northern part of the island of its Greek identity. The Helsinki Commission, the Law Library of Congress, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have all documented the desecration of hundreds of churches throughout the Turkish Cypriot side. Since the borders opened in 2003, Greek Cypriots who fled the Turkish invasion in 1974 have revisited their villages to find their homes razed, settlers living on their property, and in some cases the cemeteries of their relatives demolished.
At our briefing at the American embassy in Nicosia, we were told that U.S. policy was to let the Cypriots write their own future. This approach however tacitly accepts Turkey’s illegal settlement and continued military occupation of the island, which are two crucial stumbling blocks in the framework of negotiations. Given the regional influence Turkey enjoys and the strength of its lobby in Washington, U.S. policy is unlikely to change anytime soon. Unfortunately, this is not the only instance where U.S. foreign policy favors American economic and geostrategic interests over the protection of human rights.
Looking ahead, despite the crisis facing the Eurozone today, the EU offers a better chance at moving forward. Although the prospect of EU membership is diminishing for Tayyip Erdogan’s government, the Turkish accession process allows Greece and Cyprus to constructively engage Turkey under the auspices of the EU’s criteria.
In a recent trip to the region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the importance of energy, noting that one way Greece can attract investment and resuscitate its economy is to take initiative in the advancement of clean energy technologies. In Cyprus, agreements have already been signed for hydrocarbon exploration. This could potentially serve as a catalyst for political change as profits from any discovered resources could be shared with the north in exchange for unification.
The far-reaching implications of the crisis unfolding in Greece show us just how interdependent the world has become. Global integration requires rules and institutions to govern international relations. The U.S. and EU need to use their influence to make this process work justly and equitably. At the same time, Greece and Cyprus must take action to strengthen their influence in Washington and take advantage of their positions in the EU to gain more leverage.
Alexandros LaBua received his bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from George Washington University in 2009. He has just returned from California where he had been working for a startup green energy company and is currently pursuing graduate studies in energy management and policy at the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University, Class of 2013.
Who’s Responsible to Lead the Nations?
By Cassandra Papas
This summer I was one of the fourteen students involved with the third annual AHIF’s Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Cyprus and Greece sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation to teach students of Greek or Cypriot descent about the countries’ foreign policies. Like many Greek Americans, much of my knowledge of the regional politics came from Wikipedia entries, family stories, and recent media coverage. For each country, there is one essential part missing from these collective sources. For Cyprus, it is the Turkish influence on island’s politics, and for Greece, it is pictures of Syntagma Square on the nights without violent protests.
When I told my friends I was going to Cyprus, most asked me what that is. I, too, had never heard of the island until I met Greek and Turkish Cypriots at my university. But upon entering the Republic of Cyprus I discovered the beauty I had heard about from those who call it home. The clean streets and large houses that cover the region give the impression of peace and stability in a turbulent region similar only in landscape.
By contrast, we spent half a day exploring the northern third of the island occupied by the Turkish military. The analogy here that I give to friends is ‘imagine that an acquaintance comes into your house once night unannounced…perhaps you allow them to stay, but soon you realize that they will not leave even upon request.’
Thirty-seven years later, Cyprus is at that stage. Since Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island that removed official Greek Cypriot representation in the north, the troops and people remain on the island exerting influence on all aspects of daily life. Moreover, Turkey continues to provide its ‘colony’ with Anatolian Turks to settle the island to maintain their demographics. These numbers create tensions between Turkish Cypriots, who generally accept and are accepted by the government and citizens, and the settlers, who no one seems to want. Cypriot officials claim that with U.S. assistance they could pressure Turkey to leave the island. On the other side, all U.S. officials we met in the embassies declare that they cannot solve the Cyprus issue, either for lack of information or for a desire to remain impartial. But this topic is not a matter of Greece vs. Turkey. This ‘problem’ is not about historical strife but about independence from the remnants of European colonialism.
Since the trip, I have heard from my Cypriot friends that they cannot trust their government to pressure America into action. Recently, following an explosion of the main power station, the government seized free electricity from the occupied area, acknowledging it as an entity from which they needed assistance. Citizens protested on the streets that they would rather live without electricity than recognize the Turkish occupation, but the president’s response was that the nation faced ‘difficult times.’ The U.S. has the power through its policies to empty Turkish troops from the island without endangering the mainland itself plus the positive relations to enact this gracefully. After all, Turkey must withdraw from Cyprus to enter the EU, an issue that Turkey wants resolved before Cyprus has EU Presidency in 2012.
Focusing on Greece, whose problems are much more complicated; the big topic on the agenda is the financial crisis. People ask me about this each day since my return. My one answer is corruption. I have not taken years of economics but I know that the world is suffering from poorly managed money and that Greece stands at the forefront of the dilemma. I previously visited Athens in 2007 and 2009. What I witnessed that was different in July 2011 was either determination on the part of citizens to persevere in Greece or a defeatist attitude due to government austerity measures. One viewpoint of the citizens I spoke with told me that they want to default to focus the attention of the international community to the hardships they endure. However, the opinion held by much of the urban population was to the contrary, defaulting would only encourage the country’s rampant corruption, and Greece must respond to austerity measures to tighten its control over the nation. I am of this mindset. There is no police force on the streets to monitor citizens who congregate outside the Parliament. The people have free reign until someone throws rocks or sprays tear gas. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is the leadership. For example, the current Prime Minister, George Papandreou, comes from a family of Greek PMs. In thirty-seven years, between 11 leaders, three were named Papandreou and two Karamanlis. What prevents new families from entering politics?
I cannot deny that Greece has financial problems both internally and externally, but the highlight of my experience was the aforementioned dichotomy of passivity or fear for the future of the nation. The government claimed that reform begins at the top and that it will try its best, but the people outside their windows claim they see no results. If the Greek government cannot perform for the crowd gathered outside their own windows, how can they expect to be heard in the EU?
Cassandra Papas is currently a junior planning to graduate spring 2013 at American University and pursuing a Bachelor’s in International Development and a minor in Education. She is currently doing a semester abroad in Ghana, West Africa.
Greek-American Generation Evolution
As I turn to my left an armed vehicle with soldiers are holding M-16s that are pointed right at us. I look to my right and I see wild snakes and hay. It was at that time that I realized I was officially in Turkish occupied Cyprus. As part of AHIF’s Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Cyprus and Greece, we traveled in a small bus with fake visas given to us by Turkish soldiers. We stopped by a Greek Orthodox Church. As we did, a feeling of immense anxiety emerged as we had to exit the bus. As a Greek American, I knew that I was fortunate enough to be able to see what many Greek Cypriots cannot. I knew it was my duty to take the risk and go outside the bus to document and take pictures of whatever I could, and so with this I got out of the bus.
I walked into one of the abandoned churches in Turkish occupied Cyprus, it was so desecrated that I did not realize that I was standing where as a female I should not be—behind the alter. The desecrated church from 1821 had only pigeon droppings in it. I did the sign of the cross and read a message written on the wall of the church. This message was written by a relative whose grandfather was buried in a desecrated grave outside the church. Adjacent to the graveyard was a well-maintained Turkish graveyard. Shortly after seeing this we had to leave because the neighbors took notice of us and were about to call the police which would involve the Turkish soldiers coming after us.
Living in the United States, I am fortunate to freely practice my religion and to be able to go to a church full of icons, choir men, and priests. I am fortunate enough to live in a community where people contribute to the church with their time and money so that it does not fall apart. Unfortunately, the churches from 1821 have no parishioners and priests, and have had the icons on their walls stolen and sold in the black market. These churches have become stables, cafes, and pigeon coops.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but no picture can truly grasp the feeling of watching the deteriorating and abandoned land of Famagusta. Famagusta has a beach filled with beauty but its beauty cannot be captured with a photo because of the law of the Turkish soldiers occupying the beach territory.
The group headed to Athens after we left Cyprus. In Athens, I was able to become part of history. We had the honor to meet the President of the Hellenic Republic Dr. Karolos Papoulias and to have meetings inside the Hellenic Parliament. Protests of the austerity measures Greece adopted to address its financial crisis took place right in Syntagma Square outside of our hotel. I had the honor of meeting “Kanellos” the protest dog and I spoke with protestors about issues for which they were fighting, many of which were native Athenians.
My trip to Greece and Cyprus evoked many interesting thoughts and ideas. I applied to this program to learn policy that would enable me to become a leader in the Greek American community and to help invoke change within the society. In an age of social media and reality television it is the new generations’ duty, especially the Diaspora, to make sure that our ancestral homeland’s issues are not forgotten. If we can get 1,500 people to sell out Greek concerts and fill Greek nightclubs, we can use those same outlets to get Greek American constituents to contact their congressional representatives to vote on matters pertaining to Greece and Cyprus. The Greek Diaspora is vast and it is the new generations’ duty to connect and stay together. It is only through unity that issues can become resolved, and our culture and religion can be preserved.
Margaret Skourlis is currently studying for her third Master’s degree in Computer Science from Queens College and simultaneously for a Human Resources Management Certification from Cornell University. She has a MBA and a Master’s degree in Political Science from Long Island University- C.W. Post Campus. She has an American Bar Association Paralegal Degree and Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus. She graduated top of her MBA class with Beta Gamma Sigma Honor’s and top of her Bachelor’s degree with Cum Laude.
The American Hellenic Institute is a non-profit Greek American public policy center that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and within the Greek American community.
AHIF Student Essays