By Nadia Damouni and Sasha Damouni
Invoking images of a united Cyprus after three decades of political unsettlement, in which two culturally similar but militarily divided communities, Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots co-exist side-by-side may not be such a distant reality. But as generations of Cypriots living in their adoptive home of New York reflect optimistically on the current United Nations peace talks between the North and South of the island, others have yet to decide if reunification is a viable solution to the war-torn nation.
In the heart of Astoria, renowned for its Greek population, a group of youths congregate in the communal basement of an old club. Here, heated debates surround the current negotiations that began two weeks ago at the UN headquarters and have continued in the Cyprus capital, Nicosia, with an attempt to reunite the two sides ahead of the country’s accession into the European Union by May 1.
Nicole Papoulis, 17, an outspoken patriot among her Greek-Cypriot peers, instills a passionate view when describing her homeland. “I don’t believe Cyprus should reunite because there is already a shortage of jobs. Even though our economy is doing well, joining the European Union as one country will bring a large number of foreign people looking for work. This would simply cause a high unemployment rate among Greek-Cypriots.”
The young student, who was born and raised in Queens, admitted that she has only visited the south part of Cyprus, which is currently under the official control of the Greek-Cypriots and internationally recognized as its own republic as a result of Turkey’s invasion in 1974. Up to 37 percent of the northern territory occupied by 35,000 mainland Turkish troops and populated by 90,000 Turkish-Cypriots and 110,000 Turkish settlers, was declared a separate state in 1983, recognized only by Turkey.
In April 2003, both sides consented to opening their borders, providing the opportunity for displaced families to visit their former towns and villages. Phillip Christopher, president of the International Coordinating Committee for Justice for Cyprus, described how his birth right in Kyrenia, a prosperous town – now part of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – was taken away from him following the invasion that has since prohibited the return of its former Greek-Cypriot inhabitants.
“It is unfair that our homes have been sold in the North of Cyprus to Turkish-Cypriots and even foreign tourists, such as Germans and British. If I want to buy my own house back, I should not be turned away because of my Greek-Cypriot origins. This is undemocratic,” Mr Christopher stressed.
Skevos Andreou, a college undergraduate who came to New York due to extensive family ties, also agreed to this sentiment, adding, “I was able to visit my father’s land and home when the borders opened but found a Turkish-Cypriot family living there. They bought our house, which was confiscated illegally by the government and even sold a part of the original land to other Turkish families.
“Obviously, it will be hard to reclaim this property, but we will eventually seek compensation,” he said.
This is a crucial factor that a majority of Greek-Cypriots in New York argue needs to be prioritized as part of the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s peace negotiations. The plan aims to build two constituent states as part of a single “bi-communal” and “bi-zonal” federation. With the participation of Greece and Turkey, two of the guarantor nations, Mr Annan specified that a “concentrated effort” would be made by all parties to provide “separate and simultaneous referenda” before the EU deadline.
However, Joey Murad, 69, a Turkish-Cypriot retiree living in Queens who has avidly monitored events in Cyprus since leaving his home in 1953, expressed his concern that a reunification may not be the best solution as both sides have already established themselves within their own national frameworks. “I believe if the Greek-Cypriots get the upper hand in the negotiations and join the EU along with us, they will eventually do away with the Turkish guarantor.
“I still feel the idea of enosis [Greek for unite] is still very strong between the Greek-Cypriots and Greece and this will be a source of tension, particularly if the two communities co-exist once again.”
As the former president of the Bronx-based Turkish-Cypriot Aid Society, Mr Murad indicated that he had no intention of moving back to Cyprus, not only because his parents abandoned their house and property in the southern town of Lefkara during the conflict but his livelihood and extended family relations, including four grandchildren, now consider New York their home.
“My children and grandchildren are American. Even though I have tried to teach them aspects of our culture and have even taken them to visit the North of Cyprus, they know this is not the town from where their grandfather was born and therefore don’t have a strong affinity to the land.”
Colleague and friend, Ali Sencer, 63, also noted that his sons had a reluctance to move from New York because their attachment to American culture was stronger than their desire to return. “My children feel that Cyprus is a foreign country. They treat it as any other part of the world, a place to travel at the summer time,” he said.
But Mr Murad and other members of his generation, both Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot, have indicated that the U. S. has provided them with the opportunity to express personal freedoms that they were unable to exercise before their initial departure from Cyprus.
Turkish-Cypriots are predominantly located in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington, with a population estimate between 2,000 and 3,000. By contrast, approximately 50,000 Greek-Cypriots live across the United States, half of which reside in New York.
Despite a mixed sentiment towards a reunification of the island, Maria Zoupaniotis, press counsellor of the permanent mission of Cyprus to the UN told NY News Network that the talks will aim to reach an agreement for a “final comprehensive settlement” in Cyprus, which would protect fundamental human rights, while the two federated states would enjoy sufficient autonomy.
She added that a solution would benefit the Turkish-Cypriot community more significantly than their Greek-Cypriot counterparts as 30 years of “isolation as a result of the Turkish occupation and difficulties on travel and trade had impeded economic and social development in the occupied part.”