Greek and Turkish Cypriot University Students Have More in Common Than Expected

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GREEK AND TURKISH CYPRIOT UNIVERSITY STUDENTS HAVE MORE IN COMMON THAN EXPECTED

During the first term of my Fulbright fellowship in Cyprus, the core group of Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots with whom I worked developed over 240 options for bi-communal activities. From this large number of possibilities, they selected 15 activities for inclusion in a collaborative action agenda. Noticeably missing from their agenda was any project directed toward university students.

Its lack of inclusion on the agenda was not due to the disconnectedness of the planning team from the younger generation. There were both recent and current university students included in the core group, and several of the participants taught in a university setting.

However, the group agreed that university students likely would be the most difficult group in Cyprus with which to work. Unfortunately, both the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot educational systems expose students to a biased and negatively prejudiced view of the other.

The news media exacerbate the situation, presenting one-sided views of both past and present events. Parents and family members often reinforce the images brought home by the children from school and absorbed through television.

Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible for children to grow up with any desire to meet their peers across the buffer zone. If anything, they learn to dislike and despise the other, and their only practice in "communicating" with someone from the other community is through slogans chanted across the barbed wire during days of protest and demonstration along the buffer zone. By the time they reach the university, the majority of students have little goodwill to which appeals might be made for their involvement in bi-communal activities. In light of this situation, it is easy to see how the planning team for peace-building activities thought it might be best to delay starting a student group.

Finally, however, we decided to take advantage of an opening provided in statements made by Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, during an interview conducted in English by a Greek Cypriot journalist and televised throughout Cyprus. In the interview, when asked about the effects of years of separation on the younger generation, Mr. Denktash suggested that the two sides should exchange a group of students, who would spend a few days living in the other community and learning for themselves about the realities of the other side.

When we initially assembled separate communal groups of university students to "test the waters" of the suggestion, neither the Greek Cypriots nor the Turkish Cypriots were confident that there were students on the other side who were genuinely interested in meeting with them. They were willing, however, to "give it a try."

The process of bringing any group together always involved a series of bureaucratic steps. First, the names and ID numbers of those participating had to be collected at least 10 days prior to the event. These lists were then sent to authorities in their respective communities.

For the Greek Cypriots, this list was given to the police at the Ledra Palace checkpoint on the south side of the buffer zone, where the participants would register before entering the strip of land that defined the 1974 cease-fire line. For the Turkish Cypriots, the meeting itself and the list of participants first had to be approved by the civilian authorities, then sent to the military authorities, and finally given to the guards at the Ledra Palace checkpoint on the north side of the buffer zone. Without one's name on the approved list, the guards were powerless to allow anyone to pass.

The full list of participants had to be sent to the United Nations guards stationed in the Ledra Palace itself, where an additional check was performed. In addition to the steps involved with creating lists of participants and gaining approvals from the authorities, it was also necessary to reserve one of the two available meeting rooms in the Ledra Palace, to arrange for food and refreshments, to bring in materials, equipment, and supplies needed for the meeting or workshop, to set up the room for the meeting, and finally to clean up the meeting space afterwards. …