Cyprus has conquered the food world as the home of Halloumi – the delicious, stringy mint-infused cheese - however the island’s political situation is far from victorious. In 2024, Cyprus will mark 50 years of conflict because 37% of its territory remains under Turkish occupation. The United Nations has passed 90 resolutions in an attempt to solve the Cyprus problem and yet, there are still overwhelming obstacles to peace. However, perhaps Erasmus+ and the Turing Scheme could be the key to bridging the divide? Politicians at the negotiating table dominate the headlines but away from the limelight, it’s schools in Turkey and Cyprus that deliver real progress.
I’m a History teacher based in Larnaca, and I belong to the Greek-speaking community of Cyprus that mostly lives on the West side of the island. Growing up, I was told that I could only travel as far as the ‘Green Line’, the UN-designated fortification that runs from North to South, dividing the land from coast to coast. My only experience of ‘Turkish people’ was a rock concert in the buffer zone that I attended when I was sixteen. I remember huddling together with my classmates opposite groups of Turkish-Cypriot students who stared back with an equal sense of bewilderment. Since 2003, movement from either side of the Green Line is permitted however the relationship between Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots remains precarious and uncertain. The reunification of both communities is still a remote possibility, making the concept of friendship with someone from the ‘other side’ rather alien and peculiar to many.
It was within this context that our school embarked on a Comenius project in 2012 with a group of partners that included a school from Aksaray, a city in the heart of Turkey’s Anatolia region. Naturally, such a collaboration was at first received with apprehension and concern by many of my colleagues. It was daunting to be acquainted with an unknown society so deeply linked with dark days in the history of Cyprus. However together with other colleagues, I was looking forward to the rare opportunity of discovering Turkish culture from the happy domain of education.
Our first transnational meeting took place in Croatia. As with every mobility, the cultural interaction kicked off with introductions and smiles. The Cypriot and Turkish teachers faced each other with mutual awkwardness and inner turmoil. There was a civil shaking of hands although it was a subdued start to the week ahead. The next morning, I walked through a hotel corridor and in the distance, I saw one of the Turkish pupils approaching me. He appeared to be frightened and nervous and immediately I felt terrible at the thought of someone feeling uncomfortable in my presence. Luckily, I had taken Turkish lessons a few months before the meeting, so I said ‘Günaydin’, the Turkish word for ‘Good morning’ and instantly the boy’s face lit up with delight.
Later that day, we were taken to Zagreb for sight-seeing. We stumbled upon St. Mark’s church, a 13th century wonder that dazzles visitors with its beautifully coloured roof of red, blue and white tiles. It was this splendid mosaic feature that had me exchanging smiles with Hatice, a Turkish lady and teacher of English. She was incredibly shy and low-profile and fortunately, this wonderful landmark provided the ice-breaker to what became an equally remarkable friendship.
For the rest of the week, Hatice and I recounted the stories that teachers usually share – the funny moments in the classroom, the vision of our respective schools, typical anecdotes about the towns where we live. I had never heard of Aksaray before and now I was scrolling through photographs of its breathtaking scenery and finding out about its people. The following day, Hatice introduced me to her students, including the boy from the corridor. His name was Hamsa and he was a bubbly spark of joy, taking selfies and raising his hand at every opportunity so that he could speak and practice his English some more. The week was filled with joy and optimism for a very promising project.
Six months passed and then one evening, the Turkish delegation arrived in my hometown for the next mobility. My students and I greeted them at the hotel reception with warm hugs, just like a reunion with long-lost relatives. For the next seven days, our Aksaray friends settled in amazingly. They splashed around in the Mediterranean waters, they revelled in our delicious cuisine and embraced the warmth of the locals. In our conversations, Turkish and Cypriot teachers and teenagers discovered common words used in both languages; the beloved Mediterranean recipes that we both share, the love of traditional dancing that dominates our cultures. The final day of the mobility was one of heartfelt goodbyes, or rather ‘See you soon!’, as we exchanged telephone numbers and invited one another to visit our homes someday. The Turkish headmaster shook my hand and said ‘You and your colleagues are wonderful people and Larnaca will always be special to us’. It was then that Hamsa handed me a small book from his pocket – a Turkish edition of Rumi’s greatest quotes.
It was a week that touched our hearts forever. And that’s the essence of every Erasmus+ and Turing Scheme experience. Away from politics and preconceptions, teachers and students can communicate openly and freely within a safe space. It is a given with every exchange programme that interactions and exchanges can happen in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding. Every individual is able to express themselves without fear or prejudice blurring the outlook of their audience. History books have often confined societies to rigid views and interpretations but in the world of Erasmus+ and Turing Scheme, meaningful friendships can start from a clean slate.
Our school’s project was short-lived but the Christmas, birthday and Ramadan wishes continue. Our Facebooks and inboxes are frequented by warm messages and updates. This is more than just teachers and students moving around from time to time – ideas and feelings take great strides too.
This story shows only that Erasmus+ and the Turing Scheme are more than just work experiences abroad. It is encountering a new culture and sharing your own with locals. It also means accepting each other even if there are major differences that you might not be able to relate to. If you want to find out more about a possible Erasmus+ or Turing Scheme mobility in Cyprus, read our blog “Cyprus The Super Mobility”.
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