After a meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) in Cyprus in 2019, the team at PeacePlayers Cyprus was forced to consider a very important question – what happens with the youth refugees coming to the island? With the outbreak of the refugee crisis, millions of people have been displaced from their homes and have had to flee to foreign countries to seek shelter. As the closest landmass to both Africa and the Middle East, Cyprus has the highest number of refugees (relative to its size) of any EU nation. Refugee youth on the island face a battery of challenges – from being put into the educational system without knowing the local language, to having to live without their parents or other family members, who often get left behind, and blending into the Cypriot community, which doesn’t always welcome these young people with open arms.
According to Jale, Managing Director of PeacePlayers Cyprus, after hearing the stories from UNHCR, they “sank lower and lower” into their chairs thinking how these kids are overlooked by the government and by other institutions, including PeacePlayers.
Although PeacePlayers Cyprus had always focused on the divide between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, refugees also experience their fair share of conflict on the island. “Cyprus is a very small island. Anybody that comes from the outside community is viewed very negatively. I generally think that Cypriots are against outsiders, because our education system perpetuates this level of racism, not just Greek Cypriots against Turkish Cypriots [and vice versa], but also other outside groups as well,” shares Jale. “This was an additional issue for the refugee youth that they have to deal with.”
Since that meeting in 2019, PeacePlayers Cyprus has made a point about reaching refugee youth. This shift started with an integrated Greek Cypriot-Refugee team, located near a refugee shelter to make activities more accessible. PeacePlayers also partnered with agencies working with refugees to actively recruit youth to summer camps, where they had the chance to “feel like a normal kid and not have to worry about what’s going on in their everyday life.” Jale knew that this was a great opportunity for everyone in the camp. “The idea is not that it is refugee kids or Cypriot kids, but it is PeacePlayers youth. There is no differentiation between them.”
As the next step, Jale thought about the need for representation. “We need to make sure that these kids have a coach that they can look up to and a coach that they can communicate with, somebody that speaks their language.” As a first step to solving this, PeacePlayers hired an Arabic speaking coach to make sure that the language barrier will not be an obstacle in bringing many of these kids together. For other languages, Cyprus hopes to build the capacity of current participants from refugee communities, so they can one day coach and serve as a bridge to other kids who speak the same language.
Bringing together youth from diverse backgrounds was not an easy task, Jale knew that this is a slow process and having the right foundation in place is what really matters. “It is not about ticking boxes, it is not about saying “Yes, we care about refugees,” it is actually providing the space and representation.” This shift has really made a mark on the team. “It is a whole new direction, one that makes us feel very proud of the organization we are.”