Earlier this week, Ron and I had an unusual experience. A notice with the provocative title, "Transforming Enemies into Friends," appeared on bulletin boards where I live and gave a brief descrpition of the Cyprus Friendship initiative for teenagers from that troubled country.
The 90-minutes program was a boost for the 75 senior Americans in the meeting room, all of us overstimulated by bad news on the economy, the future of social security, the British tabloid mess.
Six young women, 16 and 17 years old, participants in this ambitious international program, told why it has been important for them to be far from their own country for a one-month stay with host families in Portland.
Three of them are from Turkish Cyprus, three from Greek controlled Cyprus. It was painful to hear how they have to live their lives where the two factions do not interact, the consequence of a war 37 years ago. To get a sense of the ethnic division in Cyprus, a quick look at this map makes it clear that there are two distinct parts--yellow and white. Each considers the other the enemy.
Each of the girls in the photo is sitting with her partner from "the other side" she has lived with for the past month. They spoke eloquently--and in excellent English-- about the pain of the split not only in their country but also in their families. What had been the response among family and friends to their participation?
Some families were reluctant for their daughters to attend, even fearful or opposed. Others were hopeful, like the teens themselves, that the opportunity to live in peaceful coexistence could be empowering for the girls and a model for a better future for Turks and Cypriotes. How powerful social media are around the world was brought home by the young woman at the right end of the table. On Facebook, yes, they are on Facebook, she could not believe the harsh reactions of some of her friends: she was equated with the enemy.
What she learned is that her partner in the program would be more of a friend in her future than some of these naysayers at home. All of them want to return here for college which they find "very expensive."
What struck them most about peers in America? That family ties were not as strong as theirs. They were proud of the connection they had to their own families, most of whom have spent generations struggling with ethnic conflict.
After their presentations, the girls were eager to talk with us old people. There's a surprise! Ron and I explained that the United States had its own history of people at odds with one another for reasons as unreasonable as those in Cyprus. Immediately, two girls spoke about their visit to Canada and learning how badly the native population had been treated by white explorers in earlier times. They were quite startled and wanted explanation when Ron remarked, "You know, we are all immigrants here."
Being in their presence lifted our spirits away from local or national concerns. All of us in the room expanded by sharing their hopefulness about the future.
HASNA, the sponsoring organization has a number of other programs for women, water and agriculture in Turkey. Their peace-building ograms in Cyprus began in 2001; there are other efforts directed to women, water and agriculture in Turkey. Support is needed with donations and for American families to hosting pairs of girls and boys in cities around the U.S., explained in detail at the Cyprus Friendship Program.