Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Peaceful Coexistence in the Diaspora,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Larnaca, Cyprus
Production Team:
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Samar is from Syria but emigrated to the United States to continue her studies.  During the time she was studying at university, she met her Cypriot husband and decided to go back to his homeland to settle there.  She says, "I arrived in Cyprus when I was 24 and now I'm 55."

Samar worked at the Syrian embassy in Nicosia, and this put her in direct contact with the Syrian community and she built extensive social relationships. She considers that this "maintained my Syrian identity because my interaction with the Syrians reduced my sense of loneliness, being new to Cypriot society. Then gradually I started interacting with the local community and it helped me as I was one of the few who spoke Greek. Work gave me a feeling of independence."

After her work at the embassy, Samar started teaching English in special institutes in Cyprus. She considers this experience allowed her to learn about the education system in Cyprus and also involved her in Cypriot society. She says, "it was easy because I came to live with a Cypriot family as they were emigrants from the north, I got to know the history of the island and the story of their lives."

Through Samar’s work teaching natural science classes, she had contact with students of different nationalities who attended her classes.  She noticed that there were differences in the way they adopting the customs and traditions of society. She says, “The Arab mothers used to prevent their children from imitating the local people and discouraged it by saying, “Do you want to become Cypriots? Do you want to do things the way Cypriots do? etc. Of course, I am not saying that all the locals welcomed the refugees with open arms. The locals here had a theory that the Arabs were Muslim and the Muslims were Turkish. The deep conflict between the Cypriots and the Turks is well known and this caused great mistrust when dealing with the Arab refugees. I personally suffered from this.” She remembers she was asked, "Did your husband convert you from your own religion to Christianity? I used to tell them that I was originally a Christian, which surprised them because they did not know that there were Arab Christians."

Samar considers that the Cypriot society "loves foreigners because it was closed off for a long period of time and did not receive waves of asylum". However, that changed in the nineties with the arrival of asylum seekers, especially the Palestinians of Iraq. She says, "Their presence affected the way the local population viewed refugees due to the crisis of accumulating aid checks."

Samar worked in translation with many organisations and agencies specialising in asylum and other affairs, and she became very familiar with the movement of foreigners from Arab and non-Arab nationalities. She notes that integration became a requirement for the most recent wave of asylum that started few years ago. "Refugees prefer to stay in the aid program so that they can work outside the scope of the job centre and earn two salaries every month. After working at the Kofinou camp in 2016, I found that many refugees, after making an asylum application, applied for accommodation despite having obtained a work permit. There is a lack of awareness about whether this benefit depends on whether the person is a refugee or a citizen looking for a job opportunity - a refugee does not have the right to search for a job opportunity, despite what some believe. The European Union does not provide salaries; there are integration programs, a program for language education etc. I think the Republic of Cyprus is deficient as it does not provide language education for refugees.”

Samar is now separated from her husband and is no longer part of a Cypriot family but her children still live with her. She thinks that being of a religion that reflects the nature of the country has helped a lot with integrating as she is viewed as a Cypriot rather than a foreigner with Cypriot nationality. She says, "Religion has a strong influence here but the most powerful factor, in my view, is the language. I became fluent in Greek, as you know, but I had an English accent and so they asked me, ‘Are you a British Cypriot?’ I would tell them I was Syrian and they would reply, ‘you are a Cypriot as long as you speak our language’. They did not ask me what my religion was and whether I was married etc. The deciding factor was language."

Despite the passing of the years, Samar has retained her conservative Syrian identity and the culture of her homeland.  “From the start, my identity was not affected" she says. For example, she still visits her mother-in-law and calls her "Mama”. She says, “When she used to tell me that I was a Cypriot, I would answer that I was Syrian and I loved Cyprus.” She says that when she started volunteering as a translator her Arabic language skills started to improve again. She says, “This work changed me as a human being but it did not change my identity as a Syrian. I became more respectful to men in general, Syrian or non-Syrian. There are Syrians and non-Syrians on ships carrying refugees so our work must be independent of any political opinion.”