In the summer of 1974 Nicos Anastasiou bade farewell to his classmates as they all headed off for the summer break. Little did they know a short time after that conflict would divide their country.
“When we went back to school in September there were nine empty chairs in our class and I thought to myself: where are my Turkish Cypriot classmates?” said Nicos.
Twenty years later in 1994, Nicos had the opportunity to attend a bicommunal meeting in Nicosia’s buffer zone under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in Cyprus. He had sent a message with another friend to enquire into his nine friends, to see if they could join the meeting. As he approached the area, the quiet of the dead zone was replaced with voices, many of them and all calling his name. There they were – all nine of his former classmates, waiting to greet him.
“It was as if we never parted. Our friendship was still there like a treasure, intact” explains Nicos.
This personal story is one of many in Cyprus and Nicos’ story of friendship inspired him to create new and more friendships, this time bringing together students from both communities who may not have had the chance to meet each other before. They called it the Cyprus Friendship Programme (CFP) with the slogan “People united in a country divided”.
The CFP) is modeled after the all-volunteer Children’s Friendship Project for Northern Ireland (CFPNI), a peace and friendship building programme that successfully brought more than 2,000 Protestant and Catholic teens (as well as their families and their friends) in Northern Ireland together throughout its 21 year existence – the programme came to its successful completion in 2007. The CFP started in 2009 as an initiative of HasNa, a small US non-profit organisation in cooperation with a Cypriot team of coordinators, including Nicos.
How the programme works: Roommates for a month – friends for life
The CFP works by bringing teenagers aged 15 to 18 years old from both communities together in a series of meetings, with facilitated workshop activities on leadership, communication, reconciliation and peacebuilding skills. At the end of the workshops, each teen chooses one person from the ‘other side’ of the same gender with whom he/she feels comfortable. Each pair of teenagers and their families are introduced and in the summer, each pair of teenagers lives with host families in the United States, sharing a bedroom for a four-week residential.
Four formal activities take place during the residential (team building, conflict resolution training, community service, and civic engagement) and upon return from the U.S. residential, additional activities take place. Prior to the end of the year a CFP Graduation occurs. After graduating, each participant is required to participate in the CFP Alumni Programme and be further involved in bicommunal activities for at least one year.
The success of the first four years of CFP – 158 teens and their families
The bonds that have been created between the pairs, as well as the larger group, their families and friends are an example of the future we all want in Cyprus being brought to the present. They meet regularly both formally but also socially demonstrating to all that peaceful coexistence is possible in Cyprus. The young people who have been through the programme are doing radio and TV presentations of their peacebuilding work as well as conducting bicommunal presentations in schools and youth clubs on both sides of the island. Bicommunal presentations by youth to monocommunal audiences in schools is a very rare occurrence and in this sense the CFP are true leaders in opening new possibilities in peacebuilding work among the youth.
So one story of friendship has spawned hundreds more in a country where friendship between two communities had become rare because of the decades of division. Nicos’ story is proof that one person can and will make the difference needed!
You can watch Nicos’ full TEDx talk here.