Melissa Hekkers is a freelance journalist and creative writer, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus.
Recently, she has been focusing on developing her writing, promoting her own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. Her most recent publication (2018)—MY Cape Greco Mandala—which is the third in a series, is a colouring book inspired by the biodiversity of the Cape Greco Peninsula in Cyprus. The second one in the series (2017) is based on the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula in Paphos, Cyprus. In 2016, she published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia.
Melissa also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: she writes about migrants, both as a reporter and a features writer; profiles them and teaches them creative and script writing skills.
In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, she published her first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, she launched her second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which she was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. Her third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, she published her first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth.
‘There! This is the place!’ points Max, pulling out an advertising leaflet from his back pocket.
We both stood at the heart of the busy Solomou Square, having just got off the bus.
‘Can you see? This is the leaflet the agent showed me back in Cameroon. He told me this was the backyard of the college campus in Nicosia.’
Dumbfounded, I was looking down at the Tripoli Park within the moat of the old town. I cringed as I acknowledged the tactics used to lure migrants into coming to the island, not just to study, but to accommodate the jobs that locals perhaps don’t want to indulge in or don’t have the time for. Who wouldn’t want to own the upbringing of their children?
Max brings me back to the present, pulling me onwards through the crowd. He wants to show me how he spends his days as he awaits for his pending application for asylum.
I want to justify Cyprus’s stance towards opening its doors to migrants back in the late 80s. Locally there was a gap in the economy and before the financial meltdown a couple of years ago, the island was prospering andcould afford the helping hand of foreign nationals. Amongst the daunting stories about the manner in which migrants are treated on the island, there were some positive ones. I wanted Max to meet Lillie who for the past fourteen years has made Nicosia her home. Now, when she goes back to the Philippines, she feels like a stranger there. If she could bring her nuclear family to Cyprus, she would make it her home indefinitely.
But I also know why Max left his country in pursuit of a better life, and how that dream was shattered when he began to experience what it means to migrate to an island where migration policies fluctuate insistently.
When I first met Max, he had just been told that the local college he had paid a substantial amount of money to register for before he left his home country was a fraud. That the promises that once in Cyprus, he could travel to other European countries during academic breaks was a lie, and that he wasn’t, after all, allowed to work as a student. He still had to pay his rent and working illegally was his only option to get by.
‘This is where Marichelle used to work. By work, you know what I mean,’ Max tells me as we pass a dubious night bar off Rigainis Street. It’s daytime and that awkward silence lurks outside these locales, an ambiguous silence of what happens behind doors in the later hours of the evening.
Marichelle paid six thousand US dollars to an agent in the Nepal who had offered her a job working as a waitress in a restaurant. I hear her soft spoken voice telling me ‘…but he did not tell me that he would bring me somewhere where people would come to make love with me. He didn’t tell me that, because if he tell me something like that, I don’t follow him.’
Like many others who have been smuggled onto the island, they envision that through building a new life in Europe, they will be ‘accepted’, they will be somewhat relieved of the life they leave behind. ‘I will have a new life, people will not judge me; will not treat me like I am monster’, Marichelle had explained.
‘Have you heard Marichelle speak Greek? I’ve been here a lot longer than her but I don’t speak Greek like her!’ smiles Max. We’ve almost reached the Saint Joseph’s Convent where we’re meeting Ayline but we sit on the steps outside the Phaneromeni School to wait for a while.
‘You know, there’s a legend about this place,’ I say, looking towards the AyiaTsambika Church to our left. ‘It’s said that in the medieval times there used to be an underground tunnel that the ladies of the Louisignan Palace near Ayia Sofia used to make their way over here so that they wouldn’t be seen,’ I tell Max.
He looks out towards the north. He doesn’t say anything for a while until, looking down at his feet and cell phone, he confides quietly, ‘I wish there was a tunnel I could just disappear through. That’s honestly how I felt when I was detained in Menoyia for nine months when I was caught working.’
Max lifts his head up. Eyes closed he really begins to speak. ‘In Menoyia it’s more like torture. You know, there was a doctor there. You have a headache it’s panadol, you have a tooth ache it’s panadol, you have stomach problem, you have a sore leg or anything, everything is panadol, there was no other medicine, just panadol and vitamins... So every time you get sick you have to write a letter saying you want to see the doctor and when you go to the doctor he will just give you panadol, …this was the only treatment they give in the prison. And the food wasn’t enough, it wasn’t okay. They would call us names like Mavro, poushtoMavro, it means gay black, poushtomavro, pezevengki.’
I’ve heard these name-callings on so many occasions. I don’t know what to say, except to comfort him and remind him that he’s out now, it’s behind him.
‘Yeah, I know. But who do you trust?’ he asks me. He now knows Cyprus won’t be his home for much longer. ‘It was difficult to trust a lawyer, or pay money, people lost too much money in that prison. These were the challenges we were facing every day and the worst part of it was you were in prison. You don’t know your sentence, there’s no time limit, you can be there for one month, you can be there for two months or a year or two years, there’s no time limit, only on paper does it say that in some cases you can stay there for six months but after that they have to let you out.’
‘You can trust me,’ I say as I stand up ready to make a move. ‘Come, let’s go,’ I gesture, I want to change the heavy tone, I want to take away the burden he and so many others carry on their journey here.
I know Ayline can turn this around. She’s a mother figure to so many migrants in Nicosia. I sometimes feel that my privilege as an EU citizen cannot match my compassion, that speaking on my behalf just doesn’t make do. I want Max to find his voice and the means to express himself. I want Marichelle to return to her parents and recover from her wounds after having been trafficked and sexually assaulted. I want Ashank to see his daughter once again, after eleven years apart. I want Kim to be allowed to make Nicosia her home for she has no one and nowhere else to turn to.
We carry on walking. We pass the Arab quarters, acquainted with barbers and halal meat stores. I keep pace but Max stops outside his local store, where he and his friends spend most of their money to buy countless phone cards to call home or address local authorities. If phones could talk, I think to myself. Only then would I truly know what really goes through Max’s mind.
Turning to face the other side of the street we’re standing on, I realise we’re standing outside one of the only places Max feels at home, the only place perhaps where he can be himself. Standing outside the entrance of the old apartment building, this is the place where he celebrated his 26th birthday a couple of months ago. There’s no one in right now as it’s only used on Sundays. Each of them – or those who can pay thirty euros a month each – rent an apartment for just one day a week. But they make the most of it, often leaving the premises at 5am to get to work on Monday morning. It’s where they rest, eat together, laugh. It’s also were they wait.
It’s where we’re family, as Pina would agree, a young Vietnamese who fled from her employer in Limassol. ‘He didn’t treat me as a family, because if he treated me as a family he will not have said all these things to me, he said to me: I like you, I want you to come in my bed, like this, I told him I don’t like because I’m a married woman, I have children in Vietnam,’ she had once told me.It was also Pina who envisioned making a house for poor children in the future. ‘I want to take these children from the road, or people who have nothing to eat, who have no clothes. I want to help them. If god helps me, I will do this. This is my promise. Because I know how it feels. I don’t know what a mother and father love is like. I still want that, but how do I get that, I lost everything.’
Outside the St Joseph’s Convent, Ayline comes out to meet us holding her cell phone in hand, the only means of communication she has to talk to her two children. As the coach of the Survivor Volleyball team, she’s been coaching a team of young Filipina for the past twelve years. I realise that’s where we’re heading; the volleyball pitch behind the Municipal Swimming pool.
Having made it to the league of the Filipina Volleyball Tournament in Nicosia, they were the champions of the junior team in 2015 and runner up in the senior’s category in 2016. The team has expanded and now has women from Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh playing for them.
‘It’s better because we can get to know other nationalities, not only Filipinos, we can know them as well and not only see them walking and we can get to know their past,’ Ayline tells me with pride.
‘With the team it’s very important to have a good relationship out of court and in the court, it’s not just go there and play. You also have to have an out of court relationship. So everybody is very close to me I would say, whenever there is a problem among the group, I will know.’
This is so different from the atmosphere in Kofinou, reflects Max. ‘We live in containers there. There’s four of us crammed in the rooms. It’s okay for people like us who don’t have anything, at least you have a roof over your head and it’s a container, and then they have an AC but they control the AC. We don’t have remotes.’
Seeing the comradery of all the ladies dressed in their volleyball kits, I doubt if any of their employers know anything about this opportunity for them to celebrate a sport they played back home. Panayiotis, a customs agent in the old town surely knows: he sponsors their participation in the championship.
Agents start the whole process by preparing job descriptions. ‘They will search, through their database what ladies are suitable for this job. They will tell them that we have this job for you in Cyprus. If they accept they will sign, then we prepare the paper work. Sometimes there are Skype interviews, sometimes there are phone interviews, we’re just trying to minimize the risk because when you join two people there’s always a risk,’ were Andrea’s words. ‘…Cypriots are so demanding. By the end you have spoiled your relationship with them. I’m trying to avoid that risk because it’s a big risk and as an employment agency it might be bad but I don’t want to get involved in that.’
It’s getting late and I want to make my way home. Max offers to walk me back to my car. We pass a firm spread of tagging on the back walls of the Municipal Arts Centre on our way.
‘Refugees Welcome’, it reads.
What about migrants though?
At Famagusta Gate it’s time to part. We say goodbye with a mutual understanding that we may never see each other again. His status is so ambiguous, he may be waiting here for an answer for the next six months. Or he may leave tomorrow.
Driving off, I imagine the stance of Famagusta Gate during the Venetian rule. Then, the gates would open to the general public with the sun rise and close when the sun went down. Whether you made it in or out of the walled city very much depended on timing, status, social class, occupation. Nationality. Perhaps.
This piece was written based on interviews carried out with migrants in Nicosia in 2015 - 2016 for the exhibition ‘Island in the Sun’ by MarenWickwire and Melissa Hekkers, first presented at the Goethe Institute Zypern as part of the Buffer Fringe Performing Arts Festival. All names have been changed to secure the privacy of interviewees. Island in the Sun was published in the anthology ‘Nicosia Beyond Borders, Voices from a Divided City, Saqi Books, 2019.