Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Memories of refugee children in my life…

Memories of refugee children in my life…

Sevgul Uludag

Tel: 00 357 99 96651
00 90 542 853 8436

My first encounter with the refugee children was in Nicosia in the backyard of the library where my mother was working… It must have been the early winter of 1964 – all of a sudden, there came Turkish Cypriot refugees from Paphos and were settled temporarily in some empty buildings in the backyard of the library… The library building itself had been a `konachi` once upon a time so the buildings in the backyard must have been for the servants of the pasha… Spending all my time in the library as a child from the age of three, I started playing with the refugee children in this old `konatchi` (`palace`) which had a dark cellar, winding stairs, gilded mirrors and toilets outside as it used to be in the old days…
It also had a water reservoir and taps in the backyard for washing up – it had no shower or bathroom so the refugees would create a bath in one spot in the backyard – a makeshift room with lamarina – in order to be able to wash themselves…
They had brought their weaving machines from Paphos and I would sit and watch the refugee women weaving clothes – an old woman would be using a sheave to wind thread out of wool and I would watch them using a hand mill of stone to grind cereals…
I had made friends with a wonderful refugee child from Paphos, Melahat – she had blond hair and blue eyes and was very thin and we would play for hours with her…
In the backyard of the library an aid office for refugees had been opened and together with Melahat we would go and watch the chubby elderly guy in charge distributing the aid that would arrive from abroad… There were big bundles of raffia ribbons, clothing and even a fur coat… Someone who donated these must have been very imaginative: What would a refugee do with the bundles of raffia ribbons? They needed food and shelter and a decent life…
Food was rationed in those days, not just for refugees but for almost everybody… Not far from the library was another office for rationing food and petrol. There was no petrol I remember, you were only allocated so many gallons of petrol per month so my mother and I would have to walk home instead of using our old Volkswagen… The food they distributed for refugees were made up of canned food, some sugar and flour and lentils I remember…
But in those days Melahat and I did not have such things on our minds – as 5-6 year old kids, our biggest worry was to grow up quickly, to start school, to play games… The elementary school I was going was not far from the library which was in the very centre of the walled city of Nicosia. My school was in the Arabahmet area around Victoria Street and was actually a makeshift school: It was sort of `created` for the children of the refugees and the Arabahmet area… It was next to the famous Pavlides' garage and here in this building, I would learn to read and write, to count, to recite poetry, to dance with the music of Strauss, to sing songs and learn to play melodica… We had an orchestra and a chorus – there were very few rich children at our school – our school was a school for children who were poor or who were refugees… There was a rectangular yard of the school and the road passing in front of the Pavlides' garage – we would have
our PT lessons in the street because there was nowhere else to do this! My white shorts would get dirty from the asphalt but still this was no issue for any of us: All we thought of were the new games or the next school gathering for parents at the end of the year where we would be distributed roasted chick peas and a bottle of Belkola – we would throw the roasted chick peas covered with salt in the cola and listen to the noise it made! We were one big family of kids who came from poverty but poverty was not a sin, nor was it something to be ashamed of – you just learned to live with it although poverty would steal a lot of our childhood dreams…
And we had wonderful teachers – one teacher I remember prepared us to dance as butterflies with the music of Strauss… We had yellow chiffon wings that our mothers would sew on our dancing costumes… Our music teacher Nesrin would play songs with her accordion in class and our headmaster Fikri Karayel would choose five-six of us to go to private lessons in his house in the afternoons in our last year in order to prepare us for the English College exams for free – all of us whom the headmaster had prepared voluntarily would pass the exams with flying colours…
The English College was created after the intercommunal conflict in 1963 and was a school very much like The English School – because of lack of safety – people were `disappearing` from the streets – some of those Turkish Cypriot students who had been students of The English School could no longer go there for safety reasons… So The English College was created and this was a school that prepared students for the GCEs… It was an expensive school because all the books were imported from England and I remember my mother struggling to pay for those school textbooks…
After some time, a refugee village was built for the refugee families and my refugee friends from the library backyard moved into tiny refugee houses not far from Ortakeuy. We were growing up and moving to secondary schools and while I lost contact with most of the kids from that era, few of them in fact were in my class at The English College. Melahat with her family I heard, moved to Australia… Papatya from my class also moved as a refugee to Australia…
The English College would undergo another big change in 1974 – more refugee children would come to our school from Larnaka and Limassol and Paphos and gradually the name of the school would be changed to `Turk Maarif Koleji` (`Turkish Education College`) and it would lose its essence of being an `English school` - now students would not only prepare for GCEs but also for the university entry exams of Turkey so students would have to take more lessons in Turkish… During the time of The English College, teachers for French would come from France, teachers for various other subjects would come from England but gradually this would be wiped out and the school would acquire a different character than when it started off…
At The English College, the atmosphere would be a bit different from the Arabahmet Elementary School… We would have more `rich kids` in our school as well as children of refugees from all over the island. Here, I would be in the same class with Neshe Yashin, our famous poet with whom we would spend time outside school as well in the library or in her father's bookshop… Neshe too was a refugee child from Peristerona… Neshe's father, another famous Turkish Cypriot poet of those times, Ozker Yashin would publish a newspaper and write about the problems of the refugees… A refugee himself from Peristerona, he would be the spokesperson for the Turkish Cypriot refugees… Years later Neshe would visit her village and some Greek Cypriots would give her plates that had belonged to her mother and she would see and recognize some of the furniture that belonged to her mother… Their house had been looted…
As young students we would go around old Nicosia, write notes in class to each other, spend time in the library and Neshe would write poems… After 1974 she would write her most famous poem that would leave a mark on our hearts and souls: Which part shall I love?
`One should love one's homeland
So says my father
But my homeland is divided into two
Which part should I love?`


Photo: Neshe Yashin

(*) Article published in POLITIS newspaper on the 26th of April 2015, Sunday.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Letters from the heart of Maria…

Letters from the heart of Maria…

Sevgul Uludag


Tel: 00 357 99 966518
00 90 542 853 8436

I receive a letter from a reader, Maria from Lysi written in the language of the heart – her letter is so touching that I want to share it with you… I write to her to ask for her permission to publish it and she sends me a second letter, even more touching… Today I share with you the two letters from the heart of Maria:
First letter:
I am writing in the language that I know. But even if I knew yours, again I would write to you in the language of the heart.
I read your column unfailingly every Sunday and even if I throw out the newspaper, I always keep your page as a document for the book you are writing in our hearts, about life. Our life, our island's life, our country's.
I must confess that at the beginning two things seemed strange to me.
The first was the writing of the villages where we were born and lived our years, with foreign letters, "pseudonyms", which I want to believe that were baptised by a godfather, an illegitimate son of the war.
Then I noticed that the previously written Trikomo became Trikomo again, and previously written Lysi became Lysi again. Even if they name me Yasemen, I do not mind. But how can we rename memory to Akdogan?
The other thing was the search inside wells. I believe that anyway, we bend inside wells to see the water, or as my father was also doing, when he returned to his old village, in his old mandra, he threw a stone in his old well, to hear the sound of life. To see, as he said, if there was water.
I believed that we should not be looking inside wells for bones. The souls have been liberated and have flown like butterflies towards the light. Even if no one cried for them. Even if they hid their flight from our eyes.
I believed that we should not be looking for death inside wells. Even though I heard from my father the story of a Turkish Cypriot couple with a baby in their arms who were caught by Greek Cypriots and after they were killed, they were thrown in a well. One of the killers, when he was drinking and his soul was on fire and was burning him, he was yelling "the baby, the baby" as if he was saying "I have sinned, I have sinned".
How did we come to this point, both you and us, our souls laden with so much guilt of centuries, which still burdens even our steps? That we are walking the road of one breath for forty one years and we still have not come to meet each other!
How did we come to this point, both you and us, to find the homes that we were born in destroyed and outside the village piled up in different piles our earth and not to be able to identify them with our lives? Whose life is the one pile and whose is the other.
How did we come to this point, both you and us, to be identifying bones to be able to cry and to light a candle in the memory of the people who became life's fertilizer and who without giving us a message, flew to the light and we stayed in the darkness? Until we receive their bones.
How many lives were lost both in the wells and in the earth of the ruins?
I was saying, reading your column at the beginning, that we need to turn the page in our life. Enough bones in small boxes. I was in a hurry to turn the page, without reading it. To understand that for some people it is necessary. To understand, that by identifying death, we are burying with honour our guilt too. So that we do not burden them to our children. To understand that by identifying death our souls are also resting and being illuminated. They take light from the "missing" souls, who patiently wait to be "erase" one by one from a long list.
If I hastily turned the page, it would have remained unread and I would not learn how can the burial give birth to forgiveness and redemption. Understanding. And it is good what you do, that you give solace and the answer to the heart of all of those that live with a "why". They have the right to learn, to cry, to be redeemed. So that we can smile and shake hands, even from the distance of half an inch on the map.
Lately I read about Esra Aygin's experience in the two countries of one land, which is crossed by a river of now clean waters. She will have definitely imagined, as the song is urging us, our island as a whole. Without the invisible river which is crossing it with still murky waters from tears and blood.
I did not imagine it, I lived it. Here is also my story.
Sunday, at Apostolos Andreas, on his festival day. (I made his celebration, as my heart should have done, to honour his memory and to thank him for saving my son Andreas in an accident that he had, last year on his nameday.)
We finished and on the way back we reached the checkpoint. We passed it. And at some point I hear my husband saying "Here is my cousin's house". And I wondered, surprised "What is he saying? How come? Where am I?" Alzheimer's?
I was under the impression that we had not passed from the checkpoint, when we had already travelled for five minutes away from it.
I was under the impression that we had not changed position in the horizon. My whole soul, serene, was living a reality like a dream. Free from procedures and checks. Because the part of my soul which stayed behind, by not understanding where and when the north ended and where and when the south began, gave me a sign, that it was now coming with me.
I saw our island, as one. As it is. Without a river. With a sky which we do not look at, because our eyes are on the earth.
The house where I first saw the light, is in its place. No one is taking it on his shoulders. It is written in my soul. Even if Mustafa stays there with her permission. It is not burdening me.
The house where I first saw the light is inside my heart. I have my land. And I take it where I go. And it is with me, wherever I am.
I see our country whole, as I feel my heart in one piece. And I love it without wondering "why" or "which one of the two".
Stay well Sevgul.
I salute you from the heart, Maria.`

Second letter:
Thank you for listening to my heart. And if its words, are the same heartbeats in other people's hearts, then I am triply happy, that I am uniting in their rhythm. I feel that all together, we have an enormous heart. A heart which grows and grows and makes the miracle visible.
We deserve peace. We deserve a clean sky to draw on it, with all kinds of colours, bold and clear, our life. To draw well and truly, all those that the stars did not have the time to write.
As Kyriakos from Larnaka also told you "you have made the darkness brighter". We gather around you. All of us who have faced the darkness, were burnt and are sending it away from inside us, now we are small scattered dots that sparkle shyly. All of us united, we can give to our country the sun. We strengthen each other. We get stronger to do good, to create love, to make steps of the soul that bring us closer together.
I wrote the letter for you. With words that are superfluous inside me and are flooding. I came to the day that I opened my heart, I dared to spread it and to touch you like your words touch me every Sunday. Like the words of the people touch me, that confess to you their thoughts, feelings and their stories and I translate their message in my heart, that we are one. I realise that I feel, all that they feel. That they speak my words. This touch, I keep it in my heart and it warms me. You cannot imagine what a blessing is to have this sensation. To feel like you and you like me. And with the letter that you read, it is as if I touched with my heart, through you, the hearts of all of your readers. And I felt their beneficial touch like a push to "do". To act. And not only to feel, to think and to write. I owe it to the memory of Kemal.
Kemal was a Human. The only one who was around and helped my father, to stand on his feet, our first days in Dromolaxia. And every day that he was coming to our home and was sitting to have a coffee with my parents, I was hiding so as not to see him. And he was looking for me and was calling me "Maria! Maria!".
How could he realise that I was in such darkness? How could he see it, that I as closing my heart to his face and he was calling me to open up to him?
Let him hear me now, wherever he may be, that I am calling out to him a big "thank you" and a big "sorry". Because he was the person who held out his hand and supported us. And not even a "Christian" was around to do that…
My name is Maria and I was born in Lysi. I have two sons. Andreas and Efstathios. Efstathios is the one "typing" the letter on the computer and he is the one who answered to your first message (he told me the next day, shortly before we received your second message), while I was telling him "Wait for the day to pass". Youth is impatient.
I think it is time to seize the moment, like the youth, and not wait for the day. Not to "need the time" to get going. To leave my comfortable chair. Not to look at the sky, only through my window. To walk in our island and to come together with people. Like my soul wants it too!
Thank you Sevgul. Always be well.
P.S. You can, if you want, publish the letter. This way others will also feel that we speak the same language.`


Photo: A well in Kontea where a Greek Cypriot woman was buried in 1974…

(*) Article published in the POLITIS newspaper on the 19th of April 2015, Sunday.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The invitation…

The invitation…

Sevgul Uludag


Tel: 00 357 99 966518
00 90 542 853 8436

As years go by, the problems of our island are more and more aggravated… Our youngsters are still at military posts and `barricades` with guns on `duty` while young people, just like their grandmothers and grandfathers did 50 or 60 years ago are immigrating to other countries in search of a job… Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots, Armenian Cypriots, Maronite Cypriots who had struggled together once for workers' rights, who had worked together, who had gone to strikes together are one by one leaving the earth… A whole generation who had worked together in the fields, in road constructions, in collecting oranges, in constructions, in shoemaking and who had shared their food for the day, who had been in each other's weddings and funerals are being wiped out from the face of this earth… Those Cypriots who had danced together in weddings, who had sang the same songs in Turkish and in Greek, those Cypriots who had shared the pilavouna and the ekmek
kadeyifi during paska and bayram are going away from this earth… Not only did they speak Turkish and Greek but also English… A generation who knew each other, who respected each other but due to winds of `nationalism` having to take up guns and be on guard against each other is dying… Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot women who had had their morning coffee together as neighbours, who had breastfed each other's babies, who had taken care of kids without discriminating as `yours or mine` are dying… Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot women neighbours who had helped each other during days of conflict, who would hide each other and take care of each other, who would give bread, milk, cigarettes, sugar, rice or whatever there was in the house to each other, who would whisper the dangers to come to each other are dying…
While some Turkish Cypriots and some Greek Cypriots would take up guns and plan provocations, opening the way of the division, the generation who had left their houses crying due to the division are dying…
We remain behind, we heard these from our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, some of it we lived, we experienced… And when we are gone, we know that such memory will no longer exist… This memory is being wiped out and instead another `memory` based on suspicion, enmity and `nationalism` is trying to be installed…
The mentality of people are changing towards `Them on their side and us on our side` and still preventing this, learning from the past and creating a future based on friendship is not allowed – the mentality in both sides is preventing this by trying to silence those who work for friendship and trust on this island.
The reality is that the two main communities of our island, Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have `limited` contacts. According to a recent poll by the New Cyprus Association 75% of the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have no contact with each other. Among other reasons, one of the basic reasons for this is the problem of language… Living `separately` since the last 50 years, our communities can no longer speak each other's languages… The mentality that is prevailing in the northern and southern parts of our island is far from encouraging contact and cooperation… Only 25% that is only one fourth of our communities are in contact with each other. And this is a drastic situation. Because our common memory is being wiped out, those who struggle together for the solution of the Cyprus problem is also very limited…
Six years ago, on the 26th of September 2009, we had got women together in Pervolia at the PEO premises there and had workshops among Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot women… They had developed ideas and had called on the leaders of the two communities… Women supporting a federal solution that would be bicommunal, bizonal, politically equal had said that they wanted a completely demilitarized island where outside interventions would not be possible. They had called on the two leaders to give their support to the victims of war and asked them for those who had committed crimes against humanity to be punished and banned from public life… They had asked the leaders to take steps that would bring our two communities together instead of steps separating them even more and had asked for the easing of the crossings and for opening more crossing points throughout the island… They had asked the two leaders to create infrastructures so that our communities
would learn each other's languages, for more bicommunal programmes in the media and for more cooperation for the interest of the two communities.
Of course as you can imagine, the leadership on both sides would not take such proposals seriously since they have always been after a `blame game` and interested only in a `win-lose` attitude. Unfortunately all they are interested is the `power game` and not really concerned with the needs and worries of ordinary people like you and me. When I say `leadership`, I include `leadership` in almost all areas, not just `governmental leadership` but in all other areas of life…
Therefore they would not be interested in steps to open the path for cooperation among the two communities…
So who will make life better for our communities on the island?
I want to share a poem by a woman from Canada, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, that I have been carrying in my heart – it had empowered me during rough times and kept me going – if only we can be true to ourselves and stop pretending, perhaps we can find the strength to struggle for a better life for all on this island. The poem is called `The invitation`…

The Invitation

By Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.

It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life's betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, 'Yes.'

It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.


Photo: "Oranges in the Sand" peace activity of the Famagusta Initiative and other associations...

(*) Article published in the POLITIS newspaper on the 5th of April 2015, Sunday.