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01 July 2021

Refugee Crisis? Or Opportunity?

Written by Published in Art & Culture

Since 2015 Europe crossed the line from being chiefly rural to more people living in cities. Young people especially, gravitate towards cities. The countryside empties, dereliction creeps in and older people that remain cannot cope. Using Cyprus as an example, rural refugees arrive from Africa, can they replace lost villagers? 

Grampus Heritage & Training (GHT) are a major force for vocational training in Europe; working in 30+ European states since 1998 and completing over 300 European Union supported projects. As Director, I’ve been saddened to witness a massive decline in traditional, craft and countryside skills in the last 25 years. Conversely, University education has boomed but can be rather watered down and not addressing development needs. These days, partly due to the global pandemic, I’m mainly based in Cyprus, so right now I focus on the situation here.

I’m writing this piece on Sunday 20th June 2021; it’s World Refugee Day. The Mediterranean island Republic of Cyprus has historically shown a welcoming face to refugees and asylum seekers and we can trace the trait right back in history to the last Christian Crusades in the 13th century and the Islamic Mamluk conquest of Antioch in 1268 and Acre in 1291.

IMG 9779Working with Margarita and Panayiota, village ‘pleumistras’ – lace makers and experts in the UNESCO protected ‘Lefkara Lace’ … a cultural blend of embroidery lace and reticella.

Other, more recent influxes of refugees have included those escaping the so-called Armenian genocide of 1916-18 and the ‘people swap’ between Greece and Turkey, a form of legalized ethnic cleansing in 1922-23 – a very few great grandparents who were expelled as children are still alive today in Cyprus.

Of course, Greek and Turkish Cypriots are no strangers to the refugee status themselves after the events of 1974, which saw around 150,000 Greek Cypriot people fleeing from the northern part of the island, and, a year later in 1975, roughly 60,000 Turkish Cypriots being displaced from the south to the north.

War and strife in the Middle East (especially in Syria) and Africa have led to a huge influx of refugees and asylum seekers in the last 11 years. Such movements of desperate people were kicked off by the Arab Spring and Jasmine revolutions and such conflicts as the Anglophone war in the Cameroons and the actions of Boko Haram and Islamic fundamentalists in Nigeria and across Sub-Saharan Africa and linked conflicts in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eretria.

As with previous influxes, new arrivals rarely have nothing to offer; they have skills. Of course, generalizations are dangerous but from my experience, incoming Arabic people to Cyprus are generally from cities but the Africans I meet and work with are usually villagers. Because our organization champions the countryside and sustainable rural development, for us, this is important.

The cities of Cyprus are clogged with people and recession means that clothes shops (especially second hand), cafes and fast-food outlets open and close on a regular basis and might be called ‘ephemeral’, not surviving for too long because of oversupply and finite demand. So, “city skills” for Cyprus are not really needed but, on the other hand, skills for rural development are in very short supply.

mosaic patienceThe asylum seekers had a great aptitude for mosaic making.

GHT work with around 100 rurally-based partners across Europe, so to see depopulation of villagers, with especially the young migrating to cities is nothing new but it is also very clear that the older people that remain in villages have often despaired of ever passing on their skills and knowledge.

The EU recognizes that intergenerational learning is rarely happening now, so the vast store of experiential learning in the grandparent’s generation is in danger of being lost forever.

Does it matter? I think it does because they represent a pathway to sustainable living, and we really do need to be more environmentally, culturally, and socially sustainable. Also, there is a demand for unique, culturally sound, and handmade products and goods gathered from nature, they sell well and represent economic sustainability, the last of the 4-pillars of sustainability.

COVID had a massive impact on GHT’s work, with travel restrictions meaning that regular learners and teachers could not mobilize to train and get work experience. No income to support our training infrastructure. Refugees and asylum seekers have a right of access to training, a European Directive has been agreed and set in place, yet, for financial reasons most EU states drag their feet.

I first worked with Bosniaks, Croatian and Serbian refugees 22 years ago for UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) in the former Yugoslavia; here was a chance to do so again? A chance meeting in a second hand clothes shop with Janine from Cameroons was the first step. Winning trust is critical because refugees and asylum seekers are almost always trafficked and abused.

IMG 9797Gary, Patience and Ruth (Ghana & Cameroons), learning fine line painting in the Greek style from our artist in residence, Peter Bird. Himashi from Sri Lanka joins the multicultural class

Janine started sewing customized denim for me; we sell it through a social enterprise under the banner of ‘Green Village’. After 2 weeks, I popped the question, “would you like to complete a traditional skills training programme and live for a month in a village, with other learners?” Janine agreed and brought 4 other West Africans with her. A revelation!

They (Janine, Gary, Ruth, Jasmine and Patience – names changed; their status is insecure) were already very skilled in handicrafts but also eager to learn more. Crochet, knitting, embroidery lace, rope (cordage) making, felting, brick making, mosaic, clay modelling, fine line, and mural painting … WOW, they were so good! More than that, their recent (often horrendous) stories, gave them a gritty determination to succeed. They also saw in the abandoned farmland of Cypriot villages, a wealth of opportunity … Very few local shepherds, abandoned beehives, overgrown almond, carob and olive groves, crumbling village houses; the usual response was … “I know how to do that … I CAN DO THAT!”.

The 5 asylum seekers were a joy to teach, and all emerged with fledgling employment in everything from internet selling of craft goods, to preparing food, harvesting seeds and berries, collecting wild herbs, working the land, gardening, sewing, dress-making, lace making and generally being super hard working, efficient and innovative.

For me, they represented ideal artisans and workers to repopulate Europe’s abandoned countryside. Crisis, no, I think a real opportunity for sustainable rural development.

Read more of Martin Clark's articles in Sublime Magazine 

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