Cypriot teens put aside differences in B.G.

Program focuses on similarities between Muslims, Christians

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: July 17, 2012, 5:45 PM

 
photoTammy Haas displays a sign she and her husband, Vern, prepared to greet two Cypriot students, one Greek and one Turkish, they are hosting this month at their Battle Ground home.

(/The Columbian)

Buy this photo
photo

On the Web

Cyprus Friendship

They listen to Maroon 5, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, watch TV programs such as "Criminal Minds" and "Modern Family," and enjoy shopping at Forever 21.

The sister tastes of Aria Louis and Cagla Izkan, residents of the Republic of Cyprus in the Mediterrean Sea, provide no inkling they are children of longtime territorial enemies. However, the history books and their families' collective war stories remind them of the literal and figurative walls that divide their people.

Louis, a Greek Cypriot, is a Greek Orthodox Christian, while Izkan, a member of the Turkish Cypriot minority, is Muslim. Their relatives fought on different sides of a military conflict during the 1960s and 1970s that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced. Travel between the two sections of the island was restricted until spring 2003.

The wounds of the deadly struggle and the bad blood that followed remain fresh, the teens agreed.

Today, the 17-year-olds are roommates in Battle Ground as part of the monthlong Cyprus Friendship program designed to show teens from the two Cypriot factions they have much in common even if decades of history suggests otherwise. Louis and Izkan are among 60 students participating in the program. The majority are on the East Coast.

"I didn't want to grow up hating the unknown," Louis said when asked why she enrolled in the program. "I decided this would be a great opportunity to form my own opinions."

Louis and Izkan are learning about American food and agriculture, sustainability practices in the Portland metro area and, perhaps most important, each other's lands and customs.

Greek Cypriots make up around 80 percent of the island's more than 1.1 million residents, and live in the south and central area of the island. Turkish Cypriots live on the northern part of the island. Until 2003, the two sides rarely interacted because travel was restricted.

Louis' and Izkan's childhoods were spent wondering who the enemy was. Borders were blocked. The idea of visiting the enemy's side was far-fetched.

"I didn't even know what Greeks looked like," Izkan said, joking she wondered if they were small or green.

Louis lives in rural Cyprus and has an olive complexion and speaks fluent English, courtesy of a childhood spent partially in Toronto. Izkan has darker skin, lives near the water and speaks English with an Eastern European inflection. They bonded over their love of Forever 21 clothing store -- a store that does not exist in Cyprus.

Their camaraderie is easy, natural, effortless, like longtime friends.

Louis and Izkan are staying with Tammy and Vern Haas. The couple have hosted kids from Japan, Chile and Columbia in previous years. The experiences affords them the opportunity to learn about other cultures, said the host mother, who is president-elect of the Lewis River Rotary Club in Battle Ground. Sponsors are vital because travel costs are around $4,000 round-trip, she noted.

The past won't be buried, Izkan noted, but perhaps the present and future will be better because of what they learn this month.

"I can't forget but I can forgive," Izkan said, repeating a line her mother uses. Her mother, she added, originally opposed her participation in Cyprus Friendship.

"We have lost loved ones," Louis added, "but, at the end of the day, why can't we give each other a chance?"

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.