Bits 'n' Pieces: Cypriots overcome divisions

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 
photo Kutlu Birinci, left, and Antonis Tilliros, both 17, do some high-altitude trust-building last month in an Oregon forest.

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When Antonis Tilliros, a 17-year-old Greek Cypriot, told pals he was going to spend this summer making friends with Turkish Cypriot teenagers, they stopped being his pals. They bullied and threatened him and called him a traitor. "I almost got into a fistfight," he said.

But that wouldn't have been very peaceful. And the whole point of the Cyprus Friendship Program is growing peace from the grass roots up — by bringing together young people from the two sides of Cyprus, the divided Mediterranean island nation. Since an attempted coup in 1974, simmering Cyprus has been Greek on the south, Turkish on the north, and patrolled in between by United Nations troops.

So it's been delightful for Tilliros to hang out with Kutlu Birinci. It doesn't matter that Birinci is a Turkish Cypriot who lives across the buffer zone. What matters is, Antonis is a guitarist and Birinci is a drummer and they both love Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. Their recent trip to Seattle's Experience Music Project was a highlight of their monthlong visit to the United States and Vancouver, where they stayed with Laura Hall and her 15-year-old son Peter.

"Awesome dudes," is how Peter described his Cypriot friends. "It really is amazingly eye-opening to see them together while their whole country is divided. It makes me feel like we could learn a lot from them."

Most young Cypriots grow up "learning to hate" their neighbors just over the line, Tilliros said. "I don't think there is a why," he said. "There is history of when wars started, but that's not a real reason."

"We are taught to have enemies, even in school. The history is biased," said Maria Aristotelous. "It is interesting to try to learn the true history."

Aristotelous, a Greek Cypriot, spent July living with Pembe Tosun, a Turkish Cypriot, at the home of Sue Coates in Battle Ground. Tosun said her father fondly remembers the time Cyprus was integrated, and he lived among Greek friends on the southern side of the island — before the groups separated, and he was forced to move north.

"He lost many friends. My father wants me to learn the real stories. He wants me to know the real situation," said Tosun.

The Cyprus Friendship Program sent 30 pairs of matched-up teens from Cyprus to the United States this summer, with local efforts supported by numerous Rotary clubs. The teens didn't just go sightseeing, according to coordinator Jack Bradley; they studied conflict resolution and cross-cultural communication, did trust-building exercises and helped build a Habitat for Humanity house, spent a weekend with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — and made numerous presentations about Cyprus to Rotary audiences and others. Their public speaking and peace-building activities will continue when they return home this month.

"Across the planet, all these young people are connecting across boundaries," said host Coates. "I'm sure this generation is going to save our planet." Learn more at cyprusfriendship.org.

Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.