The concept is simple— bring two teen-agers together from opposite, conflicted sides of a border and place them in a loving, neutral environment— like a suburban American home— and let magic start happening.
In the case of Nogay Dalkilinc and Voris Sarris; and, Anna Soteriou and Selin Ozuslu— this is exactly what is happening.
The pairs of teens are both from opposite sides of the Cyprus divide— placed together in a single American host home, by the non-profit Cyprus Friendship Program, in an effort to build trust and understanding through interaction between divided peoples.
Launched in 2009, the year-long Cypriot program takes 60 teenagers (30 from the north, 30 from the south) and partners each of them with someone from the other side. They attend meetings and workshops for months, then spend a four-week stint in the United States where they live together with a host family.
It’s not always as simple as it sounds as teens from opposite sides are often predisposed to hate and animosity of the other side, stemming from a brutal Turkish invasion in 1974 that divided the island into two parts and an occupation that has lasted more than 40 years.
This means an entire generation of people in Cypriots have lived divided.
Anna Soteriou and Selin Ozuslu are spending a month with Terri and Craig Childress in Lake Oswego, a city south of Portland, Oregon.
Nogay Dalkilinc and Voris Sarris are spending a month with hosts Marland and Marilyn Henderson in Tigard, also a suburban city outside Portland.
In addition to becoming acclimated to American life and seeing the world in a different perspective, the teens are charged with returning to their respective homes and making a plea for peace in their own communities.
Easier said than done, according to Sotiriou, who said hate is a hard habit to break. “From the first grade, we’ve been taught to hate,” Sotiriou told a local newspaper in an interview.
But the program has been effective— especially with this set of teens. After 41 years of separation on Cyprus, it’s teenagers like these who might just be the answer to rebuilding peace and unity in their country.
“Over the years, you just get used to the situation. You have a country that is smaller than it should be, and you’re just used to that,” said Voris Sarris, a Greek Cypriot, in an interview with the Portland Tribune. “The thing is, we are both Cypriots and we’re living apart. That’s the bad thing.”
“Our culture is similar,” added Nogay Dalkilinc, Sarris’ northern-living and Turkish-speaking counterpart. “You get used to it, but when you realize you are so (much) like them, you just want to get together and live together.”
For the Cypriot teens, being part of this program ultimately means being part of something much larger. It means not only discrediting the prejudices they grew up hearing, but sharing what they learn with their friends and family at home. It means starting the conversation and working together to figure out how to move forward. It means understanding that at the bottom of it all, they’re all Cypriots.
“We didn’t believe ourselves that we are Cypriots, an independent nation, an independent country,” Sarris said. “We were like our mother countries, Greece and Turkey.”
“We didn’t know who we are for many years,” added Dalkilinc. “’Are we Cypriots or are we Turks? Are we Cypriots or are we Greeks? Who are we? What is our culture? What language do we talk?’ We never feel like we have an island that is ours. Now, we feel like this is our place.”