By: Margaret Skourlis
As I turn to my left an armed vehicle with soldiers are holding M-16s that are pointed right at us. I look to my right and I see wild snakes and hay. It was at that time that I realized I was officially in Turkish occupied Cyprus. As part of AHIF’s Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Cyprus and Greece, we traveled in a small bus with fake visas given to us by Turkish soldiers. We stopped by a Greek Orthodox Church.
As we did, a feeling of immense anxiety emerged as we had to exit the bus. As a Greek American, I knew that I was fortunate enough to be able to see what many Greek Cypriots cannot. I knew it was my duty to take the risk and go outside the bus to document and take pictures of whatever I could, and so with this I got out of the bus.
I walked into one of the abandoned churches in Turkish occupied Cyprus, it was so desecrated that I did not realize that I was standing where as a female I should not be—behind the alter. The desecrated church from 1821 had only pigeon droppings in it. I did the sign of the cross and read a message written on the wall of the church. This message was written by a relative whose grandfather was buried in a desecrated grave outside the church. Adjacent to the graveyard was a well-maintained Turkish graveyard. Shortly after seeing this we had to leave because the neighbors took notice of us and were about to call the police which would involve the Turkish soldiers coming after us.
Living in the United States, I am fortunate to freely practice my religion and to be able to go to a church full of icons, choir men, and priests. I am fortunate enough to live in a community where people contribute to the church with their time and money so that it does not fall apart. Unfortunately, the churches from 1821 have no parishioners and priests, and have had the icons on their walls stolen and sold in the black market. These churches have become stables, cafes, and pigeon coops.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but no picture can truly grasp the feeling of watching the deteriorating and abandoned land of Famagusta. Famagusta has a beach filled with beauty but its beauty cannot be captured with a photo because of the law of the Turkish soldiers occupying the beach territory.
The group headed to Athens after we left Cyprus. In Athens, I was able to become part of history. We had the honor to meet the President of the Hellenic Republic Dr. Karolos Papoulias and to have meetings inside the Hellenic Parliament. Protests of the austerity measures Greece adopted to address its financial crisis took place right in Syntagma Square outside of our hotel. I had the honor of meeting “Kanellos” the protest dog and I spoke with protestors about issues for which they were fighting, many of which were native Athenians.
My trip to Greece and Cyprus evoked many interesting thoughts and ideas. I applied to this program to learn policy that would enable me to become a leader in the Greek American community and to help invoke change within the society. In an age of social media and reality television it is the new generations’ duty, especially the Diaspora, to make sure that our ancestral homeland’s issues are not forgotten. If we can get 1,500 people to sell out Greek concerts and fill Greek nightclubs, we can use those same outlets to get Greek American constituents to contact their congressional representatives to vote on matters pertaining to Greece and Cyprus. The Greek Diaspora is vast and it is the new generations’ duty to connect and stay together. It is only through unity that issues can become resolved, and our culture and religion can be preserved.
_____________________Margaret Skourlis is currently studying for her third Master’s degree in Computer Science from Queens College and simultaneously for a Human Resources Management Certification from Cornell University. She has a MBA and a Master’s degree in Political Science from Long Island University- C.W. Post Campus. She has an American Bar Association Paralegal Degree and Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus. She graduated top of her MBA class with Beta Gamma Sigma Honor’s and top of her Bachelor’s degree with Cum Laude. She has a New York Real Estate Salesperson degree and a Modeling Certification degree. She participated in the third annual AHIF Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.