Making change possible: Paving the way for civil society in Cyprus

by Marina Vasilara

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NGOs contribute on a volunteer basis to the NGO Law Initiative in order to push for a reform.

It’s difficult to talk of civil society in Cyprus if you have not lived it.

But if you’re working for an NGO in Cyprus, you know: the road is full of stumbling blocks.

February 26th was different: a landmark day for us. That day, the new draft legislation on associations and foundations went to the parliament to be discussed and finally be voted into law. The NGO Law Initiative has been working for this since 2007.

Over the last decades, the process of registration for anyone wishing to establish their NGO has been seeded with delays, problems, rejections. Often, Cyprus is anything but “enabling” for an organisation wishing to obtain a legal personality. Such an atmosphere creates very frustrating experiences, ones that do not fit international or European standards of Freedom of Association.

Imagine wanting to fight for an important cause in your society. You start your NGO, only to find out you have no support from state structures. What’s worse is that when you try to explain, nobody understands what you’re going through.

This is why seeing the draft law finally being given to Parliament for the final stages of approval has been such a relief. Marina blog 4 Working with the Initiative

As a member of the NGO Initiative for a number of years now, I have been extremely lucky to work with a motivated team that is looking into the future to build an empowering environment for NGOs.

We’ve been working very closely with UNDP-ACT, the Council of Europe, the European Center of Not-For-Profit Law and tens of NGOs along with the Commissioner for Volunteerism and NGOs who are supporting the NGO Law Initiative. We are also grateful to Parliamentarians who, being part themselves in civil society organisations, understand the value of reviewing and renewing the legal basis for NGOs’ functioning.

It has never been an easy ride for civil society in Cyprus. We are trying to find ways to make the ride a bit easier, so as not to burden already overburdened CSOs with extra bureaucracy. And I think we will have made a difference once this process of adopting the new draft laws is completed.

Of course, this is a long-term process and we understand that it will take place gradually. Still, it needs a plan of action. So in addition to the drafting of the two new legal pieces, we have committed ourselves together with Mr. Jeremy McBride, who represents the Council of Europe and the Commissioner of Volunteerism and NGOs, to the drafting of a Policy Paper on the future of Civil Society in Cyprus. The paper summarises the action steps that we need to work on to achieve our goals. Marina blog 1 The road ahead: Be a Part of the Change

Naturally, our work is far from finished. We are still waiting for an equally important draft law: the draft Public Benefit Status Law. This is a new legislation that is giving NGOs an added status together with a set of more strict transparency conditions and also benefits. Having this status will help many NGOs obtain under transparent and not politically motivated procedures, a status that will help their sustainability and work into the future.

We have seen in many ways over the last 3 years the withdrawal of citizens from the political process and their dismay with political parties. This may be a chance for civil society to prove that partisan politics is not everything there is to a democracy. Let’s remember together that active citizenship, as opposed to apathy, should be the rule and not the exception.

If you want to support our work, please go to our website. There you can check out the draft Policy Paper on the Future of Civil Society in Cyprus which is open to your comments by April 17th 2015. Your opinion is very important to us!

Another brick (in the virtual wall): Reflections from an Alternative Education Experiment

by Haris Shekeris

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Recently, we launched a new online course for civil society activists and peace practitioners.

The online course is the continuation of a face-to-face course we delivered for the first time last semester in the Buffer Zone, when twenty-nine participants from across the island joined us.

The high interest in the course was unexpected and inspired us to go ahead with a new curriculum, this time in a virtual space. We hoped this would bring even more of the unusual suspects, who may be geographically or otherwise challenged to attend courses in a physical space.

We thought: Why not harness the power of technology to bring knowledge to the people, instead of always expecting them to come to us?

If our previous course was a success – with participating students from not only Cyprus, but also Palestine, Italy, Germany and Ukraine – offering it online has been nothing short of a miracle: 140 participants, hailing from as far as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kenya and Greece.

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But of course, offering a course online is not as simple as renting out a virtual space.

We have had to overcome several technical and practical difficulties to make the most out of this new format.

We’ve created a wealth of audio-visual lecture material, produced in collaboration with MediaZone. These are mostly 20-minute lectures accompanied by audio-visual interviews (some of them produced by the Cyprus Community Media Centre) and animated material.

We’ve designed the content of the course to stimulate dialogue on various aspects of the concept of citizenship.

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Our lectures include extensive interview material on a wide range of topics, such as the civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS and its impact on statehood in the region, as well interviews on the topics of legitimacy and legitimation crisis and a case study on Cyprus and the impact of the economic measures prescribed by the so-called Troika of the ECB, the European Commission and the IMF.

And the result? So far, it’s looking good – we are delivering lectures to a highly engaged audience. It’s great to see there are discussions taking place both in the lecture forum and in the Facebook group created for the course.

If you’re interested in our work, but missed out on the chance to register for the course, do check our project’s website (Resources for Democracy). We’ve started uploading a number of resources – and we’ll follow that up soon with interviews and discussions, both in audio and audio-visual form, with academics and civil society activists on the topics of discussion. Also, there’s a second online course coming up in May!

After all, the material, which is freely accessible to everybody, is intended to enable you – the reader – to take informed steps into making the most out of your rights as a citizen, so why not join us and demand more of it from their powers that be?

Ioanna Demosthenous: “We want the same standards for NGOs in Cyprus that they have in Europe”

A group of dedicated civil society activists have been working passionately and quietly for the last seven years to push a reform on NGO Law in Cyprus. This week, we speak to the initiative’s Ioanna Demosthenous to find out more.

Hi Ioanna, you are the Project Officer of the “Cyprus NGO Initiative on Law Reform” project. Can you tell us about your interests and how you got involved with this work?

Ioanna DemosthenousI have a law background. I did my year long traineeship at the Law Office of the Republic of Cyprus in order to become a lawyer, and then I worked as a trainee at the European Commission and the Embassy of the Republic of Cyprus in Athens.

I am passionate about and have worked on youth empowerment in Cyprus and abroad. Recently, with a group of friends, we established Cyprus Youth DiplomaCY, an informal group (soon to be registered) aiming to give the youth of Cyprus the floor for expressing their opinions regarding diplomacy, politics and international relations.

What is the aim of the NGO Initiative?

We want to achieve the same standards for NGOs in Cyprus as those in Europe and the international arena.

When did the initiative come together?

We partnered with the European Center for Not-For-Profit Law in 2007 for a study on the framework behind civil society in Cyprus and its shortcomings. We’ve been hard at work ever since.

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What’s really fascinating about the NGO initiative is that it is made up of all volunteers, right?

Exactly. The civil society representatives that make up the NGO initiative have been putting in all this work on a voluntary basis for 7 years now. I am the only paid staff who works on a regular basis to support the process.

I think this is part of the reason for our success: the passion of our members, and the team work without the expectation of any personal benefit – except the goal of empowering the work of civil society in Cyprus.

What is your proudest accomplishment with this project?

Interesting question. I think my proudest accomplishment is that the NGO Initiative is closely cooperating with the departments of the Ministries of Interior and Finance, as well as with the General Attorney office and the Commissioner on Volunteerism and NGOs.

Was that a hard relationship to build?

In the beginning I can definitely say that there was a hesitation from the Ministries to cooperate with us. That comes from the general mentality of Cypriots who don’t really know what Civil Society is and how it works. But we remained persistent, and the initiative eventually managed to prove their mission.

istoselida 1I am really proud that our initiative is considered a relevant and important stakeholder in this process. Even when we may not agree on every single issue, we know that at least we have the opportunity to raise the issues that matter to us and discuss them from various angles.

How can interested people get involved with the NGO Initiative?

NGO Initiative is supported by a lot of Civil Society Organizations, including associations, foundations and not-for-profit businesses in Cyprus.

If representatives of NGOs in Cyprus agree with and support our work, they should feel free to send me a message at ngo.initiative.cyprus@gmail.com so we can add them to the list of our supporters. We would include their logo on our website and they can continue to regularly receive updates from us regarding the status of the law.

Currently we also have the draft of a Policy Paper which is open for public consultation and we are seeking input from Civil Society representatives. I recommend those interested to follow us via our website and our Facebook page.

What can innovation do for Famagusta?

This week, Lina from the Renewal team shares with us how a team of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots from the Famagusta region have joined forces with the innovation platform Mahallae to crowdsource creative solutions from a community in need.
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I have been working with the Renewal team since September 2014. We work closely with citizens and municipalities in the greater Famagusta region to address specific problems the region is facing.
Our efforts are focused on the walled city of Famagusta as well as the three communities of Deryneia, Frenaros and Vrysoules. Although quite diverse within itself, this region is nonetheless subject to a great deal of shared problems, among which is a very difficult economic situation.
The greater Famagusta region suffers from the highest unemployment rate among yimage (3)outh in the whole of Cyprus. The unemployment here has reached 40%. As you can imagine, the side-effects of this level of unemployment are devastating psychologically, economically, socially. We have a lot of young people leaving their homes in search for opportunities in other cities over the island or abroad. As we took a look at this grim picture, we wondered what we could do as the Renewal team that has never been done before. We began by offering a series of seminars on entrepreneurship, in partnership with the Cyprus Enterprise Link (CEL). This allowed us to build capacity and create an extended network of young people who were meeting frequently to learn together.
But we wanted to go beyond merely offering skills – we wanted to offer the Famagustian youth a chance to put their newfound skills to use.
This is how our collaboration with Mahallae was born, to launch what we are calling the Famagusta Region Challenge. Using the Mahallae platform, we are taking an in10922361_600964856717103_3025988399328892618_onovative approach to supporting positive economic and social development in the region. We are asking young people to submit their ideas; the winners will receive the funding and support from our team to kickstart their efforts. We are giving Cypriots a chance to put their ideas and talents together in order to create a service or product that benefits the communities on the island.
I feel like what really makes this project special is the fact that it has been directly designed based on the needs of the people in the area. As the Renewal team, we are constantly in dialogue with the citizens of the region. The Mahallae Challenges is our response to the ideas and experiences you shared with us on how you can spark change in this region. We are open to everyone’s suggestions, so please don’t hesitate to join us on this journey. And don’t forget to visit Mahallae’s page and read all about our Famagusta challenge. We want to work with you and make you innovative ideas come true!

Serdar Atai: “My dream is to see Famagusta Walled City as a UNESCO Site”

In the last few months, a local team in Famagusta has been creating good kind of trouble. Today, we’re talking to Serdar, one of the team members of Renewal, about the work they are doing there and his dreams about the region for the future.

Hi Serdar. We would like to begin by getting to know you a little more.

I was born in Famagusta in 1967 and raised here.

DSC_9803I’ve been engaged with civil society and bi-communal work since the early ’90s. I’ve worked with many different groups. I’ve also had the chance of visiting many conflict regions in the world for sharing our experience and exchanging lessons with them.

I’m in love with my beautiful city. My dream is to see Famagusta Walled City as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites where the Famagusta Port is transformed into a Tourism Port and the Greater Famagusta Region; beginning from Deryneia and ending at Salamina, as a completely demilitarised and reunited hinterland.

How did you get involved with RENEWAL?

For the past 6 years, I’ve served as the vice-president of MASDER (Famagusta Walled City Association) and for the past 4 years I’m the spokesperson for the Famagusta Initiative.

RENEWAL is the end product of consultations by UNDP-ACT with local stakeholders in Famagusta and Deryneia regions. MASDER was one of the stakeholders they visited. The idea was born through our consultations together.

What are you trying to accomplish with the RENEWAL initiative?

As RENEWAL, we attempt to provide soft infrastructure for business development, facilitate youth entrepreneurship and enhance civil society dialogue and cooperation within the Greater Famagusta Region.

What are you most excited about in your work?

10457710_579106582236264_1628229526672439542_oFamagusta and Deryneia are two remote regions in Cyprus with physical barriers and extremely limited capacities.

The communities are surrounded by buffer zones.

The Small-Medium Entreprises (SME’s) face major obstacles in their daily commercial activities.

The highest number of youth migration to the other main cities are from this area because of the existing conditions causing unemployment.

The civil society actors and the general public have limited contacts with each other due to the absence of an easy access checkpoint that can be easily opened and operated from Deryneia buffer zone.

Our hands and arms have been tied until now, but RENEWAL gives us the opportunity for tackling all these problematic issues on the ground with technical assistance, expertise and support from UNDP-ACT. With this support, we as the project team are trying our best to achieve the Project’s objectives as much as we can.

Through the initiative has not been around for long, you must already have some achievements you are proud of.

1505194_586130008200588_7474280430414569689_nWe aimed to bring together children, youth and their families by organising different training sessions or cultural and social activities.

We’ve organized youth entrepreneurship seminars, plantation events, chess and football tournaments, folklore and music performances and a food festival. We’ve many people visiting each other’s region for the first time.

Witnessing the satisfaction on the faces of those children, teenagers and the everyday citizens of Famagusta while they spent time together is our biggest motivation in continuing our work.

How do you envision RENEWAL contributing to the peace process?

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Young Famagustians attend youth entrepreneurship workshops organized by Renewal.

In the long run, I believe these gatherings or interactions at the interpersonal and intercommunal levels will help everyone to emphatize with each other that we have more or less the same anxieties and expectations as two peoples of the same region.

Hopefully, it will help us to create a common ground for coexistence and idealisation of a shared future for the Greater Famagusta Region. The synergy of local communities in daily social and economic life is the only way forward for the common future of our region and island-wide.

How can interested people follow the activities of RENEWAL?

RENEWAL has a Facebook page and people who would like to hear more about us or get informed about our future activities can follow our page here.

Ellada Evangelou on Mahallae: “Innovation is not just an empty word”

Following up our spotlight pieces on SCORE project’s Maria, and David on behalf of the Civic Participation Course team, this week we discuss Mahallae with Ellada Evangelou

Hi Ellada, thanks for talking to us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hello, and thanks for the opportunity. 🙂 Well, I don’t have a traditional NGO background, and I’m even surprised sometimes that I’m here. But it’s a good place to be, so no complaints!

Ellada_EvangelouI have a background in English, Dramaturgy (which is applied theatre) and a PhD in Theatre Studies / Cultural Analysis. As an artist and researcher, I’m interested in the relationship between identity and the arts, which is why I have been a practicing theatre facilitator and director for many years now, and believe in the arts for social change.

I am also fascinated by the area of the Euro-Mediterranean, the historical trends and the contemporary issues. I feel deeply rooted in the place, the island and the whole area, in spite all its challenges, or perhaps because of them.

How did you get involved with Mahallae?

Mahallae was a natural development for me. After working on Knowledge Innovation as part of a project co-run by the NGO Support Center and the Management Center of the Mediterranean supported by the UNDP-ACT, the opportunity came to work with interesting people on a challenging idea: a platform that would bring people together – Cypriots and from communities in the area – around the practice of innovating towards healthier societies. I was intrigued so I hopped on board, and it’s been a fantastic voyage ever since, more than a year ago now.

What excites you most about the platform?

Mahallae carries the potential to bring different people together to facilitate their working towards a common vision. This will (and already has) overcome barriers of language, cultural perceptions and others.

What is your proudest accomplishment so far?

To see individuals feeling empowered with their own ideas, and spreading that energy, it’s a very rewarding experience. Especially through the Challenges we organize periodically, and the workshops we run, you can see timid individuals flourishing and becoming empowered. That is priceless. I have come to realise the power of innovation… it’s not just an empty word, it has meaning and substance in the context of Mahallae, and it’s building a community of people around it that are creating inspiring work.

Do you think Mahallae can contribute to the peace process in Cyprus? How?

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Ellada poses with participants after a two day Mahallae workshop in the Buffer Zone.

Mahallae, its values and practices are about creating social structures where people are comfortable living. This inherently supports the idea of peace, not peace as the absence of war, but peace as a pro-active process of individuals and groups for self and collective betterment. In this general ideological framework, yes, Mahallae can support the peace process, since it nurtures a community of people who care and act on it.

How can interested people get involved in Mahallae?

As I mentioned before, Mahallae is a community, so other than the Challenges, which are opportunities for people, groups and organisations to run innovative projects based on a theme, people can join us in workshops, events, product testings and other activities. The Mahallae Challenges winning teams also have interesting events, which is a great way to meet cool people, build capacity and generally become more involved in a community that is growing. Follow Mahallae online and register for our newsletter, it’s a great way to stay in tune with what is happening. You can also follow us on our Facebook and Twitter, of course! And we have a blog!

Good things are happening in Famagusta

We continue to cover inspiring initiatives from across the island. This week, Maria Zeniou talks about her experience at the Green Streets action, organized recently in Famagusta.

green streets 1As the end of the year approached, things seemed to be slowing down with the peace process. The same could not be said for Famagustians. Indeed, it has been a pleasure for me to experience first hand the various activities organized in December by the people of Famagusta Walled City and Deryneia to work together for the future of their region.

Of the number of activities under RENEWAL that recently took place, I wanted to share with you one of the first and the most memimage002orable for me. It was one of the notoriously rare bad weather days (that Cyprus doesn’t see much of) where the sky was pouring, the streets were flooded and you could barely walk outside, let alone do outdoor activities. Well, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Not even the rain stopped them: Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots Famagustians, soaking from head to toe, planting trees around the walls of Famagusta. Two hours under the rain, and they managed to plant around 900 trees!

Perhaps the ‘Green Streets’ event is not what you would call a game-changer. But it shows that even under difficult circumstances, given the right opportunity, the people of Famagusta have the will to work for change. The RENEWAL project, currently underway in the region of Famagusta, is working to create exactly this kind of opportunity. After all, only if Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriot Famagustians work together can the social and economic change they envision for their region finally come.

green streets 2image001image004Editor’s Note: You can follow the RENEWAL project and its activities via their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/renewal2014