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.

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!

David Officer: “Our courses have been a real act of cooperation between Cypriots”

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Quiet and revolutionary actions are taking place in the Buffer Zone and online every day. One of these is the State, Civil Society and Citizenship course, offered in the Buffer Zone and soon to be offered online by David and his team. This week, we talk to David to find out more about their initiative.

Hi David! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in England and spent my working life in three main locations – London, Northern Ireland and Cyprus. I have worked as an academic, researcher, community worker and NGO activist.

You must have some very interesting insights that have led you to your current position in Cyprus.

Perhaps the most important and formative experience for me was leaving school at 17 and leaving England to work for a community education project in Belfast, Northern Ireland. This was during a particularly violent phase of the “Troubles” as the conflict there was euphemistically called. I gained the kind of education there you couldn’t get in a college or university.

That time gave me a very human insight into the factors which can drive some people to take up arms and prosecute a war against others, but also how even in the midst of conflict, life goes on. People continue to try and live as peaceful a life as possible. In many ways these early experiences set me on a course to try and understand the nature of inter-ethnic or inter-national conflict and how the neccessary difference between individuals and groups might be managed without lethal outcomes.

david 7You are part of the team behind offering a Civic Participation Course for NGO activists. How did the idea come about?

The initiative for this course arose out of a partnership established by three very different organisations responding to a call for proposals made by UNDP in Cyprus during the summer of 2014. The NGO Support Centre is based in Nicosia and largely serves the Greek Cypriot community. SeeD is a bi-communal organisation that is mainly concerned with attempts to overcome the deep-seated divisions evident on the island whilst the University of Nicosia is an academic institution, based south of the partition line but working with an increasingly international student cohort.

david 5What are you trying to accomplish with this project?

We know from our experience in Cyprus that there is a need to encourage a more creative engagement with factors which shape our daily lives. Decision-making on this island tends to reside with an elite, largely organised around established political parties. Our interest is to promote both the skills and knowledge for a much wider circle of people to make a difference within their own communities, set their own objectives and realise outcomes which may be neglected by those in positions of power.

Let’s remember also that the conflict on the island has become locked into a stalemate for at least 40 years. We need to be looking at people outside the established power structures who may have innovative ways of addressing this stalemate and moving the situation forward. This is what we wish to encourage.

What do you like most about the Civic Participation Course? 

What is innovative about this project is how we have combined the academic credibility of university modules with a careful attention to the needs of NGOs and community activists. We wanted to try and stimulate a dialogue between those who have considerable academic knowledge related to the role of civil society and the state with course participants who bring with them real practical knowledge about how these issues shape everyday lives. And it’s working!

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There has been a lot of interest from both communities in the courses offered within the Buffer Zone.

What is your proudest accomplishment with the Course?

Well, we are still at an early stage. But I am really pleased that we have already delivered an initial face-to-face course in the center of the Buffer Zone. We have had a mixed cohort of Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot teachers and students. I think it’s been a quiet and undemonstrative act of real cooperation between all who were involved.

How can interested people get engage with the Course?

We will actually be offering an online version of the course soon! It will be University accredited. We would encourage anyone interested in the course or the project more generally to get in touch with us through our Facebook and Twitter. Please don’t hesitate to connect with us.

Editor’s Note: You can click here to see photos from the course.