The Butchers of Nicosia

LETTER FROM CYPRUS

By William J. Furney

In the “ghetto” of Nicosia, as my local friend Alexandros describes it, there are many meat shops and barbers, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and it seems to me the two are connected: high levels of protein can lead to rapid hair growth. Most appeared to do a brisk trade among their migrant population of people fleeing the war in Syria and strife elsewhere.

Dark-hued, mainly young men loiter on the narrow streets of this ancient part of the capital of unsettled and divided Cyprus — a place where Greek and Turkish communities live side by side, along a United Nations’ patrolled border and buffer zone following Turkey’s invasion of the country in 1974 — because they have nothing to do. The interlopers, many of them refugees, and perhaps economic migrants too, like this area, Alexandros tells me, because there’s a mosque nearby, something of a rarity in this Greek Orthodox half-city of churches and their tolling bells.

Syrians in particular have been flooding Cyprus as they escape the civil war that began over 10 years ago with protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, a divisive figure who has been referred to as “the butcher” of his own country. The conflict has so far claimed the lives of around 100,000 people, according to varying accounts from the United Nations, and unleashed a tidal wave of refugees that’s estimated at almost 4 million.

Meating Demand: A proliferation of butcher shops in an area of Nicosia with a high refugee population caters to their tastes. (Photo: William J. Furney)

Such were the numbers of Syrians arriving in Cyprus, which is less than 200 hundred kilometers across the Mediterranean Sea from Syria, that the Cypriot government declared a “state of emergency” in June.

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris made a plea to the European Union for help as migrant centres became overwhelmed, just days after a boat carrying 97 Syrians was intercepted by Cypriot authorities near the east coast of Cyprus. Asylum-seekers from Syria who arrive on the Turkish side of the island have been steadily crossing the border into the southern Greek part, where they are detained, Cypriot authorities said.

In recent years, the number of refugees arriving in Cyprus has risen to 4 percent of the population, whereas it’s 1 percent in other EU countries, the Cypriot government says.

Not So Rare: Butchers, and barbers, are kept busy with refugee customers in Nicosia. (Photo: William J. Furney)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says Cyprus is taking more asylum applications per capita from war-torn areas than any other country in the European Union — more than 93,000 since 2002 and over 7,000 last year alone. Most had been from Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Iran and Somalia, and in 2020, those arriving seeking protection were from Syria, India, Bangladesh, Cameroon and Pakistan, according to figures from the UN agency.

During the course of the decade-long war in Syria, Cyprus has processed 12,000 asylum-seeker applications and approved 8,500, the UNHCR says. It says its “role in Cyprus is to assist the government in further refining and improving their asylum legislation, procedures and capacities for a refugee protection system to be fully in line with international standards”.

Syrian asylum-seekers in Cyprus whose applications are denied “are usually granted subsidiary protection status”, an official at the UNHCR Country Office in Cyprus told me.

Sausages and Snip: This street in the historical area of Nicosia is packed with butcher shops and barbers, with two, here, conveniently opposite each other. (Photo: William J. Furney)

And so butcher shops and barbers have sprung up to cater to the growing refugee population in Nicosia, a city of around 200,000 people on an island that has just over 1.2 million, including 326,000 in the northern Turisk part, which is not recognised as a country outside of Turkey. Confounding the problem, Ankara does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus as a nation, although the rest of the world does.

That’s of little concern to the migrants who arrive here and either await processing or have been granted protection and, for now, are living in the city. Like their fellow refugees scattered around Europe, most, if not all, prefer to end up in countries that are members of the European Union, as well as Britain, which left the 27-member bloc last year.

It’s the lure of protections that range from the political to economic and financial, and the tantalising prospect of being part of a prosperous area of the world that’s peaceful and holds the promise of an altogether better future. For those newly arrived, desperate and anxious in this city, their appetites, appearance and spirituality are at least taken care of, as they wait for their brave new lives to begin.

  • Main photo, of a butcher shop in the historical area of Nicosia, Cyprus, is by William J. Furney.