Change is a process that demands teamwork

When the first lockdown was announced in Northern Cyprus in March, it brought uncertainty and anxiety to thousands of foreign students pursuing their degrees on the island. As the head of the gender committee for Voices of International Students (VOIS), I witnessed many students struggling to make ends meet as their sources of income shut down due to pandemic restrictions.

As a student leader, I worked with team members to help to coordinate and organise help for stranded students. VOIS, as an organisation that represents a multitude of foreign students based on the island, worked as a group to set up different initiatives that would help mobilise resources for learners in need. There are 90,000 international students in Northern Cyprus, including from mainland Turkey – about 20,000 from Africa.

The biggest community of students affected by the lockdown and its restrictions were those who earned a living from working on a part-time basis in hotels, restaurants, fast food outlets and in construction. The closure of businesses meant they lost their sources of income. Accessing funds from home became increasingly difficult for overseas students as banks required appointments and were operating on reduced hours.

Supporting students in need

Our most important project was the food aid initiative, which benefited more than 3,000 students. They could register online and, thereafter, we collaborated with different stakeholders and donor organisations such as municipalities, supermarkets, universities and the Cypriot community. Distributing food packages proved to be a challenge in the beginning because of lockdown measures – and thousands of students applied.

We were able to rope in more partners and made deliveries to students in line with the safety guidelines prescribed by the ministry of health. During the pandemic, there were also students with existing health conditions and they required medication that they could no longer access easily.

Working with a teachers’ union, we assisted them. In addition, the needs of learners living with disabilities, expectant mothers and students living as single parents were prioritised when the aid packages were distributed.

Mobilising against gender-based violence

One of the main issues I focused on was gender-based violence within the international student community. Female students trapped in toxic and abusive relationships were among the vulnerable groups. In most cases, women had no source of income and their partners provided housing and other needs for them.

When the lockdown was announced, I saw the need to raise awareness on the increasing level of violence and mobilised other women organisations in Cyprus to provide helplines with English speakers to ensure that foreign students would get immediate assistance.

The gender committee team also organised a campaign around domestic violence and mental health issues. I came up with a code system, which would help survivors seek help from pharmacies or supermarkets if they were unable to call helplines from home.

VOIS conducted several seminars and training sessions for team members, aimed at equipping female students with information on the increase of domestic violence and how to respond to survivors.

We also created several short documentaries on gender-based violence, educating the public, especially within the foreign student communities, and to provide safe spaces for those who were affected.

There was a sharp rise in depression and anxiety among international students, especially due to restrictions. The uncertainty created during the lockdown also called for more psychological support for many of our community’s members.

The mental health campaigns that started during the pandemic are still ongoing and seminars have continued to provide critical information on psychological aid, panic attacks and anxiety disorders.

With the help of civic groups, different videos have been created to support the mental health campaign and they were distributed through the VOIS website. Survivors of gender-based violence were a special group that we strived to include during our sessions on mental health.

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter campaign in Northern Cyprus was inspired by global events in the US and other parts of the world as people became increasingly aware of and began to speak out against the existing institutional discrimination and racism within communities.

Students from African countries such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ghana make up a huge slice of the foreign students based in Northern Cyprus and, over the years, there have been issues of racial discrimination and unjust treatment of students of colour at universities and within the communities in which they lived.

Surveys conducted by VOIS in 2019 and during the pandemic proved that many African students had experienced some form of unfair treatment, racism or harassment during their stay in Northern Cyprus. As the VOIS, we wanted to send a strong message against all forms of discrimination. We held peaceful protests at different universities and shared our insights at the parliament building.

Our protests received overwhelming support from the universities and the Cypriot community, with a high turnout of people. This helped to validate our message, which called for the fair treatment of African students at learning institutions, at places of work and, in some cases, within law enforcement and healthcare institutions.

The success of our movement was followed by a decision to set up an anti-racism committee with members from universities, civic groups, international students and the government to fulfil the objectives of the protests and to provide a bridge between foreign students and the local community.

As a student leader, I felt that this was the beginning of a journey that would improve the lives of students of colour in northern Cyprus.

My personal journey

As a female student from Sudan, living in the diverse and multicultural environment in Northern Cyprus gave me an understanding of the different issues that would affect students. Working with other students and providing aid during the pandemic helped me to understand that change is a process that requires teamwork, compassion and diplomacy.

Being part of a big student-led organisation, I learned from the lockdown that the human factor always wins, and the most important lesson for me became how the human connection is such a vital part of all our lives.

I had my fair share of challenges as head of the gender issues committee. Coming up with initiatives and mobilising resources in a short period of time was difficult, but crucial. As a team leader I found it hard to explain that domestic violence was increasing, but I knew, based on my experience with survivors of gender-based violence, that a lockdown situation would exacerbate violence against women.

Articles from global publications, research by NGOs and the United Nations, as well as women groups highlighted an escalation of gender-based violence cases across the world due to lockdown measures and this helped to give weight to the campaign I had started.

This experience taught me that, as women, matters that affect our lives are often downplayed.

Coping mentally during the pandemic was a struggle. I faced general anxiety and worried about myself, others and the world. I found solace in painting, through music and by expressing my thoughts and fears to my closest friends, which helped me to survive the lockdown in Northern Cyprus.

Rawaa Ahmed graduated with a degree in international relations and political science from the Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus in 2020. She is from Sudan.