During the last days of September and the first of October, I had the honor of serving as a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Cyprus, hosted by the University of Nicosia and the Council of International Fellowship. And I came away with new perspective and new hope.
There is only so much one can learn to prepare for a new location and experience, such as the remains of Greek and Roman antiquities, British and other foreign national rule, the deep division of the country in 1974 following battles between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and their allies from Turkey.
As a condition of my visit, the Fulbright Commission required me to visit both sides of the island – the north, which is predominantly Turkish Cypriots and Turkish immigrants, and the south, which is predominantly Greek Cypriots. I learned early that Greek Cypriots do not see themselves as Greek, nor do the Turkish Cypriots see themselves as Turkish. Both are proud people who share a history and an island.
While in Cyprus, I had two assignments. The first was to keynote an international conference of the Council of International Fellowships. Social and human service workers from many fields of practice and from about 35 different countries attended. My talk focused on the question of how we prepare the next generation of workers in an age of exploding technology and new knowledge development. I was surprised and pleased that the presentation ignited so much conversation and that the theme reoccurred consistently throughout the conference. It provided a great venue for me to make new friends throughout the week.
The second assignment was to meet with university representatives and social service agencies on both sides of the border that separates the country. I was to lecture to students and meet with university presidents and faculty and with social work agency directors and staff.
While the purpose of my visit was to share information between countries, it took on a larger role and meaning. Academics and students were eager to explore exchange opportunities with the University of Louisville. I was greatly encouraged in discussions with university presidents, the Fulbright Commission of Cyprus and the US Embassy in Cyprus to initiate conversations about how we might support these efforts.
During the course of this phase of my visit, two things happened that shaped my experience and left me with an overwhelming hope for Cyprus and the future.
The first involved a lecture that I was asked to give to students in the north on gender. When I asked about the potential audience, I was told to expect it to be a classroom comprised primarily of Muslim women. I think of myself as a reasonably educated person, sensitive to matters of culture and difference, but I did not know what to expect.
What I found was a room full of students, faculty who decided to “drop in,” and the director of human services for North Cyprus, with whom I had met that morning, and who decided to bring her total staff with her.
I was unsure how to lecture to this audience, so I gave a very brief talk about the major movements for women’s rights in the United States and how that affected gender roles, and then opened up the discussion by asking them how they might behave if they were to live in their country as the opposite sex. Two hours later, I had to step back in amazement at the level of sophistication, the progressive thought and the hopes of those in the audience.
The other factor that colored my experience was the expressed desire in private conversations for faculty in the north and south to find ways to collaborate and for social service agencies to develop closer ties to the universities in their region. To my surprise, this became my effort – to help them build those bridges.
I had introduced them to each other online, and as I was leaving the island, there were various efforts to meet for discussion. I have no false illusions about what might evolve, but I certainly left the experience balancing the sadness I felt for people separated by political walls with the hope I experienced through their desires to work together.
My experience had its roots more than 20 years ago when my wife, Nancy, and I hosted a young woman from Cyrpus who had come to this country through an exchange. Maria stayed in our home for two months, out of which we developed lifelong associations. We watched Maria grow into an exceptional professional. We followed the growth of her children.
And then, I experienced a wonderful opportunity when Maria Christopoulou, now involved in a leadership role in an international organization, orchestrated my invitation as a keynote speaker and helped me through the application process with Fulbright to help underwrite the experience.
The Fulbright award made this possible, and Cyrpus gave me more than I could ever give them – a seed of hope that stirs the human imagination and lights the fires of social justice and change. It is the reason I am a social worker.