In the spring of 2021, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Grampus training schemes offered across 15 European countries through EU Erasmus Plus were more or less suspended. Only in Cyprus were we able to assemble sufficient trainees, thanks to the government’s decision to keep doors open. This is where the story begins.
Cyprus is home to many refugees and asylum-seekers. At this time, those arriving are not so much Syrians and Afghans but rather people from Sub-Saharan Africa; first a trickle, now a flood, and there is alarm amongst Cypriots that there are too many. I have a rather different view because there is a great shortage of younger people who are willing to do manual work.
In a second-hand clothes shop, I met a very bright young lady called Janice; she came from Cameroon and had been struggling to make a living in Larnaca for over a year. First I asked where she came from. ‘Cameroon,’ she said; ‘Aha! Bafut?’ I asked. As a mask collector I once visited and bought some great Bamileke, Grasslands, and Fang tribal masks. ‘Yes, you know it!?’ came her response - her eyes were bright with the memory and a smile lit up her face. We chatted and I asked her to become a Facebook Friend. I’ve found that refugees’ experiences travelling in the EU makes them quite mistrustful, so it took a couple of weeks before Janice sent the request. I explained about our work in Europe and the projects we were collaborating on with the Law School of UCLan in Larnaca. I also told her - and I think this was important - that I had worked in Africa with native people and also with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in the former Yugoslavia.
Eventually, I asked Janice whether she would sew some customised denim for me and we met at a roadside buffet near her flat. Janice’s sewing was great and she asked if another Cameroonian lady could do some? This is how I met with Aunorine, who also proved to be a genius with a needle and thread.
Quickly piecing things together in my head, I spoke with the EU in regards to their policy on ‘Access to vocational training and (higher) education: Recommendations for the integration of refugees and migrants in Europe’ and was given guidance. I decided to offer a 32-day residential vocational training placement for the ladies in beautiful Pano Lefkara, famous for its embroidery, lace, and reticella, skills inherited from the Venetians and recognised by UNESCO as heritage under threat. I was a little nervous about taking West African refugees to a mountain village - there were now five of them, Janice and Aunorine were joined by Jeffrey (from Ghana) and two more Cameroonians, Gillian and Kelly - but the training in lace making, mosaic, fine line painting and rope and brick making proved a great success and the locals were kind and welcoming.
On completion of the training and awarding of ECVET (European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training) credits, we continued our customised denim sewing project with a new purpose. All five of the refugees had been trafficked. Though the official definition does not go far enough, this means ‘the business of inducing a person to perform labor or engage in prostitution through force, fraud, or coercion’; they have also been smuggled, lied to and charged huge amounts of money to get to Europe. They have also faced verbal and sometimes physical abuse, as well as been subject to various racist acts, not to mention the impacts of institutionalised racism.
Jeffrey’s story helped me understand. Here is an extract: ‘The biggest and most important thing for the asylum-seeker is the Examination. This process could range between two and five days, or more if required. You are required to give detailed reasons, circumstances, and motives for your request for asylum. You are asked questions ranging from your family history, country, and personal life. This is where your fate is decided. Your application for asylum is either accepted or denied after this examination. If it is accepted, you can proceed by submitting your acceptance letter and confirmation letter to the Social Welfare Service and Ministry of Health for a medical card. If your application is rejected for any reason, you are given a letter to that effect.
You have the option to appeal with the help of a lawyer, but you will not be attended to by Social Welfare Service until you are done with your appeal. After that hectic process comes the struggle for integration. Most of the asylum-seekers only get jobs that pay the very minimum wage, and that's if you are very lucky to get a job at all. Surviving from the little financial assistance from the state isn't easy, although it does go a long way.
Attention and appreciation needs to be given to organisations like Caritas and MiHub in collaboration with the Red Cross, ones that help out asylum-seekers in diverse ways. They provide food items, advice, and guidance. Most of asylum-seekers are exploited - the women I spoke with raised the issue of potential employees asking for sexual favours before giving them employment. The guys earn less than the regular wage but work twice as hard as people with citizenship.
All in all, the UN Refugee Agency is doing a pretty good job, but of course there is always room for improvement. UNCHR and the ministry in charge of asylum-seekers need to educate them about their rights and responsibilities early on in the process. Asylum-seekers and refugees should not be seen as a problem but rather a solution; these people are eager to work and contribute to the community, they should be encouraged to pursue higher education and they should be supported if they show unique abilities. This would help both parties in the long term’.
As we got to know and trust each other, the idea for our 'brand' came to life. NO TRAFFICKING FOR ME now offers a huge selection of totally unique and funky denim clothes - from jeans and skirts to jackets and dungarees - with each sale directly supporting these severely disadvantaged but incredibly skilled young people. A recent initiative was to showcase the clothes and hold a photoshoot in the north of Cyprus - it caused quite a (positive) stir amongst locals, who stopped their cars and asked, ‘can we buy these clothes?’ When the Covid dust settles, the pieces will be sold from a small shop in the village of Kato Drys, just southwest of Larnaca.
Read more of Martin Clark's articles in Sublime Magazine
About the author
Martin David Clark is the Director of ‘Grampus Heritage & Training’, one of Europe’s most successful international vocational training organisations, with a 26-year unbroken track record of delivering training in traditional, environmental, and archaeological skills. They are promoters of non-formal education and have worked in 30 European countries, plus Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, and Tunisia. As well as rescuing dying skills, Grampus promotes sustainability and battles again racism and social inequality. Grampus have worked in partnership with Sublime Magazine for the past 14 years.