An Open Letter! North Cyprus: Paradise Island in Crisis!
I have been living in North Cyprus for at least 5 years now and to be honest, I have grown so much; as an intellect, as a humanist, as an activist and as a person in general. I have met some great people and I genuinely love North Cyprus, even though, I will have to leave sooner than later. It is the love for this place and its people that makes me so critical of it/them. And it is this same love that forces me to pen this treatise. The purpose of this is to highlight many of the issues which need to change if we are to see a more buoyant and socio-economic growth in North Cyprus dubbed the ‘Paradise Island’. As someone who has been in several student leadership positions for over 5 years now particularly as head of VOIS Cyprus which represents thousands of foreign students from diverse backgrounds, I can say that I have had a first class observatory position of the many difficulties which students face. I have also seen how progressively the policies adopted by public bodies and the universities do nothing to address these problems, because they are either not well thought-of or have misplaced priorities. Rarely are student organizations consulted before decisions are made, and when they are indeed consulted, their concerns are often ignored. Allow me paint a picture for you, and I hope you really do listen, because honestly, this place is going burst if we continue in this direction. I speak to students every day, and many of them just can’t wait to leave. This is sad, because North Cyprus has so much more to offer these students. I will try my best to be as detailed as possible. Please, read patiently.
Housing/Accommodation: Where do I start? This is probably one of the prevailing issues facing students. This sector which is completely unregulated is the perfect environment for the massive exploitation of students. Accommodation is really a serious problem. From terrible and dishonest agents to crooked and sneaky house owners and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s start with the dorms within the university. Lots of the affordable dormitories are owned by the universities, but by God, the living conditions are apocalyptic; - crammed, really old, malfunctioning and seriously are dangerous to live in. Because these dormitories are really hell-holes, lots of students after a few months or a year move to private dormitories or to apartments outside of their school campuses. The private dormitories are frankly an abomination! Some of the worst experiences which have been reported to VOIS Cyprus have come from students living in the private dormitories. To be honest, the practices of these private dormitories are nothing short of criminal. How they are still able to do this year-in-year-out is beyond my comprehension. Some of their tactics include misleading new students to sign 1 year contracts by telling them they can pay in installments or leave when they choose to after the first 6 months. However, after these contracts are signed and sometimes as early as a month after, they beginning intimidating these students in efforts to get them to pay a full year’s rent by sometimes cutting off electricity and water supply to these students as well as other techniques. We have had numerous cases where students have accused dormitory assistants of getting into their dormitories when they are not around to destroy property so as to prevent these students from claiming their deposits at the end of their contracts. There’s been more than one instance where during exam weeks, students who owe are locked inside their dormitories or their laptops are confiscated by dorm managers unless they pay what they owe or sign for another semester even if they no longer want to stay in these dorms. It is incredibly mind boggling and sad that when these students complain to their university administrators, they are always told that the universities have no jurisdiction over the dormitories which are found within their campuses. However, when students owe these dorms, somehow these debts make it to their school portals. The reverse unfortunately is not different; when the dormitories owe deposits or other payments to their student tenants, the universities claim they have no say in the matter because it is a private matter between the students and the dormitories. Surely if you are able to transfer the debts the students owe these dormitories into their school portals, then you should also be able to hold accountable the dormitories when the students do complain about them. If this is not the universities aiding and abetting in criminal activity, then I don’t know what this is. Students who choose to live outside of their school campuses are also faced with numerous challenges; house agents who collect rents on behalf of house owners only for the house owners to show up a few weeks later claiming they either do not know these agents or did not give the agents the authority to let out their apartments. Yet, somehow these agents have access to the apartments as well as other local documents. This practice is so common that one can no longer claim that it is a coincidence. When reported to the police, they often claim that they are unable to trace the whereabouts of these agents or in some cases waive the complainants away. We also have house owners who frankly, are cruel to students and try to strong-arm them to pay for the next year’s rent even before their contract expires. Also, what is this issue with paying rents yearly? Imagine as a student having to pay your school fees which ranges between 1000-4000 dollars each semester depending on the university, and having to pay a year’s rent (averagely for a moderate accommodation between 2500-10,000 dollars), at the same time. How many people can afford to pay this in one installment? To make matters worse, you have to put up with house owners who rarely do return deposits and in the event of disagreements are quick to call their friends within the police (who by the way have no jurisdiction in such issues as they are civil matters) to bully and intimidate their tenants. Some serious regulation needs to be introduced to fix this sector, and very quickly. It is beyond terrible!
Remarkable Ineptitude on the part of the Universities and YODAK: Really what is this system? First, there are some really suspect universities operating with fake courses which do not exist. Some of these universities are just money making institutions. When you do visit online, you will see fabulous websites, but the reality when one visits the physical site is a stark difference. Some even offer courses which do not exist. This proliferation of ‘sham’ universities is seriously affecting the quality of education here on the one hand, and on the other hand attracting students whose intentions are not to study. There’s this university almost on the outskirts of Famagusta; blood of Jesus! It looks like a warehouse from the 1960s, the ones you see in really old Hollywood pictures/movies.
The more institutionalized universities are also not helping. What is with these extremely high penalties for late school fees payment? I have met an unreasonable amount of students who have flat out dropped out of school because they say they cannot pay these accumulated debts. There was this interesting case where a student dropped out for one semester because he could not afford to pay for that semester. Then, he got a job and saved some money and at the start of the new semester went to pay his registration fee and realized that the debt had accumulated to almost 10,000 euros (over a couple of months). Honestly, mortgage loans are not even this high. He switched to another university (in case you are wondering what happened next). Unfortunately, he lost a couple of years because he could not get his transcript from his previous university. In these situations, there are no winners; both the students and the universities lose, more so, the students. These universities go abroad to advertise North Cyprus as a place for students to study in serenity and happiness, as the ‘paradise island, but is it? What do you as universities do to help students cope in daily lives? During orientation week do you prepare students for the years of difficulty they will face? Do you inform them about signing house contracts only if they are in a language they understand? About employment? About drugs? Prostitution? Alcoholism? Working conditions? Police brutality? Violence against female students, racism, and so on and so forth? No, you don’t. You promise these students paradise and yet abandon them in a seemingly dystopian society with no guidance and support systems. It is no wonder many students are resorting to drug abuse, alcoholism and abusive relationships as the only resort to easing their pain. Do you not notice the number of suicides is on the increase? The number of drug related deaths as well? The level of theft and prostitution? These are all as a result of university negligence. A lot of these students are very young and have never been outside the sphere of influence of their families, abandoning them to themselves is nothing short of appalling and irresponsible. The student society associations created by some of the schools to assist students have been so handicapped by university policies that they are frankly incapable of doing anything to help. In fact, they have become promotional tools for these universities. How can you really do these things? Many of the administrators of these universities have children studying abroad, you will not tolerate these things happening to your own children, so, why do you neglect and reinforce the systematic exploitation of others? The way I see it, the universities have primary culpability in terms of student problems. A lot of these problems may be happening outside of the school campuses, but the universities have let this happen under their watch. You can do a lot better!
Public bodies: Frankly how the government of this country runs this place is a disservice to everyone; locals, students, workers and tourists alike. The difference being that locals have their families and other support systems, tourists come for a while and leave, most workers are adults and can handle themselves, but the students, are really vulnerable. The laws and policies are put in place with zero consideration for students who let us face it, are the number one source of income for this country. How you expect to continuously neglect us but expect us to recommend North Cyprus to prospective students is frankly incomprehensible. A case in point is the new ‘Student friendly island project’. Let me put it this in really nice words (because whenever I think of this project, it just reminds me of how inconsiderate those who make these policies are); ‘this project will be a colossal failure’, so, please just save us all the stress and withdraw it from the agenda. Consult us and we will tell you how you can make this island more student-friendly. If you are uncomfortable talking to me or VOIS Cyprus, you do not need to worry, there are hundreds of other associations you can contact such as the National Association of Nigerian Students-NANS Tr Zone, among others. A project whose only intention is to attract new students and with zero consideration for those students who are already studying here? The way I see it, this project only benefits the bank involved no one else. The healthcare system is atrocious. We pay a high premium for health insurance yet many of us would rather go to private hospitals than use the public hospitals because many of the nurses and doctors either do not speak English, are rude, treat students really terribly, are dismissive, and so on and so forth. Bref, the service is terrible. I know of cases where students have gone to public hospitals and have been told they are fine and the next day upon visiting a private hospital are diagnosed with a really serious illness, some of them life threatening. There was a case I was called to intervene where because of a wrong diagnosis the student unfortunately lost his life. I tried convincing the family to file a suit because the evidence was really clear, but the family preferred to bury their son peacefully. I know these things because as head of VOIS Cyprus, I am often the call of last resort when students no longer know what to do. I have seen so much pain and suffering caused by this health care system. I still remember the case of Michael Saliu. I still have his pictures in my phone and sometimes when sad I go through just to see his smile. He was so strong right up until his last moments. He inspires me so much and I cry whenever I think of him. His death hurt me so much, and still haunts me all the time. He did not deserve to die, everything was in place to save him but for stupid laws (you can read up about this in a report I coauthored about this. The title is; “If laws kill...” https://www.voiscyprus.org/pub). A lot needs to be done in this sector. We are basically living in danger. I will not even delve into the way the government is handling the COVID19 situation...; atrocious to say the least. Dr. Özlem Gürkut covers this succinctly on her Facebook wall.
Labor Conditions/Exploitation: It is no secret that some of the labor conditions under which students work are slavery-like; long working hours with very little pay. With not enough monitoring and support systems, the exploitation of student workers is rife. It is not enough to establish a hotline; you have to educate people on what their rights are, and when they do report instances of labor exploitation examples have to be made of these employers. There is not enough of this being done. We all know that a significant number of students pick up odd jobs to be able to earn enough money to sustain themselves. However, this is proving very difficult and has created an industry ripe for exploitation. This labor exploitation even extends to within some of the universities. It is appalling that the Ministry of Labor just looks on.
Forced prostitution/rape/violence against women: This is a serious concern. There are so many cases of young female students being tricked into prostitution by both locals and other students/foreigners. It is quite shocking that this happens. People’s kids being raped and forced into sexual slavery. Rawaa Ahmed when she was here did a great job in trying to raise awareness on this issue, however, a lot more still needs to be done. We have people posing online as potential employers only for these girls to realize after they get these jobs that it includes having to have sex with the employer or his friends or other customers. Yes, this happens! Sometimes young students borrow money from their friends or from local shops and are forced to pay back by having to work as a sex worker. This may sound mind boggling, but this is happening right here right now. This doesn’t only happen to students, if you remember Ramadan Sanıvar just last week gave an interview where he shared information on forced sexual exploitation (https://www.kibrispostasi.com/c57-Adli_Haberler/n341560-av-sanivar-muvekkilim-pandemi-doneminde-fuhusa-zorlandi-kabul-etmeyince-darp-edildi). VOIS Cyprus has also conducted a survey on the issue of sexual violence (https://www.voiscyprus.org/pub titled; “A report on three surveys”).
University Agents : Along with the universities, these agents are equally culpable for a lot of the suffering here. What is more annoying is that many of these agents are either students or former students and should know better but to mislead prospective students. Do not get me wrong, being an agent is not the problem; however, misrepresenting the reality of North Cyprus by telling lies is the issue here. Even though we have countlessly informed the universities about this and asked for them to hold these agents accountable, nothing is being done about this. Agents lie and misrepresent and bring students here who end up having to go into drugs, prostitution, online scamming, theft and other illegal activities just to be able to survive because the reality they were presented with is different from that which they found upon arrival here. If this “agent industry” is not heavily regulated, things will only worsen. However, sometimes I do not blame the student agents who mislead and misrepresent because they themselves are caught up in this vicious circle of exploitation. They were themselves lied to and trafficked here and because they have no better alternatives, they decide to become agents in order to be able to survive, and so the vicious circle continues. The buck really stops at the doors of those who have the power to regulate but prefer not to. Make no mistake no single university can regulate this industry; it has to be a collective undertaking. But we know this is not possible because of the competition between the universities. Hence, the decision needs to be taken at the level of YODAK and the Ministry of Education.
The Police and immigration: I know I have been cautioned to refrain from criticizing the police, but frankly I cannot ignore one of the institutions responsible for reinforcing many of the problems students face. It makes no sense. On another note, why should I not? Are they not culpable? Don’t even know why I have to explain myself. The police force is supposed to be the first respondent in times of emergencies. However, a lot of the time they make things worse by almost always siding with the local. I have come across some really terrible cases. In fact, I was once hit by a police officer repeatedly without provocation. And this happened because he was physically harassing a female friend of mine who was involved in an altercation at the hospital. When we were taken to the police station, I met several police officers who knew me and pleaded on his behalf that I do not sue. I agreed to let it go, but today I regret it, should have set an example with him. There was this other time when I went in an official capacity as head of VOIS Cyprus to represent some girls who had been physically abused and harassed sexually by a local. We reported the case at the police station and as usually the case; the police requested that the girls provide their contact details. Lo and behold, one of the officers on the very same day privately messaged one of the girls attempting to court her for sex. I remember calling the police and was told the issue was going to be handled internally, which of course meant nothing was going to be done.
On the other hand, some of our strongest allies are also within the police force and have been immensely helpful over the last couple of years. Some of them are really gentle and thoughtful souls, but a lot of them really need to be trained on how to interact with a culturally diverse population. Sometimes I really do not blame these police officers, I blame the lack of investment in training programs by the state. Of course, there are lots of students who are really problems and serious problems at that too.
The immigration office is a different issue altogether. This office seems to operate with a different set of laws, ones which were thought of in space or Mars maybe. Imagine as a foreigner that your first experience at the airport is with an immigration officer who is rude, dismissive, aggressive and frankly hostile and violent. The experiences of many foreigners at the immigration at the airport are mind boggling. Honestly, the ministry of interior seriously needs to rein them in. They are so inconsistent too. Sometimes it seems as though their decisions are based on their moods. There have been lots of times when I’ve had to go to the airport or give them a call to explain what the law states and only to be told that they either do not care or where not aware of said law. It is crazy While we are at this, what is this crazy policy of deporting people living with HIV and other STDs? Are we living in the middle ages? People living with HIV and other STDs are not criminals. They have not committed a crime. In fact, modern medicine ensures zero transmissibility if properly taken. As such, they no longer pose a problem to society as the law claims. It is interesting that after talking to the offices of the Ministries of Interior, Health, as well as the office of the Deputy-Prime Minister they all claim that said deportation is illegal and has stopped, yet, we still see people being deported. Who then is doing the deportation? The law says such deportation is only possible following a determination by the Ministry of Health that said person poses a threat to society and a subsequent order from the Ministry of Interior. Both allege innocence...really interesting. Watch this documentary to learn more about the experience of a student living with HIV who was deported (https://youtu.be/jYQU9ow0Czg).
Mental health: On a serious note, attention needs to be paid toward the mental health of students. With every passing day here the general condition is worsening. The VOIS Cyprus committee dealing with mental health issues has been doing some work on this by creating social circles where students feel comfortable and safe to share their thoughts with one another. This committee under Ashraf Saleem has also penned letters to some universities calling on them to revisit their counselling departments and make them more accessible to students. So far, there’s been no response from these universities. For those who are not aware, we are in the middle of a mental health crisis and drug abuse problem which has been made worse by COVID 19. The neglect here is another classic example of the negligence of the universities and their failure to care for these students.
Racism: Do I need to say more on this subject? I think not. We have extensively covered this in our BLM campaign (find here: https://www.voiscyprus.org/pub).
General Living conditions: The general living condition for foreign students in North Cyprus is depreciating and becoming much harder and untenable for many. Prices of goods and services either need to drop or we’ll see more students move to Turkey. Turkey is attempting to duplicate the ‘North Cyprus model’ in some of its remote parts, and it is attracting many students there who find the living conditions cheaper and more affordable. There is also the fact that you really need to stop seeing international students as just money bags. It almost seems as though many locals just want to get a piece of the cake and move unto the next student. It is time to begin treating these students as though they were your kids, because in reality they are. Many students are just looking for guidance and the right emotional support. This is not meant as an indictment on North Cyprus but rather to engender a much needed debate before it becomes too late. This does not also absolve students from culpability. Some students are really terrible. For example, yesterday night I got into a lovely elderly man’s taxi. He told me that on many occasions, students will board his taxi and asked to be dropped somewhere. Upon arrival they’ll tell him to wait while they get into their apartment to get money, only never to return. He was really annoyed and asked me why some people would behave this way to an old man. I didn’t know what to say so told him plainly that some people are despicable. When he dropped me off at my location, he initially refused to take any money and we spent a while debating why I had to pay or not to pay. I ended up paying and also took his card. He said the next time we meet he wants to know more about Cameroon. I did not expect this treatise to be this long, and you may be surprised to learn that I wrote this on my phone. My fingers are tiring and I also need to do some much needed work I’ve had staring at me the whole time while I writing this I am hoping that as you read this, you tag your friends, schools, teachers, public officials, dorms, house owners, etc. Just a point to note, I’ll share this same message every day until changes are made.
Stay safe by staying home #COVID19 #EvdeKal #StayHome