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29 May, 2024
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Growing up in refugee camps

Sheltering generations: Refugee settlements' legacy


The painful experience of being violently uprooted, the worry about finding temporary shelter until they could return home, and the hardships faced in refugee camps – which turned into months and even years – are deeply etched in the memories and hearts of the refugees. Despite the bitterness, they also experienced moments of joy, such as births and marriages, during their time in the camps.

In 1974, the government faced a significant challenge in housing thousands of refugees who were forcefully evicted from their homes due to the Turkish invasion. The aftermath of the invasion brought economic and social consequences that needed to be managed as well.

The refugees had to seek temporary shelter wherever they could find it, either with relatives or in the temporary accommodations provided by the government. Many spent years living in tents in refugee camps, enduring numerous difficulties, especially during rainy days, which were frequently reported in the press at that time. The tents were often blown away by strong winds, and settlements were flooded during heavy rains. The refugees demanded improved infrastructure, including better housing conditions, electricity, water supply, latrines, and rent allowances to help them leave the camps.

To address this housing crisis, the government began constructing housing units, apartments, and houses in internally displaced persons (IDP) settlements from 1975 until the mid-1990s, as per data from the Ministry of Interior's Department of Urban Planning and Housing. Some additional housing units were also built or reconstructed between 2006 and 2011. The beneficiaries received the completed housing units based on their needs, and the titling of these units started in 2006.

For many refugees, it took years before they were provided with a house in a settlement or managed to build their own houses in self-housing areas.

Michael, from Famagusta, shared his firsthand account of living in a refugee camp in Dasaki, Achna, for about six years, starting from August 1974 until 1980. He and his family had to leave Famagusta during the second invasion and sought refuge in a car with several other people. They ended up in the terrain orchards outside town, and later, with the help of the British, they were moved to Dassaki in Achna, where numerous other refugees were already residing.

In the camp, they lived in difficult conditions – initially sleeping under lemon trees, later receiving tents and family tents, and eventually expeditionary beds. Winters brought flooding and challenges in cooking with limited resources. Michael attended school in nearby towns thanks to buses provided by the camp authorities.

Basic amenities such as running water were scarce, and it took around four years before it was brought in by tankers. The camp had makeshift toilets and bathing facilities, and during winters, they boiled water for bathing.

The entire experience was something they could only describe as resembling scenes from movies, but for them, it was the harsh reality they lived through.

Michael's sister even got married in the camp, reflecting the significant impact and prolonged stay of refugees in these challenging conditions. Food rations were provided as people had no jobs or money to buy their own.

Overall, the story portrays the immense hardships endured by the refugees and the struggle to rebuild their lives after being forcibly displaced from their homes.

In 1980, Mr. Michael and his family left the refugee camp after his father finished building their house in Dromolaxia on a piece of land granted to them by the government for self-housing.

According to data from the Department of Planning and Zoning, the process of allocating land for self-housing began in 1976, and these self-housing projects were established in various areas across all districts. A total of 14,063 plots were allocated nationwide, with Nicosia receiving 2,843 plots, Famagusta 2,314 plots, Limassol 4,421 plots, Larnaca 3,994 plots, and Paphos 491 plots.

Socrates Ioannou, along with his wife and 6-month-old son, lived in Xeros when the invasion occurred. They initially stayed with relatives after fleeing the village. Later, they were given a temporary house in Agios Pavlos, where they lived with their in-laws and sisters-in-law. However, they had to leave when they were asked to pay rent once Socrates started working. In 1978, they moved to a shanty camp near Kykkos II High School in Strovolos.

They had permission from Kykkos (Metropolis) to build a temporary shack, where they lived for about six years, waiting to be assigned a refugee house. In 1979, their second child, a girl, was born in the camp.

Socrates's son, Sotiris, fondly recalls his childhood experiences in the shanty town neighborhood. Despite the challenging circumstances, they had a good time as children. They played with friends, formed football teams with kids from other neighborhoods, and explored the fields and orchards nearby. Back then, the only available television channel was RIK, and they would secretly gather to watch TV shows when one family had a television.

In the shanty town neighborhood, there were eucalyptus trees everywhere, and they would cut branches and drop them on the tin roofs of the shacks, creating a clanging sound. Fortunately, no one got hurt during these playful incidents.

In 1984, Mr. Ioannou and his family finally moved out of the shanty camp when they were given a house in the Archangel Michael neighborhood in Lakatamia. Most families from the shanties were relocated to the same neighborhood or nearby areas.

Sotiris emphasizes that the bonds formed during their time in the shanty town remain strong even after many years. Whenever they meet, their first topic of conversation is often the memories they shared in those challenging but memorable times.

According to data from the Department of Town and Country Planning, more than 95% of the 13,635 housing units in the 66 refugee settlements are owned by 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation refugees. A small percentage of apartments were bought later by Cypriot non-displaced persons and/or foreign nationals from the original beneficiaries or their heirs after titling.

Most settlements, 22 in total, with 6,952 housing units, are located in Nicosia province. Limassol has 14 settlements with 2,947 housing units, Larnaca has 13 settlements with 3,320 housing units, Paphos has 10 settlements with 284 housing units, and Famagusta has seven settlements with 132 housing units.

When asked about the number of refugees residing in these settlements, the ministry mentioned that it's difficult to provide an exact count as the composition of each household keeps changing over time.

Over the years, the buildings, especially the apartment buildings, have faced numerous problems, with residents seeking solutions.

Currently, the "ktiZO" Project is in progress, and according to Margarita Kyriakou, the Press Officer of the Press and Information Office at the Ministry of Interior, it is the most significant intervention by the State in the housing sector in the last 50 years. The project was launched to address the housing needs of displaced persons after the invasion.

The Plan, announced by the Nicos Christodoulides Government on April 7, 2023, aims to permanently solve the housing problem in the 358 apartment buildings located in refugee settlements across the country.

The main objective of the project is to ensure decent and safe living conditions for hundreds of citizens. It is a top priority for the Government as part of its housing strategy, which aims to modernize policies and programs by establishing a Single Housing Authority.

Under the "ktiZO" Plan, 245 blocks of flats have been deemed to be in satisfactory condition, 70 blocks need maintenance, and 43 blocks face structural issues that make their repair unsustainable and economically unviable.

The implementation of the Plan has already started with the priority being the evacuation and demolition of 20 apartment buildings that experts consider to be in immediate danger and unsuitability. Beneficiaries of the 183 apartments in these buildings have been informed of the provisions of the Plan and have begun evacuating their apartments and expressing interest in participating.

The construction of the first blocks of flats is estimated to begin before the end of 2023, and it will take around 2 years to complete their reconstruction. So far, over 40 applications for participation have been considered, and the number is expected to increase in the coming weeks.

[With information sourced from CNA]

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