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Interview with Salpy Eskidjian

September 13, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. in Nicosia

Anna Prodromou (AP)

Salpy Eskidjian  (SE)

AP: Salpy Eskidjian a woman, a professional, an activist, a friend, a mother. Quite a few identities - individual, social, collective identities - intersecting in just one person and I’m sure we could add more. Which identity, or which part of your identity, do you feel defines you the most?

SE: A woman, a mother, an advocate, a peacemaker and grandchild of survivors. It is hard to say that one identity defines me most. I am both a mother and a professional. Professionally, I would say what defines me most is being a rights advocate and a peacemaker. My two identities are continuously intertwined and sometimes also in conflict with one another, as I want to be perfect both at work and at home, which is a constant challenge. I have been brought up with many national identities. I grew up with many ethnic identities of a Cypriot, an Armenian, an Armenian-Cypriot and tried to make sense of it all, including the hyphens and lack thereof.

AP: Being more inclusive in that sense, accommodating all identities.

SE: Well, I am a woman first, a citizen of this world, and then a Cypriot of Armenian origin. I believe we all have multiple identities and there is not only one that defines us, but all of them. I can be a Cypriot, an Armenian, a woman, a mother, a professional, a believer and advocate all at the same time. This does not mean that I neglect one or the other or I am less one than the other. We also have to challenge the meaning of the hyphenated identity in Cyprus, i.e. Armenian – Cypriot or Greek- Cypriot etc. We don’t need to be hyphenated all the time as if we are half Cypriot and half Armenian or half Greek or half Turkish. We need to question why there is the constant need to state our differences instead of using an inclusive identity. I feel one hundred per cent Cypriot as well as one hundred per cent Armenian, even if I am not Greek or Turkish or not born and raised in Armenia.  I am now raising a daughter who is one hundred per cent Swedish, Cypriot and Armenian, but above all she is a girl child. It is not easy, as the way our communities, our institutions are designed, means that we are expected to be one or the other or a certain per cent of each one.

AP: Which identity challenged you the most throughout your life? Maybe the fact that you belonged to a minority, whether that is being Armenian or a woman in a male-dominated environment?

SE: It was not the Armenian identity that challenged me the most, but realizing the fact that being of Armenian ancestry made you “less Cypriot” because you were not part of the majority, be it Greek or Turkish. As a child, it was evident that the different flags around me were more than just flags and were defining me in a way that did not fit me. The fact that we all had a second flag which also carried an element of nationalism, divisiveness or even conflict. Being a woman in a male-dominated world had its challenges which I had to fight early on; however, having strong female role models in my life that believed in me, supported me and advocated for me to have equal opportunities in education helped me to stand up to that challenge.

AP: Do you think that belonging to a minority with different identities is what ignited your interest in sociology, because you studied sociology first.

SE: Who knows? Possibly. I studied Sociology and Criminal Justice first, where most of the classes I took were on political science and theory, followed by Human Rights and Diplomacy and then Development and Security. I grew up with a heavy past, a painful collective memory, although at the same time I was taught the importance of forgiveness, reconciliation, living with one another, respecting multiculturalism as well as the importance of truth, justice and peace. I always wanted to make sense of how societies were formed and evolved, how we were organized and how I could make the world a better place where there would be no more wars, poverty and pain. Sociology for my undergraduate degree was the subject that attracted me most after a year at University.

AP:  You have worked in different parts of the world, always striving for positive change, since you left University. Would you tell me a bit more?

SE: Well, I have worked both regionally in the Middle East and Scandinavia as well as internationally with an organization based in Geneva and New York, always working at the policy level on international affairs, human rights, disarmament and non-violence in ecumenical organisations, development agencies and the United Nations with a focus on the role of religion or religious actors. Since 2009, I have been working on peacebuilding and diplomacy at the national level in Cyprus, working with the civil society, both secular and religious. I serve on the Governing Board of the Home for Cooperation in the Buffer Zone working with different civil society non-governmental organisations.   I direct the Office of RTCYPP and facilitate the dialogue between the religious leaders of Cyprus for human rights, peace and reconciliation together with my work and life partner Peter Weiderud. In this capacity, I also convene a RTCYPP Round Table on Human Rights with all the faith communities in Cyprus, which had never happened before we initiated the RTCYPP in 2009 under the Auspices of the Embassy of Sweden. I have always been passionate about what I do. Working for human rights and peacebuilding cannot just be a job; it’s a vocation. Without passion, hard work and perseverance, you can’t be effective and this applies to all three levels.

With the RTCYPP, we were able to break new ground in Cyprus. We started quietly in the presence of the then Swedish Ambassador, who served as host and convener. For the first time in the history of Cyprus, we were able to make some serious breakthroughs, like bringing the Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus and the Mufti of Cyprus to acknowledge each other, to meet, to agree and work together for religious freedom and the Cyprus peace process. Eventually, they were joined by the leaders of the other religious faiths of Cyprus and together they achieved a few important steps; e.g. opening of new churches and mosques for worship, special pilgrimages to Hala Sultan Tekke, facilitated the agreement for the restoration of Apostolos Andreas Monastery, joint restoration and basic repairs of religious monuments, language courses in Turkish and Greek for clerical order and staff of the offices of the religious leaders and much more. Most importantly, we are at a place where one leader advocates for the rights of the other, instead of blaming each other. We have also developed excellent cooperation with the UN Good Offices and UNFICYP as well as other diplomatic missions and NGO’s, demonstrating the need to acknowledge the critical role that religious actors play in society, ensuring that it’s positive and noting the respect of religious freedom as an important element for peacebuilding.

AP: Do you think that the fact that there has not been a lot of publicity surrounding this project has worked to your benefit?

SE: Yes and no. The quiet diplomacy under the Auspices of the Embassy of Sweden and now with the support of the Director of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria has allowed us to create some very strong foundations. Quiet, safe spaces are needed in conflict zones where groups of people are divided for decades, so that they can come together, get to know each other, break barriers, build trust, change perceptions, and think anew. At the same time, if there is too much silence or the unknown, you allow space for others to make up stories that are not true or there is mistrust. From 2009 – 2011, it was a period of quiet diplomacy, and since 2012, we speak when there is something to say. Since 2016, the Office of RTCYPP has had a website and Facebook page and we use Twitter. Our joint projects and activities are public. The meetings follow the Chatham House rules. When there are agreements, they are announced, otherwise the gatherings are kept confidential.

AP:  So actually you were working in a male dominated environment. How challenging is that as a woman? If it’s challenging of course.

SE:  I have almost always worked in a very male dominated space where, in my first two jobs, I was the only woman in my field hired for an executive position. Women around me were the secretaries, administrative or finance assistants, cleaners or cooks. I was also the youngest woman ever hired for those positions. I was 23 when I was appointed to the first position and then 28 for the second. I faced all sorts of challenges, not only from the men around me, but also from the women who were all older than me and had lower positions than I. It was tough, but I thoroughly enjoyed the challenges, as I felt I was breaking glass ceilings. As a grandchild of survivors, I knew I had to make it like they had done before me under the conditions of war, massacres and deportations. I always had to study or work harder to gain the respect and place men had around me enjoyed with less effort, do more to prove myself in relation to my male colleagues who took their spaces and respect for granted. I felt the unfairness, but I never became bitter. It made me work even harder. I also had the support of some amazing men and women who believed in me, not because of my gender or age, but my brain and capacity. There were not many of them, but they were very influential, extremely supportive and honest. I learnt a lot, especially resilience and the importance to fight for equal rights and opportunities for young women. Having said this, I feel that after all, I gained the respect as a professional in my earlier positions as well as currently from all the religious leaders, who are all men. I feel I have an advantage being a woman peace mediator and facilitator. Women like me have to bear witness that gender, sexuality, age, religion, ethnicity, colour should not be an obstacle to having equal opportunities and responsibilities. With our presence in leadership positions, our integrity, our hard work, we become challenges to patriarchy.

AP: That is indeed true. One last question: are you optimistic or hopeful for the future of Cyprus?

SE: Well, hope is the last thing that dies. I am not always an optimist, but I would not be here if I did not have hope. Am I hopeful for a re-unified island? Like many in 2015 and 2016, I was very optimistic. Now, I wish I could be, but I am not giving up. I know that we should start from a different angle, namely focus on peacebuilding or confidence building that should be side by side any peace talks. It is important to nurture cooperation on all levels in society and to address and respect fundamental freedoms and human rights. We need to work on the elements that build trust. At the same time, we have to be bold and agree to relook at what we are teaching our children in public schools, in churches and mosques and not wait to start after a comprehensive solution has been achieved. We have to relook and revise what histories we teach our children. You cannot teach different histories and at the same time be at the negotiating table to reunify the island. We have to be honest with our histories, acknowledge the past and the mistakes to be able to move on. When each side starts from a different chapter, with a different vision, you can’t expect the same result. We also have to learn and teach empathy. We need to open our hearts and minds to one another, have more empathy and compassion, seek forgiveness and forgive. I want to end with a beautiful Native American saying I love, “Do not judge a person unless you have walked seven moons in his/her moccasins”

AP: Thank you very much for the interview!

SE: Thank you for your efforts and this beautiful project.

© 2017 ANNA PRODROMOU ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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