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Spirited women of Cyprus

By Marina Marangos

Instead of a single individual, this interview is with a type of extended family.

I am standing in the kitchen of the Cypriot Community Association of Queensland at 8 Vulture St., Brisbane, Australia. This is a property owned and managed by the Cypriot community, boasting a large communal area and commercial kitchens.

Some 15 women surround me: Oxoula from Aradippou, Christoula and Katerina from Milia, Ammochostou, Loukia from Agros, Yiannoula and Nina and a host of others. Women also from Agros Pitsillias, Achna, Kyrenia, Marathovouno, Kalo Chorio in Larnaca, Milia and Athienou, Cypriot villages where they were born and raised, and from where most left reluctantly, sadly and, in most cases, irrevocably, after the Turkish invasion of 1974.

The women welcome me with open arms. I am here for the day as we set out to make the 4,000 koupes needed for the Greek Panigyri – Brisbane’s biggest Greek festival, coming up over May 20-21.

Koupes are only one of many tasty Cypriot snacks to be prepared in advance, and frozen to ensure there are enough for the hundreds of thousands who come to Panigyri every year.

The koupes alone require a staggering 40kg of pork mince, 40kg of onions and a 20kg bag of bulgur wheat with which to make the koupes’ outer casing. Already working away when I arrive, I am quickly included in the production line with mathematical precision and much merriment, charged with weighing each cup-load of filling to ensure they are the same weight.

While each woman carries out her assigned task, the conversation flows in a mixture of Greek and Australian. There are a lot of special words particular to them: boxies, marketta, caro, friza – all Gringlish that they have construed as the new language of their adopted country.

I ask them whether coming here was difficult and how they were welcomed. Some reply that receiving the invitation to come was fairly straightforward, as a number had relatives here already.

“We were refugees and we were accepted as such,” one woman says. “Then, it was something that was universally understood to indicate displacement and need – it should have the same meaning now.”

She adds: “sadly, through no fault of their own, so many of the refugees these days find a very different welcome”.

A lot of the women left family and property behind, but you can see they’re fighters. Even when being called “wogs” [slang for a foreigner or immigrant] at school, they had taken it on the chin. All of them are universal in their praise of Australia.

Together with the Italians, who had migrated a little earlier, they are now the chosen groups. Everyone loves Cypriot and Italian cooking and all the stories of cultural belonging. The women are the best advocates of their cultural roots and ties. They respect Cyprus traditions and culture as if they had never left. The same antagonism they faced back then, other newer groups, African and Muslim groups, are facing now. Asian immigrants underwent a similar process. It takes time. Australia integrates her refugees and immigrants, and they become – bar a few exceptions – welcome in a multicultural community celebrating diversity.

We eventually sit down for a breather and, within minutes, olives and halloumi, watermelon and fanouropitta appear on the table, as well as little koulourakia and eliotes. Everyone tucks in.

The discussion around the table is the exacting programme of their activities, not only to produce the thousands of koupes, sheftalies, moussaka and other Cypriot food, but also to devise their menu and carry on feeding about 300, mainly elderly, community members, who come to the Centre every Tuesday for a game of Bingo. The game is ably organised by Maroula Christoforou from Limassol, followed by a mid-morning snack and then a good lunch.

None of these women are paid; none expect anything back, other than support from one another and camaraderie. They talk about women’s issues, but also about caring for the elderly, the problems of working and finding time for all the extra activities like teaching Greek dancing, arranging all the coffees and teas and snacks for the national holidays coming up and ensuring the less fortunate are not short of anything.

There is a veritable web of interfamily relationships, some of which I envy. My family is very linear and straightforward. Here, there is complexity and, sometimes, intrigue: so-and-so’s son has married the niece of one of the women; the daughter-in-law of another is just pregnant; the cousin from Cyprus is related to friends from the same village… and so it continues.

The exacting and tiring work they have just completed took them all day on their feet, and yet none opted out. When we all eventually leave, most head off to collect grandchildren from school, or other family members, and then home to cook a full dinner and carry on with all their household activities. Some also work in family businesses and must juggle those demands as well.

This is what I know of the women back in Cyprus, women who don’t complain, who accomplish and move forward. It is even more remarkable to see what this group has achieved here, away from their roots and from family and friends, but able always to dig deep into their cultural connections and commitments to celebrate that little island they all once called home.


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