African Students in Northern Cyprus Aren’t Breaking. They Are Organizing.
Those who arrived to study in an unrecognized territory are finding they are their own best advocates.
An article in Foreign Policy published in June represented the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a place where African students are “unwanted, maligned, and sometimes destroyed.” International students are indeed facing problems in Northern Cyprus, including institutional discrimination from our own universities, inadequate access to housing, and even sexual harassment and violence, and the author of the article, Chigozie Obioma, sheds some welcome light on them.
What his article missed, however, is that the situation is not static, and that students are organizing and fighting to improve their situation and hold their universities, and the communities that surround them, accountable.
It is true that many students have been brought to the territory—whose sovereignty is only recognized by Turkey and where the United Nations maintains a peacekeeping force—by education agents who over-promise and misrepresent the living conditions and opportunities available in Northern Cyprus.
Obioma is also right to draw attention to the death of a Nigerian student and the murder of another who were studying on the island, and to emphasize that a significant number of African students have experienced sexual harassment or violence. His efforts to spotlight the everyday struggles of international students are welcome too. Paying bills in a territory where someone can be paid in Turkish lira and have to cover school fees in euros can be crushing; so can the simple act of being disappointed in the gap between expectations and reality on arrival.
However, international students have connected with one another and have taken some control over our situation. And we are leveraging our collective identity as foreigners to pressure institutions into addressing harmful policies. This is why it is important that any coverage of the lives of foreign students here should portray us as actively working toward solving these problems and creating a better environment for both students and locals.
By leaving out this essential thread, Obioma risks reinforcing the same stigma and stereotypes that African students, like he was himself in Northern Cyprus a decade ago, are working to overcome.
The ascent of social media has given representatives of African students and other foreign nationals in Northern Cyprus new abilities to challenge our institutions, and new communities. Student organizers, myself included, have successfully lobbied the Ministry of Labor to put in place laws that protect the working rights of international students and enforce those already on the books so foreign students can gain access to work permits, and employers who fail to pay them are penalized. International students have reached out to police in the region to discuss how to prevent inherent bias from souring interactions between officers and African students.
Student groups, like the one I co-founded, Voices of International Students in Cyprus, are continuously negotiating with the government officials, as well as meeting with civil society groups, to seek solutions to problems that students are facing.
Obioma’s article gives the impression that African students are only in Northern Cyprus because their education is a thin layer atop a broader goal—getting away from their countries. Some students may be fleeing war, but there are many others who are here because we want to study and return home to use our degrees. Many of us are already putting them to work in real time, to find solutions to the very problems Obioma’s article has drawn attention to.