Two Books, a Gold Coin and Many Stars…
By Aysel K. Basci
I was once a Cypriot. I was born in 1955 in the small village of Potamia, 20 miles south of the capital, Nicosia. At the end of 1963, when I was 8 years old, a serious intercommunal violence broke out in Cyprus between Turks and Greeks and my family along with all the other Turkish Cypriot residents of Potamia were forced to flee. We became refugees and lived the following 7 years, enclaved, in the Turkish quarter of Nicosia. To say that those years were difficult would be a huge understatement. After 7 years, my family made a brief return to Potamia, our hometown, assuming the political turmoil in Cyprus had somewhat eased. Sadly however, in 1974, just three years after we returned to Potamia, the political landscape in Cyprus changed from bad to worst. On July 15, 1974 there was a coup d’état, which aimed to assassinate the elected president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, and unite the island with Greece (Enosis). This egregious development prompted Turkey’s (a constitutional guarantor of the Cyprus Republic) military intervention in Cyprus and there was a major war.
In 1975, a year after the war, I came to the United States, at age 19, to receive a university education. For numerous reasons, I was to never return to Cyprus. What follows is the story of my last year in Cyprus and my bittersweet departure for the United States.
The Aftermath of the War
By the end of August 1974, the war and all the fighting had ended in Cyprus. Turkey’s July 1974 military intervention in response to a coup d’état – orchestrated by the Greek military junta in Athens and intended to unite Cyprus with Greece – was successful. That intervention later became known in Northern Cyprus as the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation. The lives of many Turkish Cypriots had been saved, albeit at a high price, and the independence of Cyprus as a republic had been preserved.
After the war ended, the entire island of Cyprus was in turmoil and people were trying to put their lives back together. A border, known as the Green Line, had been established to separate the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Greeks occupied the areas to the south and Turks lived north of the border. Potamia, my hometown, was south of the border and my family’s farm was right on the border. Our home, farm, and other properties were all lost indefinitely and we became refugees for a second time. Worse still, we were now a split family. My father and 15-year-old brother were in the south under house arrest in Potamia. The rest of us were in the north in the Turkish quarter of Nicosia at my grandparents’ home.
For me, the six-week period following the end of the war was painfully uncertain. I had lost all contact with the Martins, my diplomatic American sponsors, who at the start of the war had been evacuated to Beirut, Lebanon, and would not return to Cyprus until the end of the year. My higher education in the United States was at that point all but a dream. I had no choice but to change my plans: I decided to go to Turkey and attend a university there as soon as I could, in spite of the difficulties I might face there. By then, all the universities in Turkey had opened, and the school year had already begun for everyone except the Turkish Cypriot students. There was a military blockade around Cyprus and we could not leave the island by air or sea. We had no choice but to wait and see what would happen.
The waiting period was especially hard for me because of the big risk I had taken the previous year in accepting the American sponsorship to study in the United States. One of the conditions I had agreed to was that I would wait a year in Cyprus before I started my university education in the United States. That meant the university entrance exam I took in 1973 to enter a university in Turkey (at that time, there were no universities in Cyprus – everyone had to go abroad for higher education) was no longer valid. Those exams were repeated every year, and the results were only valid for that year. My big worry was that eventually, when I got to Turkey, I would be rejected by the universities because my exam results would be outdated.
Because of the bleak situation, I couldn’t sleep at night. I lay awake in bed for hours thinking about the possibilities of what might happen to me and my education prospects. Night after night, at odd hours, I would get up and go into my mother’s room. I would wake her up and talk to her until the morning about my worries. She would try, unsuccessfully, to send me back to bed to sleep.
In the mornings, I would get up very early and walk to the Ministry of Education building, not far from my grandparents’ house, about 20 minutes’ walk. I would sit on the steps at the entrance and wait for the officials to arrive and open their offices. Many times, I was there before 6 am, even though the offices did not open until 8:30 am. I was hoping to see the Education Minister, Mr. Oguz Veli, to explain my situation and ask for help. One day, after days of fruitless waiting in front of the ministry, I was able to stop and talk to Mr. Veli.
I was so insistent, that he took me into his office where I explained my situation to him. He listened to everything I had to say. When I had finished, he said he could not help me because his office’s top priority at the time was to get the Turkish Cypriot students who were already enrolled in universities in Turkey to their schools whenever the situation improved. The ministry had compiled a list of those students and only those on that list would be permitted to travel abroad once the ferry trips started.
My concerns were only increased by talking to Mr. Veli. I continued going to the ministry every day and made my presence known there. Every morning I greeted the officials outside the ministry and reminded them of my problem as they walked by and went into their offices. They got used to seeing me there. My mother began to worry about my mental health because I did not talk about any other topic. I constantly strategized about what I could do. She offered to take me to a psychiatrist many times, but I refused. On several occasions, I overheard my mother and grandfather talk about how I might never recover from this blow. They always concluded that there was not much that could be done other than wait and be patient.
Finally, at the end of September, we heard that the sea blockade had been partially lifted. A ferry would depart from Famagusta and sail to Mersin, Turkey. As expected, only those students enrolled in the universities in Turkey were authorized to travel in that ferry. Sick and wounded people who needed emergency healthcare abroad were also authorized to travel.
My brother Ismail, who had been accepted to study finance at the University of Istanbul, was on the authorized students’ list. I was happy for him. Preparations for his departure were made very quickly and were very limited. On his departure date, my mother and I took Ismail to the bus station behind the Kyrenia Gate in Nicosia. There we said goodbye to him as he boarded the bus and waved farewell.
There were several buses leaving that day full of passengers who would make the trip on the ferry from Famagusta to Mersin. I cried the entire way back home because I was convinced I would never make it out of Cyprus. I was also convinced I would probably not get a university education -- something that was of paramount importance to me. My mother again offered to take me to a psychiatrist, suggesting that a doctor could prescribe medication that would ease my anxiety. Once again, I refused to go.
A few days after Ismail left, we heard that a second ferry was scheduled to leave soon and all the remaining university students would be transported to Turkey on it. I went into a panic and immediately walked to the Ministry of Education building to see Mr. Veli and remind him of my unique situation. His secretary would not allow me to go in, but I went into his office anyway. I told him again all about my problems: that I was supposed to study in the United States, but because of the war I could not leave in time, and my university entrance exam for Turkey was no longer valid. Mr. Veli was a kind man. For the second time, he patiently listened to my story. When I finished, he gave me a surprising response that made me very happy.
He said there was a group of approximately 10 Turkish Cypriot students who, prior to the war, were studying at the Higher Technical Institute on the Greek side of Nicosia (this was a newly opened United Nations-funded university where both Greek and Turkish students could study). The 10 Turkish students could no longer study there and would have to transfer to appropriate universities in Turkey to continue their education. Six of these students chose as their transfer destination Bosphorus University, a prestigious Istanbul school established long ago by Americans. Mr. Veli told me that because of my unique situation he could add my name as the seventh student on the list. I was ecstatic and thanked the minister repeatedly before I left for home.
A few days later, the list of students authorized to leave the island on the second ferry was published and my name was on it! I was first to see the list because I had waited for hours in front of the ministry to see it posted. That night I slept well, and the next day I started preparing for my departure. I bought my bus and ferry tickets. Then, I packed some clothes in a suitcase and, most importantly, packed the documents showing the results of my 1974 SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the 1973 Turkish University entrance exam. I was ready to leave!
On the morning of my departure, I said goodbye to my two sisters and grandparents at home. Then my mother took me to the same bus station from which Ismail had left a week earlier. The station was crowded with students and their families who had come to see them off. My mother was sad to see me go, and wanted to do something special for me. It was a chilly October morning, and around us were street vendors selling all sorts of things. To warm me up, my mother bought me a hot drink called salep. The mention or the sight of a salep still reminds me that sad day and I refuse to drink it.
Shortly later the bus took off for Famagusta where the ferry would leave for Mersin, Turkey. My mother waved at me for a long time. I could see her crying as she began to walk back home. It was not easy for her. She had just said goodbye to two of her children in one week under the worst of conditions: her husband and a son were captive in Potamia, with no indication of what might happen to them. However, I knew my mother was happy for me. She knew I would rather be on that bus that day than anywhere else. It was all for the best. Thus, my journey to Turkey began.
When we arrived in Famagusta and got off the bus, I felt sad because I was going far away from my family and had no idea when I might see them again. Although I did not know what awaited me in Turkey, I put all those worries aside and decided to concentrate on the immediate future—the next few days. I boarded the ferry and the journey resumed. There were a few students on the ferry I had seen before, but did not know well. None of my classmates from high school was there. This must have been because they had started university the previous year and were all on the first ferry that had left a week earlier.
After the ferry departed, I started searching for the group of six students from the Higher Technical Institute who were transferring to Bosphorus University in Istanbul. My situation was the same as theirs, at least according to the paperwork Mr. Veli had given to me. Accordingly, it was important to find them and travel from Mersin to Istanbul with them, which I did.
Later, while still in the ferry, I saw two classmates, Yunus and Ufuk, from my elementary school, whom I had not seen for years. After elementary school, I had continued my education at Nicosia Turkish Girls Lycee. Yunus and Ufuk had gone to other schools. In an interesting way, Yunus’ mother was important to me. She had worked as a librarian in the United States Information Agency (USIA) office on the Greek side of Nicosia, and was one of the very few Turkish Cypriots employed by the American Embassy. She was important to me because she would regularly take old American magazines (LIFE and others) no longer needed in their office to the public library in the northern part of Nicosia, where I used to spend a lot of time. Because of the political difficulties in Cyprus, the library had limited resources for obtaining new reading material. No new books or magazines were arriving. It was as if time froze in 1963 and everything remained as it was for several years. Over these years, I had read pretty much everything that was available there and desperately needed new material to read.
When I learned that the old American magazines would be delivered from the USIA office to the public library late on Friday afternoons, I started waiting for them so I could read them and improve my English. To this day, I remember how I enjoyed looking in awe at the colored pages of those magazines. That was how I learned all about the American and European movie stars who were famous at the time: Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivian Leigh, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, and so many others. Their pictures on the cover of Life magazine were spectacular and I gazed at them for a long time. The fact that the magazines were six months to a year old did not matter to me. I looked at the colorful pages and beautiful photos with pure enjoyment, while I also tried to understand what was written on the pages. When I saw Yunus on the ferry, these wonderful memories prompted me to go over and tell him how much I appreciated what his mother had done for the library.
A Year in Istanbul
The ferry trip between Famagusta and Mersin turned out to be very uncomfortable. The sea was choppy, there were strong currents, and a lot of people got seasick. After about three hours, we reached Mersin and disembarked. My elementary school friends, Yunus and Ufuk, were heading to Ankara, so I said goodbye to them and joined the group of six students who were going to Istanbul. We all bought our bus tickets and boarded the bus.
Five hours later we reached Istanbul. We figured out which city bus we needed to take to get from the main bus terminal on the Anatolian side of the city to Bebek located on the European side, where Bosphorus University was located. We all rode the bus together to Bebek. The school administrators at the university were expecting us because Mr. Veli had personally contacted the admissions office and informed them that seven students were coming as transfer students
The personnel at Bosphorus University were very kind to us. They welcomed us enthusiastically and immediately took us to the admissions office where they started to do the paperwork for our enrolment. It was a pleasant experience. At one point, when the head of the admissions discovered that all seven students in our group were females and all were enrolling in engineering he said, “What is wrong with Cypriot girls; why do they all want to be engineers?” That was a nice touch. We all felt comfortable and at ease. I registered as a freshman in Chemical Engineering, while the rest of the group registered as sophomores in their respective branches of engineering (mostly Civil and Industrial Engineering).
In retrospect, I made a big mistake that day. The curricula at Bosphorus University are taught entirely in English, and the university had one of the best preparatory English language programs in the country. If I had signed up for the English language preparatory program that day, and deferred my entry into the Engineering school by a year, I would have done myself a huge favor. However, I did not know any better. After attending my first few classes, I realized my English was quite limited. I suffered with that limitation during the rest of the semester.
There was one more difficulty I needed to resolve. My group of seven Cypriot students was supposed to be housed at the girls’ dormitory on campus. However, we were told the dormitory could take only six additional students. My name was not on the list for on-campus housing, so I ended up staying at an off-campus girls’ dormitory many miles away in Kabatas. I stayed there for a few weeks and went to school by bus. That was not at all easy. The bus ride consumed too much of my time and I did not like being away from my classmates and the campus.
Then, one day I went to the girls’ dormitory on campus and met with the housemother, Zeynep Hanim, a very sweet, middle-aged, lady, who was best friends with most girls in the dormitory. I told her I was having difficulty studying at the university, because I was living in a dormitory in Kabatas. She was sympathetic and said she would find me a place right away. Starting on the second floor, she went from room to room and asked the girls (4-6 girls shared each room) if they could accommodate one more person. There was no room on the second floor. However, on the first floor, in the corner room that had a beautiful view of the Bosphorus Strait, the girls said that they had space for one more person. My problem was solved! I thanked Zeynep Hanim and the girls in my new room for taking me in. I was finally settled and quite comfortable. By the end of that year, we had all become very good friends.
The usual method of communicating at that time was through letters. Telephones were not available for most people and were very expensive. After I got to Istanbul, I began to write letters to my family and kept them up to date about my situation. My brother Ismail, who had arrived in Istanbul a week earlier than me, learned from my mother’s letters that I was also in Istanbul and came to see me one weekend. That was a happy and memorable visit. From then on, he visited me on weekends whenever he could spare some time.
The first academic semester at Bosphorus University was a huge challenge for me. To begin with, I had missed almost two months of classes, and catching up was not easy. Furthermore, I was in a new country and my entire world had changed. Adapting to all this change was taking time. Lastly, I was under the impression that back in Cyprus my father and brother would not make it out of Potamia. I thought sooner or later they would be killed, and I would never see them again. Sometimes, I wondered if they were still alive. One day, I was at the student relations office and somehow ended up telling my problems to one of the personnel there. I do not recall her name, but she was a very nice woman. She pulled me aside and told me that, given my circumstances, I should consider taking leave of absence for the remainder of the semester and start fresh the next semester. I promised to consider her suggestion, but did not act on it.
In December, I received a letter from my mother telling me that, after 6 months of captivity, my father and brother had finally escaped from Potamia and were now safely in Northern Cyprus. My family was finally united! This was great news, but it made me emotional. From the moment I heard the news, I could not stop crying. I had a full breakdown! At the end of December, I applied for leave of absence for that semester. My request was granted by the university, and I went back to Cyprus. The semester would end at the end of January and there was a two-week break before the second semester started. This meant I could stay in Cyprus for about six weeks and try to recompose myself.
In the meantime, my newly united family resettled in Argaki as second-time refugees. When I went back to Cyprus, I found them there – a place I had never seen before. We were happy we were all still alive. At the same time, though, we were sad that we had lost everything we had and would have to start our lives all over again, just like we did in 1964. At age 52, my father once again had to start from scratch to make a new life for us. It was a monumental challenge, but he accepted it with optimism.
When the school break ended in mid-February of 1975, I went back to Istanbul and started school again. Soon after, I was notified that a prominent Turkish chemical and petroleum corporation, the Istanbul Petroleum Refinery Corporation (IPRAS), had given me a full scholarship. This was great news because I had very little money, almost none. I happily accepted the scholarship. By March, all my problems had been resolved, and I settled into routine student life at Bosphorus University. During the second semester, I enjoyed life in Istanbul and particularly Bosphorus University. I made new friends and adjusted to life in Istanbul very well.
In April, as the first signs of spring became visible, I noticed how beautiful the city of Istanbul was. After the dark clouds and low temperatures of winter had cleared away, the city was getting ready for a glorious spring. Bosphorus University sat on top of a hill overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. From my dormitory window, I could see the foot of the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe and Asia. In fact, there were many magnificent, intoxicating views from other points on campus. Day by day, the redbud trees, which were everywhere on campus, started to come alive.
By May, the whole campus was covered with a pinkish, purplish, red color. It was as if nature had thrown a beautiful blanket across the university and its surroundings – a feast for my eyes. I had never seen a redbud tree before. Cyprus is too hot and dry for it to grow. As I soaked in the natural beauty of Istanbul, I also understood why Napoleon Bonaparte, upon visiting the city a long time ago said, “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” I was totally mesmerized by the city’s beauty.
My favorite escape, or study break, during these months was walking in Bebek by the Bosphorus Strait and watching the huge tankers and other ocean-going freighters sail by. I did not know it at the time, but this was a very special view which was hard to find anywhere else. There were also the famous “stairs.” Because the Bosphorus campus was on top of a hill, if I wanted to climb up there on foot, instead of taking a taxi, I could walk up the steep stairs. I did not count how many times I climbed those stairs, making frequent stops to look back and see the beautiful views.
In Bebek, while I watched the two-way, sometimes very dense, traffic of tankers and super tankers with their colorful flags sailing by, I would often remember the phrase, “two ships that pass in the night.” I wondered what the chances were that the ships I was looking at then would ever cross paths again. Istanbul was having a profound effect on me, and I cherished it!
Another favorite activity of mine was to go to the library at Bosphorus University and either study or observe others who were there. The library was impressive. There was no comparison between this architecturally and otherwise magnificent library and the public library in Nicosia where I had spent so much of my time during middle and high school. This was a real library! It was full of books, magazines, newspapers, and other documents. There was not the slightest possibility of running out of materials to read. Furthermore, this library was not frozen in time like the one in Nicosia. New materials were delivered continuously. It was full of life and totally up to date. I have so many fond memories there, either preparing for my classes, writing papers, conducting research on a specific topic, or just watching other people carry out these same tasks. For me, this library was a priceless gift!
I cannot end talking about Bosphorus University without mentioning the social scene on campus. It was lively, interesting, and entertaining. This was the first time I was exposed to real diversity. I had classmates and dormitory friends who were from many different parts of Turkey, and some from abroad. Some students, despite being Turkish, had accents I could not understand. There were also a few Greek and Armenian students in my classes whose families had long roots in Istanbul. They spoke Turkish so well that, if it was not for their names, I would have never guessed they were not Turkish. I was absorbed in the richness of the cultures there and enjoyed it. I will never forget the many times I sat on the “steps,” as they were dearly known by the students, and literally watched what was happening on campus. The steps were right in front of the girls’ dormitory, to the right at the edge of the campus square. I believe they were constructed for this precise purpose – so students could sit and do their “people” or “campus” watching. It was fantastic! One could learn a lot simply by sitting at the steps and observing.
A unique occurrence, which could be observed from these steps, happened only in this one corner of the campus. Every night, the female students residing at the girls’ dormitory were picked up by their families or their dates – some in limousines, some by private chauffeurs, and some by taxis. The curfew for female students to get back to the dormitory was 11 pm on weekdays, and 1 am on weekends. Just outside the girls’ dormitory gate was a small guardhouse where a guard always sat. If the name of a female student was not on the authorized list kept by the guard, she could not remain outside the dormitory past the curfew. When the female students returned, before going into the dormitory, they had to sign in. During these two times, when the female students were going out and when they were coming back, there would be a traffic jam in front of the girls’ dormitory. These were the busiest and most lively times of the day. And, it was a lot fun watching it from the steps.
In April 1975, while I was studying at Bosphorus University, I received an important letter from my mother saying that the Martins (my diplomatic American sponsors) had been back in Cyprus since January. They had eventually established my family’s new location in Argaki, and were granted a permit to cross the border into Northern Cyprus in April. They were wondering if I was still interested in the sponsorship they had offered me the previous year. In her letter, my mother wrote she had given my Istanbul address to them so they could communicate with me directly. That is how I reconnected with the Martins.
Soon afterwards, Mrs. Martin wrote to me that if I still wanted to go to the United States, they could offer me the same sponsorship as before, but starting a year later. Because of the political situation in Cyprus, the State Department had extended their assignment there by a year. As a result, instead of going to Washington in August 1974, they would go in August 1975. Furthermore, she wrote that if I intended to go to the United States, I would need to take the SAT once again because my previous SAT results were no longer valid. The next SAT scheduled to be administered in Istanbul was just weeks away. I needed to register for it immediately.
After reading Mrs. Martin’s letter, I knew I had a difficult decision to make. I was happy and comfortable in Istanbul. I loved my school and new friends. My IPRAS scholarship had provided a great deal of security and comfort for me. However, studying in the United States was a fantastic opportunity that could not be easily dismissed. I spent the next few days confronting this dilemma. Finally, on the day of the deadline for registering to take the SAT, I made up my mind: I was going to take the “road less traveled.” I was going to go to the United States for my education!
In Istanbul, the SAT was administered at Robert College, not far from Bosphorus University. Both institutions were established by the same American missionaries in the mid-1800s. Robert College is the equivalent of a high school. As soon as I made my decision, I took a bus and went there to register for the next SAT, managing to do so just a few hours before the deadline. Two or three weeks later, I took the SAT, then waited for the results.
Eventually, the results of my second SAT arrived. They were good! I could enter any university of my choice in the Washington area. After thinking about it, but without any real knowledge, I decided to attend American University in Washington, DC. The primary reason was the proximity of American University to the address where the Martins would live after moving back to Washington. They had told me they had purchased a house on Benton Street in the Glover Park neighbourhood, from which I could walk to American University in 20 to 25 minutes. Also, funny as it might sound, the name of the university sounded good to me. I had heard of American University in Cairo and American University in Beirut. Both were respectable schools. So, I concluded that American University in Washington must be a good school, too. At that time the Internet did not exist and detailed knowledge about distant places was very hard to come by. We had to make many important decisions somewhat in the dark. Looking back on it, I do not have any regrets about choosing American University.
May and June went by quickly. The school year would end at the end of June. When the time came to leave Istanbul and Bosphorus University, I was heartbroken. I had become used to both. Saying goodbye was not easy. My last night on campus was somber, reflective, and almost sad. I decided to do nothing except just sit on the “steps” near the girls’ dormitory and listen to the sounds of the campus. I sat there for a few hours and enjoyed the beautiful scenery and the usual hustle and bustle. That was my goodbye.
The next day, I traveled to Cyprus, first on a bus and then on a ferry. I had just over a month to spend in Cyprus before leaving for the United States. Once again, I was full of mixed feelings and anxiety. As my departure date drew closer, my feelings became even more mixed. My new destination was further away from home, and I imagined that this new world would be very different from the one I was accustomed to. I wondered how I would cope and whether I had made the right decision in choosing to complete my education in the United States rather than stay at Bosphorus University, where I was so happy and comfortable.
The few weeks I spent in Argaki with my family before leaving for the US were nice and restful. It was almost like the calm before the storm. Despite my mixed feelings, I managed to remain calm and even volunteered to help my family with their farming work. This was highly unusual. I normally stayed away from all farming tasks, at all costs. My father had been given some land near Argaki in exchange for the land and farm we had lost in Potamia. True to his character, my father threw himself into farming these lands to the best of his ability and with his usual enthusiasm. He wanted to make a new living as a farmer in Argaki.
I do not recall exactly what crop was being planted (most likely potatoes), but there was a big planting job to be done, and a group of temporary workers had been hired to do it. I joined in and went with my family to help out. My idea was more to maximize the time I spent with my family than provide any real help planting the crops. I am glad I did it; it was a lot of fun.
In Cyprus, August is very hot and dry, almost unbearable. If one is not used to being outside under the intense sun, it can be overwhelming. Just in case the sun and the heat got to me, there were a few large trees nearby with some shade where I could take refuge and rest. But it did not become necessary and I did not need to shelter under those trees. I kept close to my mother and siblings and worked alongside them. As we worked, my mother reminded me of the time in Nicosia, years ago, when I used to climb the huge fig tree in front of our basement house or sit under its shade to read my books. We laughed about it. Those years seemed so distant then, and even more so now.
During those years in Nicosia, my mother expected my sister, Duyal, and me to help her with the household chores, especially washing the dishes after meals. Duyal was very good, and whenever it was her turn to wash dishes, she did so without any fuss. I was not so good. When it was my turn to wash the dishes, I would disappear to my favorite spot under the fig tree and sit there with a good book, not to be heard from again for many hours. However, my mother knew where to find me, so she would haul me out and take me home to wash the dishes. Such unforgettable memories! I knew that my mother was already going through the anxiety of saying goodbye to me. Therefore, she was probably remembering all these little facts about how I had grown up. To make it a little easier for both of us, I pretended I was not aware of how emotional she was during those weeks, especially as we got closer to my departure date.
Although my father had more difficulty showing his emotions, he was also concerned about me going so far away. He was worried something might go wrong, either during the trip or after I got there. There was no going back, though. The decision had been made, and I was going to go to the United States. During my time in Argaki, my father picked the largest prickly pear fruits from the cactus bushes behind our house and peeled them for me (they have lots of visible and invisible spines making it difficult to peel). He knew I liked eating them. Although I told him I could eat two or three of them a day at the most, he kept preparing and placing in the refrigerator half a dozen each day. I suppose this was his way of showing he cared about me before I left home for an unknown, distant land.
The day before my departure, I stayed home and packed my suitcase, which wasn’t easy because although I did not have many possessions, I valued everything I had a great deal. There was the problem of my books I had collected over the years, and it was not easy parting with them. I had read some of them multiple times and intended to read them yet again in the future. As I could take only a few books with me, it took a long time to sort out which ones I would take, and which ones would stay behind. I found an old suitcase in the house and decided to store all the personal belongings I was going to leave behind in it. I thought, “One day, when I come back to Cyprus, I will simply open that suitcase and find my valued possessions in it.”
I carefully selected a few photographs of my family and of myself to take with me to America. I left the rest of the photos where they were—wrapped in a scarf in a table drawer. The diaries I had kept since childhood were coming with me. The letters, though, which I had exchanged with various pen pals abroad (a popular thing to do in our high school) were too voluminous and they would stay in the old suitcase.
During high school, I had taken painting classes. In my senior year, one of my oil paintings – a self-portrait – had won an “honourable mention” award in a painting exhibition. I did not consider myself to be a good painter, so I was totally surprised when I received that award. However, after receiving the award, I considered the painting to be valuable; something to hold onto. I thought perhaps one day I would show it to my children or grandchildren and say, “See, I painted this!” I chose a corner in one of the bedrooms, placed the suitcase there, and put the painting behind it. I covered the painting with a bed sheet to protect it from the sun and dust. That corner would be my storage area for many years to come, or at least until I returned to Cyprus.
The same day I was packing, my mother gave me a few gifts to take with me to America. These gifts became my most valued possessions, and I am proud to say I still have them. My mother was very accomplished at knitting and crocheting. She could look at a picture of a sweater, a shawl, or whatever, in a knitting or crochet magazine and no matter how complicated or intricate it might be, she could immediately figure out how to recreate it. Fittingly, as a parting gift, my mother had knitted a woolen beret and a matching shawl for me. They both had very fancy stitches, and a lot of work had gone into them. She said, “It will be cold in Washington. If you like them, perhaps they can keep you warm.” I thanked her and jokingly asked how she had been able to keep this project a secret. She said she had wanted to surprise me, so she had worked on them when I was not around.
The second item my mother gave me was so valuable (not in monetary terms, but for its sentimental worth) that I refused to take it. I said, “No, this is yours, I cannot accept it.” But, she insisted, saying, “Aysel, think of it as insurance. If you are ever in need and you have no money left, convert this into cash and use it without hesitation.” It was her gold pendant which had been a wedding gift from her father. As a little girl, I remember looking at it and admiring it. Most of the time, it was around my mother’s neck. Reluctantly, I accepted and wore it around my neck. The pendant bore a 1911 King George V gold coin, which was enclosed in a golden case so that the coin would not be damaged. The sentimental value of the pendant had nothing to do with King George V. Instead, it had everything to do with the fact that it was given to my mother by her father. Thankfully, I did not have to trade in this sentimentally valuable gift from my mother for money, and it still decorates my jewellery box.
The last gift I received was from Uncle Kazim. He and his family had immigrated to Australia back in 1966. He had continuously corresponded with my mother and grandfather and kept current with my family’s affairs in Cyprus. Through my mother’s correspondence, my uncle knew I would soon be leaving for America and, very much in line with his character and devotion to the family, he sent my mother 50 Australian dollars to be given to me. At that time, electronic money transfers were not available to most people and the postal service was safe enough to send cash through the mail -- provided the bills were not visible from outside the envelope. That’s how my uncle used to send money to Cyprus. A short note addressed to me came with the money, wishing me well on my trip to America and with my higher education there.
I woke up early on August 14, 1975, the day of my departure for the United States. After breakfast, my father took me outside to the balcony and talked to me privately saying that the road ahead would be hard, but that he was confident I would succeed. He also explained there was no point in the whole family going to Nicosia that day. That it was best to say our goodbyes in Argaki. My mother was understandably sad. She was crying.
I said goodbye to everyone in the family and got on the bus to go to Nicosia, which stopped outside my house. Yes, at that time, the buses made house stops. The family would see me off and then go to work as they always did. My mother was not happy with this plan. She had wanted to go to Nicosia with me and see me off to Famagusta from there. After the bus left, I could see that my mother was still crying, and my siblings were trying to comfort her.
My departure from Cyprus heralded a new and adventurous phase of my life and I was feeling the full weight of this momentous event. From the main bus station in Nicosia, I took another bus to Famagusta and then transferred to a ferry to Mersin, Turkey. From Mersin, I traveled to Istanbul by bus and arrived there mid-afternoon. My plane to the United States was not scheduled to leave until the evening, so I visited Bosphorus University one last time. It was as beautiful as ever, but quite empty because of the summer break.
Because I was carrying my suitcase, I couldn’t climb the stairs to the university, so I took a taxi up the steep hill. After concluding my visit to the campus, and getting back into a taxi, I remembered one of my favorite places in Bebek I used to frequent with friends – Ozdemirin Yeri. I asked the taxi driver to stop in front of it for just a few minutes. I went up the steps and put my nose on the window to see what was going on inside. It was closed. I should have known, it did not open for business until late afternoon. Disappointed, I walked back to the taxi and asked the driver to take me to the airport.
At the airport, I faced an unexpected complication: my suitcase was too heavy. I had to either pay extra money or remove some items until the suitcase was below the weight limit. I only had the 50 Australian dollars my uncle had sent from Sydney and 20 Cypriot Liras (approximately 50 US dollars) my father had given me that morning. One hundred dollars in total. I was not prepared to spend the little money I had on excess weight, so the choice was clear: I opened my suitcase and removed all the books I had carefully packed the day before. I kept only two—my absolute most favorite ones. I desperately hoped this reduction would be sufficient. The airline personnel weighed the suitcase and it was under the weight limit. That problem had been resolved.
I checked in and waited for my flight to be announced. I was flying to Brussels on Air Sabena, a Belgian Airways service that no longer exists. Then I would take a connecting flight to the National Airport in Washington.
Finally, when my flight was announced, I boarded the plane and sat in my assigned seat. The time between taking my seat and when the plane took off was the most painful part of the journey. I tried to control myself and not get emotional, but failed. I was overwhelmed by a huge rush of emotions, the likes of which I had never experienced. I did not quite know how to handle them. On the one hand, I was happy I was finally on my way to America and that I was going to have a great education. On the other hand, I faced so many unknowns I couldn’t help feeling scared. Then, I thought of a strategy that could perhaps help me cope with it all. I remembered Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony, one of my favorite classical music pieces. I decided to close my eyes, play passages from that symphony in my mind, and block out all other thoughts. I tried to imagine how Dvorak himself must have felt when he was traveling across the United States by train composing this glorious symphony. My strategy worked. Before long, we were in the air. Once again, it was safe for me to return to my regular thought process.
After spending the night in a Brussels hotel, arranged by Air Sabena, I took my next flight to the National Airport in Washington. Interestingly, I did not experience any difficulty and did not become emotional on this part of the trip. The Martins, who by this time were already in Washington, would pick me up at the airport. I slept well on the plane and arrived in Washington in one piece – safe and sound! That was over 40 years ago. How time flies!
My intention in coming to the United States was never to settle here. I had come to receive a good education, and planned to go back to Cyprus. However, life has a way of changing even “the best laid plans.” That is what happened to me. During the next three years, I completed my bachelor’s degree and then continued with my graduate studies. Then, I was recruited by an international organization in Washington DC where I worked for many years. Eventually, I permanently settled in the US and became a US citizen.
Did I ever regret not going back to Cyprus? No, not once. However, this does not mean a single day has passed since 1975 that I have not thought of Cyprus and my family, who are still living there. Cyprus and my family remain in my heart and will remain there until the very end.