ON SUNDAY, British Turkish Cypriots held their first-ever awards night to celebrate their high achievers. Eighteen awards were given to people whose community work was worthy of wider recognition, along with well-known personalities whose outstanding feats helped promote our culture or North Cyprus, or propelled them to national and, in a few cases, international prominence.
Each and every person or organisation truly merited their award and I take my hat off to the organisers, the Council of Turkish Cypriot Associations in Britain (CTCA UK) for their excellent selections. This gala event also marked the official start of Turkish Cypriots’ 100th year in Britain.
Our journey started during the First World War. Britain had annexed Cyprus from the Ottomans and gave the island’s Turkish population the choice of returning to their motherland. Many did and today, Cypriot-origin Turks in Turkey make up the largest Turkish Cypriot diaspora in the world.
Those who chose to stay in Cyprus became British subjects and, by an Order of Council on November 27, 1917, were able to settle in the UK. While there was just a trickle of migrants in the early days, the floodgates opened in the late 1940s and early '50s, the allure of a new life in a country supposedly brimming with opportunities simply too strong to ignore.
By the end of the decade, the Cyprus Emergency provided a different kind of motivator. Turkish Cypriots were keen to escape the conflict, a need that became more desperate during the oppressive 1960s and '70s when they were literally under siege from the larger Greek Cypriot population. Thousands fled abroad to set up a permanent new home in Britain.
Life for migrants is never easy, but there is safety in numbers. Turkish Cypriots concentrated themselves in a few parts of London: Hackney and Haringey in the north, and Lewisham and Peckham in the south-east. This nucleus extended a warm welcome to newcomers trying to settle in.
The next big wave of Turkish Cypriots to the UK came after the “Green Line” border opened in 2003 and Cyprus gained EU membership the following year. Internationally embargoed for years, the opportunity of visa-free travel and residency across the European Union was too great a temptation for many in the North, who ignored founding President Denktaş's cry that obtaining Republic of Cyprus citizenship was tantamount to treachery. Embarrassingly for him, even his grandchildren applied for passports from the South. The exodus continued.
As the TRNC Representative to London Zehra Başaran remarked during her speech on Sunday night, today there are more Turkish Cypriots in Britain than in North Cyprus. No-one knows quite how many of us there are: some estimate 200,000, others as many as 300,000 people.
For a relatively small ethnic community, we have done extremely well, producing individuals who have excelled in pretty much every sector of society, a few even having a pivotal impact on British culture too. We have world-class artists and fashion designers in Tracey Emin and Hussein Chalayan MBE, superb musicians such as Tolga Kashif, Işin Karaca, DJ Erol Alkan and seminal club owner and record label head Sav Remzi. Film-makers such as Metin Hussein (a director), and actors Tamer Hassan and Mem Ferda, outstanding barristers Kerim Fuad and Osman Osman, pioneering politicians in Baroness Ece and councilwoman Emma Edhem. Many successful entrepreneurs including the late Ramadan Güney, Touker Suleyman, Mustafa Kiamil, and of course the biggest of all, Asil Nadir. We have record-breaking athletes in Fatima Whitbread and Dervis Konuralp . . . the list goes on and on.
Given its isolated position, one would expect the TRNC to be tripping over itself to engage the UK diaspora teeming with so much talent. These individuals are not only great role models, but also major influencers in the outside world. Sadly, the authorities here – past and present – have been pretty useless in this regard.
Not a single TRNC minister made it to either the CTCA’s huge inaugural outdoor cultural festival in June, which attracted more than 20,000 people, or Sunday’s historic dinner – not for CTCA’s lack of trying! It speaks volumes about how little the TRNC government values British Turkish Cypriots.
It’s not just the government though; the private sector, too, fails to grasp the significance of these exceptional people. Whether it's commercial collaborations with their peers, or being associated with famous faces, businesses in the South recognise the opportunities and offer key personalities huge incentives to visit their part of the island, and to be seen doing so.
North Cyprus establishments prefer to focus on Turkish celebrities, failing to acknowledge, let alone court, famous Britons of Turkish Cypriot heritage, who would be only too happy to waive their appearance fee for a nice weekend stay in a top TRNC hotel or a night out at a big club. Similarly, prominent artists, professionals and entrepreneurs from the UK diaspora could be invited by any one of the near dozen universities in the TRNC to give lectures or talks about their life experiences. But it’s all over the heads of those here.
At the very least, British Turkish Cypriots are getting their act together. For years, we’ve been allowed to fragment, failed by poor so-called community leaders whose entire focus was on affairs “back home”. It is a turn-off to third and fourth generation Cypriots, who are too far removed from Cyprus politics to care. Most regard Britain as their “home” and frankly have enough challenges of their own, to worry about how to solve the problems of the TRNC.
Paradoxically, these Millennials are passionate about their heritage, as the CTCA’s Rising Star and ITV Love Island winner Kem Cetinay told the British press this week: “My Turkish Cypriot roots are really important to me. I’m proud of my heritage and how I’ve been brought up, it’s a big part of who I am.”
Under Leyla Kemal’s leadership, the CTCA have really raised the bar, becoming an inclusive and inviting club for all British Turkish Cypriots. For the first time in decades we feel good about who we are. North Cyprus needs to tap into some of this.
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