‘In the Spotlight’ #5: Mary and Rose

Text and photographs by Melissa Hekkers

It’s been almost three years since I started interviewing refugees. Throughout the numerous stories I have collected and the complex circumstances they convey as they describe the reasons for departure from their homeland and their current reality in Europe, I have come to embrace their relentless courage and hope for a better future. I have often wondered where their determination stems from and whether I would personally be able to match their optimism should I face their circumstances.

My encounter with Rose and Mary at the Caritas Cyprus Women’s Shelter at the start of the New Year allowed me to reflect further on these questions and the realities of one of the most vulnerable groups of people on the move: women.

Our meeting urged me to ask even more questions about how their womanhood is affected by their uprooting. How do women deal with raising their children in an unknown land where they don’t understand the local language? How do they foresee their offspring’s future? How do they manage to travel alone in a male-dominated culture? How do they attend to their personal hygiene? How do pregnant women feel not knowing where they will give birth, without necessary pre and post birth support? How does any woman recover from losing a child; either by being forced to leave them behind, or opting to ‘give’ them away in the hope they will attain a better future?

Both originally from the English part of Cameroon, Rose and Mary departed their homeland for differing reasons, but the outcome of their urgency to flee was mutual: both fell into a ring of human trafficking. Both were faced with the impossible choice of having to ‘offer’ their bodies in exchange for their stay in a country they didn’t know existed, forced by the imposing requests of their so-called agents.

I meet Rose and Mary as they were preparing breakfast with another seven ladies residing in the shelter, a temporary residence from which they are awaiting their court decisions. In the living room where we sit down to get to know one another, the girls ask if they could be interviewed together. In solidarity, they sit opposite me, side by side, as their stories begin to unfold.

Mary arrived on the island almost a year ago.

“I never decide to leave home,” stresses Mary as I ask her what made her leave her homeland. “I was pushed to leave home.”

Having lost her parents, Mary lived in a village with her uncle who was approached by ‘someone’ who could provide a better future for his niece. “They told me it was better for me to go somewhere where I can make a living, that I will live with a woman… that she will take me in as a mother or as her child, that was the plan that was meant to be,” says Mary. “I didn’t know where I was going when I left, I just knew I was going to Europe. My uncle told me that I was going to another country where I will have a better living. At the airport there was a man with some other girls. He took all of us from Cameroon,” adds Mary.

Rose has been in Cyprus for about seven months. After a bad leg injury, Rose lost the means to tend to the needs of her family as a single parent.

“When I was treated I realised I could no longer do what I used to do so I created debts. I could not feed my family so I had to go to the village. I was forced to get married to an old man. It was terrible. The man was abusing me and I ran away,” recalls Rose who still suffers from her injury which has not mended.

Rose eventually met a man who told her he would help her to travel. “They told me they would help me.”

It is upon their departure from Cameroon that Rose and Mary share a common fate, one of deception and lies.

“I found myself in a place where men were coming to sleep with me. I never knew that I was even in Cyprus,” explains Mary as I asked what happened once she took a flight out of Cameroon.
“It was a house, there were rooms inside the house and there were other women with me. They were coming to sleep with us and going. I never imagined this, it was a very terrible situation,” says Mary.

At a loss for words and after a moment of silence I look at Rose, searching for something to say.

“I never knew where I was,” repeats Rose, recounting a similar experience to Mary. “I was always in the house, I asked the man where I was, that I needed a job and he told me to keep quiet,” Rose tells me. “I was locked in the house and he told me that if I go out he would send me back [to Cameroon]. I was so scared,” continues Rose.

“I heard them saying that they will take me to the club, that those white people love these kind of women. What were they saying, did they bring me here for prostitution? I just kept quiet and pretended that I’m sleeping… I realised something was wrong and I had to escape and leave everything behind again.”

After escaping, Rose and Mary blindly found their way to the Caritas Migrant Centre in the heart of Nicosia and were taken under their care. It was also while under Caritas’ care that Rose discovered she was pregnant. It is in the Women’s Shelter that both have found safety and a place to reflect; a place where they can begin to tend to their future and heal their wounds.

“I feel like I’m in a home now,” says Rose. “The things that I am missing, Caritas gave it all to me. Everybody here is like a family for me,” she adds.
In hindsight, both can trace the roots of their unimaginable journey.

“The problem is that they [people in Cameroon] shouldn’t listen to them [agents] because that’s what they say and do to take us. They tell us that they have jobs, they have accommodation, that everything is so easy but it’s not the way they are saying,” says Rose. “People shouldn’t listen to them except if they are going to travel to go to their family members,” she adds.

“Parents shouldn’t listen to the people who tell them they want to talk to them about their children travelling. Parents should say no when they tell them to send their child alone,” concludes Mary.

***Caritas Cyprus is a registered charitable association that is assisting Mary and Rose in meeting their basic needs including housing, food, and clothing. Caritas also assists Mary and Rose through the legal and administrative procedures of their cases.

***The names of persons interviewed in these short stories have been changed in order to protect the privacy of individuals.

***For more information on Caritas Cyprus, ways to get involved, or inquiries, please call us at 22662606 or email us at administration@caritascyprus.org.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London