Cyprus singer shines spotlight on refugees

Cyprus singer shines spotlight on refugees
Cypriot singer Alexia Vassiliou remembers her life as a refugee.
4 min read
Alexia Vassiliou remembers being a refugee [Getty]

Cypriot singer Alexia Vassiliou still remembers the sound of the sirens wailing eerily over her house when she was just a child to warn of the Turkish invasion.

She and her family fled the northeastern town of Famagusta in 1974, and decades later she has never returned to live in the place she once called home.

But Alexia's experiences shaped her future, and today she uses her international acclaim as an artist to help shine a spotlight on the plight of the displaced and refugees around the world.

"I am a refugee... This is why I am here today," she says, in an online concert which is being re-streamed on Wednesday to global audiences.

"There was a moment when I did not have a home. I was 10."

The novel coronavirus pandemic upended ideas for a live concert in Nicosia as part of events to mark World Refugee Day on June 20.

But Alexia, whose career spans four decades and who has recorded with jazz great Chick Corea, was determined to move the show online, incorporating performances and messages of solidarity from artists around the world.

They include American jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux and British rock star Peter Gabriel, but also local asylum seekers and refugees.

A revamped version of the concert is being streamed on Alexia's Facebook page on Wednesday at 9:00 pm (1800 GMT).

'We have to leave'

A former British colony, Cyprus marks its 60th anniversary of independence on Sunday, August 16.

The island has been divided since 1974, when Turkey occupied its northern third in response to a coup engineered by the military junta then ruling in Athens that sought to unite the Mediterranean island with Greece.

Ankara launched another phase of the invasion on August 14, 1974, during which it seized Famagusta, Alexia's home town.

UN-backed talks on reunifying Cyprus collapsed in July 2017.

"Before the coup d'etat, we'd hear the grown-ups speak secretly and we knew something ominous... was about to happen," Alexia told AFP from her home studio outside the divided capital.

She recalled hearing a radio news flash about the coup, warning civilians to go home because if anyone was on the street "they will be shot".

"My father was not home yet," she said.

One morning, she woke up to the sound of air raid sirens.

"Our mother ran to our room and told me and my sister, 'Girls, you have to wake up, there's been a war, we have to (leave).'"

"Things like this never go away."

Lullaby and lament

Alexia was part of Cyprus's first-ever Eurovision song contest participation in 1981, when she was still a teenager. She returned for a solo performance in 1987.

She has recorded numerous albums crossing genres from pop to world music and jazz, including a 1996 album featuring Chick Corea.

The shows have been organised by Alexia under the auspices of UN refugee agency UNHCR's office in Cyprus, in collaboration with the interior ministry.

On a dark stage, she opens with "Agia Marina", a traditional Cypriot song, accompanied by the soft notes of a kalimba, an African thumb piano.

She then moves into George Gershwin's "Summertime" and African-American spiritual "Motherless Child", a trio of songs blending lullaby and lament.

The re-streamed event however includes performances not seen in the previous show.

"It's not the same concert... it's better," Alexia said.

'Losing a homeland'

Syrian-Armenian musician Lena Chamamyan is among the artists who have sent messages of solidarity.

"I know the exact meaning of losing a homeland, a home, a country, a family, friends, a life," she says.

Young refugees and asylum seekers in Cyprus also provide testimonies.

"Living as a refugee can feel like living in a big prison," says Ferhad, a Kurdish refugee. "Music frees my imagination and my mind," he adds.

Alexia has run creative workshops in shelters for unaccompanied and separated asylum seekers and refugee children in Cyprus since 2017.

But the program's future is in doubt, amid the difficulties posed by the novel coronavirus.

UNHCR representative in Cyprus, Katja Saha, told AFP she hopes they will continue, saying about 200 children at the shelters had taken part in the workshops so far.

Wednesday's concert will also include footage of Alexia returning to Famagusta in 2013 and visiting the elderly couple living in her former home.

"My message has always been to unite people through love and through music," she told AFP.

"And through solidarity and through remembering what are the things that connect us, not divide us."

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