NICOSIA — For Greek Cypriot Michalis Michael and his Turkish Cypriot wife Sukran Ozerdem, mistrust born of decades of separation between their rival communities was no barrier to their love.
That became clear to both when their career paths diverged in 2009 after working together for years on a United Nations project to foster cooperation and trust between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
That, Michael said, “made us realize that we cannot live without each other.”
For helping to chip away at ingrained prejudices, the couple received a 10,000 euro ($11,100) award from Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. It was one of 31 awards which the founder of easyJet — whose family hails from Cyprus — presented Monday to Greek and Turkish Cypriot joint ventures in such diverse fields as kite surfing, economic studies and cartoon production.
“We’ve had tough and difficult times, but I would do it all again with him,” Ozerdem told a crowd at Haji-Ioannou’s bi-communal cafe near the U.N. buffer zone that cuts through the capital’s medieval center.
Michael said he and his wife — both 35 — want to save the money for the education of their 2-year-old son, Denis. He will be taught the Greek Orthodox Christian and Muslim faiths and be allowed to choose which he’ll embrace when he’s ready.
“We will tell him that he can support his own ideas and beliefs, but that he should accept and coexist with different ones,” Michael told The Associated Press. “We will tell him stories from his own country that prove where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Mixed marriages are still rare on Cyprus, split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup aiming to unite the island with Greece. The two communities lived in nearly complete isolation from one another until 2003, when the first crossing points opened.
“People in Cyprus think that they’re not ready to accept each other, to accept the enemy,” said Michael, adding their parents at first had difficulty accepting the idea.
“Eventually, they were so relieved and happy to let go of their prejudices and act with their feelings,” he said.
Another love story came to light during the ceremony when the singing duo, Greek Cypriot Larkos Larkou and Turkish Cypriot Hatidje Ardost, revealed that they were married.
This is the seventh year that Haji-Ioannou has presented the awards, and he’s pledged to expand them to half a million euros next year. Applications this year were four times more than last year, he said, hailing that as a barometer of the positively charged climate hanging over renewed talks on reunifying the island.
The island’s Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades acknowledged the positive vibe, but said “significant challenges remain” in the talks.
“Greek and Turkish Cypriots have collaborated and co-created successfully for decades, proving that their common denominator, their Cypriot identity, and their common desire to prosper together are strong,” he said.
Add to that the most sublime denominator — love.