Cyprus Feels the Squeeze: Island Experiences Chronic Overcrowding as Refugees Arrive

By Moritz Küpper

With 30,000 foreign nationals already seeking refuge on the island and another 40,000 still expected to arrive by ferries, cruise ships and warships, Cyprus is feeling the pressure of overcrowding. Unlike Lebanese refugees, these foreigners will soon arrive home, but that doesn't make the experience a comfortable one.

Carissa Messner's clothes are soaked through with sweat, she looks as though she hasn't slept in days and her voice is heavy as she sits in the Palm Beach Hotel. The contrast couldn't be starker: As tourists in bathing suits make their way to the beach, Messner reports on the suffering of refugees arriving on the island from Lebanon. After volunterring at a refugee shelter for the past three days, she's now sitting in the comfort of a five-star hotel. Reflecting on the experience of the refugees she's met, the 27-year-old American says, "When you see these people, it's enough to break your heart."

Messner, who has a German husband and lives in Düsseldorf, arrived in Larnaka, Cyprus last week to pick up her two younger brothers and her grandmother. Razi, 8, and Thommy, 10, had been visiting their 80-year-old grandmother in Lebanon when the Israeli bombing raids began. "She doesn't speak any English," Messner says, "that's why I've come here to help them." On Thursday, she met them at Larnaka's port and the next day she put them on a plane to Ohio.

"I was just so happy that my family had been brought to safety," Messner says. Before their arrival, she had waited at the port for hours, mobile phone in hand. Waiting and waiting. Boat after boat arrived and thousands of people passed through the port terminal, but she couldn't find her brothers. Still, Messner knew that her family had to be on one of the ships making its way from Cyprus. As she waited, she witnessed the chaos and powerlessness of the local authorities. "The Cypriots are very generous," she says, "they trying to do everything, but they also need help themselves. The country is overburdened."

In order to accommodate the mass influx of people, Cyprus has opened up a large conference center in the capital city of Nicosia, about 25 schools around the country as well as numerous sporting facilities in order to provide shelter to people fleeing Lebanon. Between the tourists already here and the massive influx of refugees, overcrowding is fast becoming a serious problem on Cyprus.

Fatigue, stress and illness

During her time on the island, Messner volunteered in Zenon, about 15 minutes away from Larnaka by car. Once her family had been flown to the safety of the US, Messner stayed on and offered her assistance to the Christian aid organization World Vision. "They then took me to the sporting hall," she explains, "and I worked there as a nurse."

She sought to soothe refugees, she gave them water and food, cleaned their wounds and tried to coax children to sleep. For three days, more than 3,000 Canadians slept in the packed hall. "It was hot and really smelly," she says. "There was no doctor and many people were sick." A number of older people were suffering from high blood pressure and children were vomiting.

"I don't understand why the European Union and the United States aren't helping," she says. Over the weekend, Cypriot President Tasso Papadopoulus made a plea for aid supplies, but Messner says she doesn't have the impression that much has arrived. "These people need help," she says. And the situation is getting more serious by the day. So far, Cypriot officials estimate that 30,000 refugees have arrived on the island, and authorities believe as many as 40,000 more are still making their way from Lebanon. "Tonight we're expecting even more ships," Messner says.

For her part, Messner says she will return to Düsseldorf within the next few days. "I've offered to stay on for another week to help," she says, "But I am getting the impression now that I can do more in Germany than here. I have many friends in government -- in Germany, the EU and the US. Now I want to show them all of my photos and videos to push them to do more to help."

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