Fleeing war in Lebanon, thousands arrive in Cyprus
The tiny resort island's leader asked the EU for help as Cypriots offer aid and empathy to thousands of evacuees.
Amid the chaotic jumble of evacuees streaming into this city's port, Chrysilios Chrysiliou's phone was ringing nonstop. The crisis of the moment was a broken refrigerator, without which the food brought in to feed hungry arrivals from Lebanon would spoil in the over 90-degree heat. Not long before, it had been a canceled flight and before that, a group of 800 evacuees with no place to sleep.
For days, Mr. Chrysiliou, the head of Larnaca's Civil Defense force, and other Cypriots have been working round-the-clock to process, feed, house, and transport tens of thousands of evacuees fleeing escalating violence in Lebanon in the largest refugee aid effort here in recent history.
US and Cypriot officials here say the evacuation from Lebanon, which has brought over 25,000 mainly Western foreign nationals through Cyprus, including about 11,000 Americans, is perhaps the biggest emergency here since partition in 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the north of the island.
And things are likely to get worse: tens of thousands more non-Lebanese evacuees are expected.
On their heels may be Lebanese refugees who see Cyprus not just as a transit point, but as a long-term place of safety.
"Unfortunately, we have experienced what refugee means after the Turkish invasion," said Cyprus' president, Tassos Papadopoulos, Saturday after visiting civil servants who were working around the clock at Larnaca's port to process newly arrived evacuees. "Cyprus will continue [to help] as long as our limited possibilities allow."
This small country of fewer than 800,000 is struggling to deal with the refugee influx during the height of a tourist season that is expected to bring in almost 350,000 tourists this month alone. The country's Civil Defense, a National Guard-like body composed of volunteers and young people doing their national service, has been called up for the first time in its history.
Meanwhile, the evacuation has lent a surreal air to this bustling tourist island.
In the lobbies of seaside hotels, weary evacuees rub shoulders with bikini-clad tourists. Hotels, mostly fully booked before the crisis, are now bursting, and many evacuees have been temporarily housed at schools or other public facilities. That includes thousands of Americans at a fair ground at Cyprus's inland capital Nicosia, where bright orange cots have been laid out in neat rows in exhibition halls.
Warships transporting evacuees are visible offshore from beaches where sunbathers sit under yellow umbrellas.
At Larnaca's airport, many flights have been delayed as airport officials struggled to get passengers aboard extra planes through a handful of gates. Volunteers at the airport handed out free water to parched travelers – tourists and evacuees alike – waiting in long lines in the humid heat.
But quietly, Chrysiliou and others are bracing for an even bigger crisis, an influx of Lebanese who, unlike most of the current refugees, will have no further destination. A looming question for Cyprus is how many the small island can afford to accept.
"Our biggest fear," says Chrysiliou. "is that when Israel begins its land advance – if it begins its land advance – we will be flooded with refugees."
Worried about the strain on the country, Papadopoulos appealed to the European Union over the weekend for help.
But for Cypriots, helping those in need is a point of pride that grows from their own history. Many here point out that the first refugees from Lebanon arrived around the anniversary of the Turkish invasion 32 years ago on July 20, that divided the country into a Greek–speaking south, and Turkish–speaking north that is only recognized by Turkey.
Many Cypriots have deep sympathy for those fleeing Lebanon and say they remember well the horrors of being displaced.
"My parents left northern Cyprus 30 years ago, so we know how they feel, the fear and the whole feeling," said one orange-vest-clad 25-year-old teacher who declined to give her name but who was helping evacuees at the port as part of the Civil Defense. "It's too near to us. It's so close to Cyprus, so we have to help."