By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac
"I'm sorry to go," Nelly admitted at a group dinner she helped prepare right before she left the U.S. in late July. She is one of six teenagers who became new best friends when they came to this area for four weeks, and then flew home to Cyprus, an island nation designed to keep many of its people separate.
"In a country divided, people united" they cheered three times in unison at dinner that night at Brad and Becky Stirn's Woodside home. Earlier in the evening the teenagers sang a Bruno Mars song repeating the chorus: "You can count on me like one two three, I'll be there."
As Nelly's roommate, Ipek, explained, "We're always singing; music is our common language."
So is English, even though their native tongues are Greek and Turkish.
Since 1974 a green line patrolled by United Nations' guards has separated their country into the smaller Turkish-speaking Muslim side in the north and the larger Greek-speaking Greek Orthodox side in the south.
Checkpoints with passport controls are set up between the two parts of the country but lingering bitterness over the violence and displacement that partition caused has led to little interaction between the two sides.
Eight years ago, Mr. Stirn's American cousin started the Cyprus Friendship Program – patterned after a similar program in Northern Ireland – to try to change that. He invites pairs of teenagers from both sides of the buffer zone to come to the U.S. and live together with host families in hopes the students will bond over their similarities.
So far, more than 700 teenagers have traveled to New Hampshire, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Oregon, Washington and Georgia. This is the first time a group has come to the Bay Area.
Ms. Stirn is so pleased with how things went here, she wants to bring 20 students here next summer.
"The ripple effect is we bring one teen over and that impacts 20 people," she said. "The longer this goes on, the hope is more people will know each other."
Nelly, who comes from south Cyprus, and Ipek, who comes from the north, shared a room at Susan Speicher's house in Atherton. "It was wonderful," she said, in summing up the experience.
Two other teens, Tanje and Simoni, live in the capital, Nicosia, one in the northern Turkish Cypriot part and the other in the southern Greek Cypriot part. They shared a room at Janet Larson's home in Atherton just a few blocks away from Ms. Speicher's house.
"The kids loved to get together; they have really bonded," she said.
The third pair, Diyar from north Cyprus and Konstantinos from the south, split time between Betsy Morgenthaler's home in Portola Valley and Brad and Helen Miller's in Woodside.
"From day one they were brothers from another mother," Ms. Miller said.
"They listen to music; there's tons of commonality in the food and the way they live. Religion is not an issue."
She took the boys hiking and biking in Yosemite, and surfing in Santa Cruz. A Woodside friend helped entertain them by taking them to Google, Google X, and Facebook.
The boys attended concerts and Giants games in addition to the set group activities: a ropes course in Watsonville; a day-long session on conflict resolution with the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, Frederic Luskin; serving lunch at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco; and touring the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.
Konstantinos said he has friends who didn't approve of him participating in the Cyprus Friendship Program, but for him "it has been an amazing experience, an opportunity to create bonds without prejudice."
"It's definitely one of the best experiences of our lives," Diyar said, finishing his roommate's sentence.
Diyar explained, "The conflict in Cyprus is still going on because our grandparents' generation is still holding onto the hate."
Konstantinos finished the sentence this time: "And it transfers to the younger generation."
Diyar said, "My mom was in a city in the south." Konstaninos chimed in, "My mom was in the north side. After the war (which started in the 1960s), they both had to move."
"We are trying to unite right now, but it's a big deal," Diyar said.
Konstantinos added, "I can see change happen, but not in my lifetime. ... We'll have to change individual minds."
The boys have already seen a change in their own families' attitudes.
Diyar's family sent a thank-you email to his hosts saying, "We also acquired (Konstantino's) family as our new friends with whom we have been spending wonderful time."
There's even talk of the two families going on a beach vacation together in Cyprus. That would entail one family crossing the green line, something Konstantinos, for example, had never done before applying to the Cyprus Friendship Program.
Both boys are now seniors and planning to apply to go to college in the U.S.
This is the last verse of the poem, "Eternal Belief," which Ipek wrote and presented on her last night in the U.S.
The tender heart the phoenix owns
Flashes like a torch
With the heart beats of people who believe:
Forgiveness is more powerful than traumatic chaos
Love is deeper than hatred
Wiseness of affection is stronger than blind judgement
And phoenix is alive to end the division.
It is the new name for
(The poem was printed with Ipek's permission.)