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Pancyprian Women’s Initiative Honors Author and Activist Tasoula Hadjitofi
by Maria Michelis
The Pancyprian Women’s Initiative Network (WIN) held its annual gala at The Midtown Manhattan Hilton, honoring Cypriot Dutch author Tasoula Hadjitofi for her tireless advocacy work in human rights for more than 30 years, and presenting her with the Woman of the Year Award. Her book The Icon Hunter: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim Her Nation’s Stolen Heritage won much acclaim. The memoir details the author’s journey navigating the underworld of art trafficking to obtain looted antiquities, many of them sacred treasures to repatriate them to the Greek Cypriot churches they belong to.
Nicole Petallides was the MC for the evening and President of WIN Theana Iordanou, gave the welcome speech, thanking all the women of Pancyprian for tirelessly giving their time and helping put the event together. Ms. Iordanou said the night was dedicated to women and women’s advancement, noting that 2020 was a special year with Greece electing its first ever female president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou. She noted that when women are excluded from the world stage, things plummet, but when added life improves for everyone.
Joost Taverne, Holland’s Cultural Attache thanked Tasoula Hadjitofi for her great work in battling art trafficking, something that continues to happen and in Syria today. Consul General of Cyprus Phedonos-Vadet, after congratulating Ms. Hadjitofi remarked that 500 churches, monasteries, and cemeteries in Cyprus were desecrated by Turkey, and that Ms. Hadjitofi’s book has been a weapon in trying to prevent this from being repeated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. President of Cypriot Federation of America Kyriacos Papastylianou also thanked Hadjitofi for her efforts, and referenced Melina Merkouri who said that our culture is our fortune and if we lose it, we are no one.
After a short video about the organization and Hadjitofi’s work, President of Pancyprian Philip Christopher said that it was founded immediately after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 by a group of soccer players, then grew to have a choir and dance divisions, women’s chapter, theatrical division and youth team. For 45 years it has been fighting for freedom and justice in Cyprus, as well as promoting education, culture, giving scholarships to more than 300 kids helping them graduate from college. Most recently it supported District Attorney in New York, Madeline Singas, who was in attendance at WIN’s Annual Gala.
President of WIN Theana Iordanou said the Pancyprian was a part of her life since before she could remember, her parents being from the occupied parts of Cyprus, and being 40 years in another continent, trying to heal the wounds after leaving Cyprus with nothing, and a house she couldn’t go back to. Afterwards, introducing Tasoula Hadjitofi, she stated that “I could see a lot about her and say a lot to describe her—she’s an entrepreneur, a mother, a daughter, taking care of her parents—that is what we women do—and she has taken care of the whole Cypriot community by trying to bring back home things that belonged home and her book the Icon Hunter moved me so much.”
Gracefully accepting the Woman of the Year Award, Tasoula Hadjitofi said, “I’m a woman of emotions…I am one of you, I am not just a refugee, but a person from the diaspora…a person who has been struggling for her sense of belonging ever since I left Famagusta, then moved to in Limassol, studied in the UK. Immigration dominates the world news today. America has more experience with immigration than we in Europe. And I have been privileged to have landed in the Netherlands, and when I went there, they gave me opportunities and I felt guilty to have them.”
One day in 2013 the Dutch Prime Minister told Hadjitofi that the International Court of Justice had informed him that the four icons Hadjitofi had been fighting for 18 years to be returned to Cyprus were going to be given back and if she wanted to announce it. “I felt accepted, I felt loved, I felt understood and from that day onwards I traveled with my Dutch passport!”
Regarding her memories of the brutal Turkish invason of 1974, she said that “anyone who experiences war and conflict changes forever. I was 14 when I experienced the war in Famagusta…When you’re a refugee whether you’re from Syria, Iraq, Cyprus, Mali, we are all refugees.”
Hadjitofi continued, “Do you know what it’s like to be able to make it…and to travel to Mongolia to China to Africa, but you can’t go home…do you know what it’s like to go back to Famagusta after so many years and to see your school, see your home, but if you step one foot there are 5 soldiers there to shoot you? Why? Because you just want to go back home? I fought my own journey by bringing back home each item of antiquity to heal my own inability of being able to go back home, this was my journey to be able to work and become a better person rather than a bitter person…we have to move forward on in a constructive manner…No matter how rich and successful I am, before I die, I want to go home, and if I do not go home, I have written in my will, I wish to be burnt and my ashes to be spread in Famagusta—this is how strongly refugees want to go home.”
And Hadjitofi concluded her remarks, “so this book I wrote I dedicate it to the 65 million refugees, I’m just a normal woman, a wife, and mother, a businesswoman, I did not choose to fight the art traffickers, they fought me, but I decided that I’m going to beat them at their game. And do you know why I could achieve that? Because I am a woman. My greatest asset in life is that I have always been underestimated, in the technical world of IT, and in the world of men, they have always underestimated me and the art traffickers, they are very male dominated… Tonight, I promise you that as a woman and no matter where I come from I will be next to you and I will in any way I can to help make WIN more international. Thank you so much.”