The story of Evgenia Chamilou, Cyprus.
Born and raised in Nicosia, Cyprus, Evgenia Chamilou knows firsthand the damaging consequences of conflict. Despite not having lived through war, she is experiencing the devastating outcome of the decades-long conflict, living on a divided island. It was probably this experience that influenced her decision to become a youth peace activist. She admits that being a Cypriot gave her “no other option” than being engaged in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. “Both the formal and informal peace processes in Cyprus offer interesting perspectives, and I believe that there is a lot of merit in becoming involved with both,” she explains.
A true activist at heart, Evgenia has an impressive track record of activities, projects and initiatives spanning across a wide range of global issues such as human rights, international dispute resolution, the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda and international humanitarian law. Among the various initiatives and projects she has taken part in, Evgenia’s work has been particularly focused on the environment, and environmental peacebuilding in particular. After all, she strongly believes that the environment does not only serve as a cause of conflict but also as a tool for building lasting peace. To her, climate change is a cross-cutting issue, which, if tackled appropriately, can also contribute to building lasting peace across the island.
Evgenia’s involvement in youth and advocacy activities began when she was only 16 years old. At this really young age, she participated in conferences at the European Youth Parliament, attended various Model United Nations conferences across the world, co-founded one of the first youth organizations in Cyprus with a bi-communal Board, the United Nations Youth and Student Association of Cyprus, and was part of the first delegation to the UN Youth Assembly on Sustainable Development in New York. As a result of her impressive work, she was also awarded an Associate Fellowship of the Royal Commonwealth Society by The Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee Trust.
When she turned 19, the young activist moved to the UK to pursue studies. She not only managed to graduate with two degrees in Law, but was also active with different projects. Among others, she assumed the role of Executive Committee member of the Warwick UN Society, and organized the first UN Week, consisting of a series of social and academic activities.
Environment and peace
“Birds, insects, and other animals do not know borders nor barriers — those are man-made, and so is conflict and warfare as we traditionally understand them,” explains Evgenia. She underlines that, as a common gift to all humans, nature can serve as a tool for cooperation, and that “conflict resolution can certainly facilitate more effective environmental policy and governance as it lays the ground for enduring social and environmental sustainability.”
In 2020, the young Cypriot activist was selected by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) as a UN Youth Champion for Environment and Peace. The UNFICYP Youth Champions — Environment & Peace is an initiative based on the Sustainable Development Goals, bringing together participants who learn about their common island’s environmental challenges, and develop ideas for social enterprises to address environmental problems that might benefit both people and the planet.
As a UN Youth Champion for Environment and Peace, Evgenia engaged with a dynamic group of young Cypriots from across the island to discuss on how to protect the shared environment as well as help build peace. “All Youth Champions are activists, care about environmental issues and have strived through our projects and new initiatives to influence others to join us in helping to build sustainable peace across Cyprus.” While her background is in law, this initiative provided her with the opportunity to learn from experts and the United Nations about tackling key issues such as climate change and environmental degradation.
This experience helped her realize the importance of these issues for future generations and their impact on peace. Working with other Youth Champions, Evgenia designed and delivered awareness-raising campaigns on issues from environmental preservation in the buffer zone to food waste. She feels particularly proud of the “Avli” (which translates to “yard” in both Greek and Turkish) environmental peacebuilding initiative. Through this initiative, Evgenia and her colleagues became “advocates for innovative, community-based solutions to protect the environment across Cyprus, in ways that are the most accessible and relatable to young people from all communities, thereby also helping to build trust and working towards the goal of a united, peaceful island,” she adds. In addition to her role as a Youth Champion, Evgenia has co-founded the “GD4C — Green Deal 4 Cyprus” initiative, which aims to better align Cyprus with the European Green Deal ambitions.
This summer, Evgenia joined the “Eat, Live and Move More Sustainably” project with the support of the Embassy of Sweden in Cyprus. In the context of this project, she organized a “plogging” activity in her village. “Plogging is a concept developed in Sweden where individuals jog while picking up litter, merging the Swedish verbs plocka upp (pick up) and jogga (jog),” says Evgenia, adding that she was “positively surprised by the support of the village’s inhabitants as well as the willingness of our local representative to engage in more projects and make the village greener.”
In the near future, she will also be the Delegate of Cyprus to Pre-COP26 events to be hosted in Milan, Italy, ahead of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, where she will be advocating for stronger climate action ambitions ahead of the meetings with the ministers of UN Member States.
Youth participation in peace processes
To Evgenia, the meaningful engagement of youth in peace processes is imperative. “The absence of young voices from peace processes and decision-making makes it difficult to design policies that adequately respond to their needs, especially in conflict-affected contexts,” she underscores, adding that the inclusion of young people at all stages of peace processes, from identification, analysis and design to implementation, monitoring and evaluation, is of critical importance.
She deplores that, even though Cyprus has one of the largest rates of tertiary education in Europe, high youth unemployment rates persist, resulting in many young people leaving the island. Young people in Cyprus are often deprived of opportunities to reach their full potential. This appears to be their key challenge according to Evgenia, who sends a clear message of empowerment to all her fellow youth: “Whenever and wherever you do not see an opportunity, go, and create one yourself!”
Find out more about the UN Youth Champions for Environment and Peace and about UNFICYP’s work on climate and environment here.