Zim students in Cyprus: Journey of broken promises

10 minute read
Roselyne Sachiti 

An advert in a daily Zimbabwean newspaper is quite imposing. It is colourful, has catchy information which easily entices any student eager to take up university studies in Northern Cyprus.

The advert is like a food platter and attractive in every aspect. It states that fees are affordable, and puts up a salivating menu, which students and parents fall for hook, line and sinker.

Yet in reality, some students in Northern Cyprus, enticed by the same “food platter” are caught between a rock and hard surface and wish they could turn back the hands of time, back to the day they made the decision to study in that country.

Misled by local agents and agencies representing universities in that country, Zimbabwean students are being “pushed” into all forms of vices, exploited in workplaces and verbally abused just to make ends meet.

Some are trapped in huge debt.

Zimbabwean students are enrolled in state and private universities that include Near East University (NEU), Girne American University, Mediterranean University, European University and Lefke University.

Most of the universities are privately owned by billionaires who run them as money making enterprises.

Investigations by The Herald revealed that a total of 800 Zimbabwean students who privately went to Northern Cyprus for university studies have messed their lives, dropped out of university and are now irregular migrants.

Their stories bear all the traits of human trafficking and to some extent modern day slavery. The Herald spoke to some of the students who have seen it all in Northern Cyprus.

Case 1

Students like Mathew (name changed for fear of victimisation) say leaving his banking job, selling all household property to take up studies and also “dragging” his wife along to Northern Cyprus remains his biggest regret.

He says the journey had been extremely tough and blames it all on an agent, Ralph James Martins, who allegedly deceived him.

“It was full of pain and tears. Finding a job was not easy because of language barriers. Where you get a job, sometimes you have to work 12 hours of hard labour.

“You are told to come to work at 7am and work up to 7pm yet you have to attend classes. Sometimes you are verbally abused and called names like Zenji, Harab, Ziatan etc. They use you and misuse you. We are so tired by the time we get home. This is why sometimes some end up not attending class, we will be exhausted,” he revealed.

He said some employers do not pay salaries on time especially when the job is tough.

“They promise to pay the money at the end of the month so that you keep coming. If you stop reporting for work and come at the end of the month, the boss will say they do not remember that you were working for them and refuse to pay.

“Where the money is paid, sometimes it is three or four days after the agreed pay date,” he added.

He said reporting to the police bears no fruit as they first ask if the student has a resident permit.

“If you do not have a permit, they will tell you they do not recognise you. If your papers are in order, they will ask whether your employer is Cypriot or Turkish Cypriot. If the employer is Turkish Cypriot, they will act as if they do not like them. But, if the employer is Cypriot the issue is swept under the carpet,” Mathew alleged.

He said the employers were always a step ahead of students and win cases if taken to court as they have money to pay lawyers.

Mathew added that living an honest life was hard when in Northern Cyprus.

“I remember applying for a job at the university I study at.

“I told them about my situation that I had moved there with my family after being deceived and as such I needed more income. Only those who are well connected get the job. If you are living an honest life you get nothing.

“I had tensions with Martins, the guy who duped me, and he was connected with the university people and they made sure my life was difficult,” he said.

At one time, Mathew explained, life became unbearable when his wife had to undergo surgery to remove a swollen ovary.

“I had to go to work, and also take care of my wife, then go to school in the evening. It was hard and I was under extreme stress and scored bad grades that semester.

“Sometimes I worked half day so that I could take care of my wife. Because of this, I received half my salary,” he explained.

He also said the universities overcharged students on many occasions.

“When you query they throw figures around and apologise for overcharging you,” he further alleged.

Mathew added the situation was worse for female students as some desperate ones ended up in relationships with Nigerian and Turkish Cypriot nationals.

In worse cases, some of the female students allegedly prostitute themselves in bars just to make ends meet.

Mathew said his biggest regret in life was moving to Northern Cyprus and taking his wife along.

“Martins and his wife promised us that we would get jobs that would give us sufficient income to pay for fees and other needs.

“Martin’s wife told us that she was earning US$500 but after confronting her she said she meant 500 Turkish Lira,” he said.

He added that Martins and his wife have used that trick on many students giving them fake promises.

“They have a way of convincing you. They will tell you the university is going to give you a scholarship based on merit. Come the time, no scholarships comes. Actually the university devised a way of cheating the students by telling them everyone is on 50 percent scholarship,” he said.

Mathew added that they were also told that Northern Cyprus was an easy gateway to other European countries.

“They say it is easy to apply for visas. I have not seen other Zimbabweans who start from here moving there either to find work or even to visit. But when they lied back in Zimbabwe, students believed yet they were manipulating us to get a commission.

“Once here you do not see them. They avoid you saying they are busy; then switch off their phones. That is what Martins used to do here, after lying to parents.”

According to Mathew, many other students have been disappointed.

“Sometimes you are made to enter into contracts that are binding on you.

“You can’t move out of their contracts. If you say you do not want the contract, they will put the debt on your account. But they would have made promises to students that life will be easy and things are not expensive yet they are. They can easily breach their contract, you can’t,” he added.

He said the new political dispensation should ensure that agents that deal with tertiary education are registered with the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education.

“This brings assurance to parents as they know they are dealing with genuine agents and agencies rather than those that are concerned with money.

“This reduces problems as they can be tracked, especially those who would have done wrong,” he suggested.

He said his wife was back in Zimbabwe and faith in God keeps him going under these tough conditions.

Case 2

When Thomas (names changed for fear of victimisation) was lured to study in Northern Cyprus, he thought his life would transform for the better.

He would finally get the education he had always dreamt of and fulfil his dreams of learning abroad.

Today, he says he is vulnerable and prone to exploitation due to deception tactics used by a Harare-based agency which dangled a juicy carrot at him and his parents.

“When I secured a place, I paid $250 visa fees through the agency only to realise later that it costs $60.

“I was told to pay an extra $300 for transport from the airport and after staying in Northern Cyprus I learned that universities provide a free shuttle for all its students. I could not recover my money from the agent,” he said.

He said upon arrival in Cyprus, all hell broke loose.

Before leaving Zimbabwe his parents had been told to pay a deposit of $1 000 to the university, the minimum required to process a visa through the Turkish Embassy in Harare.

“Once the visa was approved, our group of 20 left Zimbabwe for Northern Cyprus. I was happy to go there. We were all clad in branded T-shirts of the agency that facilitated our move to Northern Cyprus,” said Thomas.

Reality sunk in when he arrived in Northern Cyprus.

“I was given between three days to one week to register and pay up annual fees. Four other students in our group were treated the same. Our fees were 5 000 Euros and this was not conveyed to my parents before I left the country.

“This was my initial shock. We were thrown out of boarding facilities as we were not paid up.

“We were told that we would only attend class and access dining facilities after paying up,” Thomas added.

As a result, he and two other Zimbabweans looked for an apartment to rent as they sorted out the fees issue.

“The rental facilities required six month’s advance payment. We did not know what to do. We looked for three more Zimbabweans so that we could split the rent. The landlord complained that we were too many. It was a difficult time and I thought of coming back home,” he added.

He said he got a construction job, where he was paid a wage, but not enough to clear the debt he owed the university.

“I borrowed money from a Nigerian loan shark. The debt has grown. He is holding on to my passport and will only return it when I repay the money and all the penalties,” he said.

Case 3

When Rudo left home, she only had one dream, to get quality education.

Her move was facilitated by a local agency and she left Harare on a flight with six other students.

“Upon arrival, we were told that the money we had paid was just a deposit to secure a place. We were given a few days to stay on campus as we sorted out the fees issue. After a week we were told to leave. They needed 7 000 Euros,” she said.

Rudo says she came across female Zimbabwean students who had been affected by this before.

“One of the ladies I will call Naomi told me the way to survive was to date rich Nigerian and Turkish Cypriots men. I had no choice, at some point I could not even afford sanitary pads. I would tear T-shirts which I used as pads. Jobs were hard to come by. I had to pay rent, eat and the university wanted their money. The Nigerian guy I hooked up with paid my rentals, but this was not all for free. He demanded sex even when I was in class. He would call me. Sometimes he would also pimp me, that’s how he recovered his money,” she said.

She also said life was extremely hard, but she cannot come home as yet. She still owes her university money and they are holding on to her original academic certificates.

Case 4

Mary comes from a wealthy family and her story is rather different from others. Her journey since leaving home in 2016 has been smooth. She sought the services of an agency in Harare who processed all her paperwork.

“Upon arrival in Northern Cyprus, I received my student letter from the university. I also stay on campus and do part time jobs just to earn a bit of my own money. My father sends money every month end and he also pays my fees,” she said.

She, however, said the situation with other female students was sad.

President of the Zimbabwe Students Union (ZISU-CIU) Cyprus, Mr Collete Ruzive said universities in Cyprus, like many world institutions, outsource their advertising to agents and agencies in that country and abroad.

“There are good and bad agents and agencies that sell dreams. Just like in marketing, there are ethical and unethical marketers. But the universities have websites, people normally just want to run away from Zimbabwe and do not pose and sober up to do research and match expectations to realities. But through social media platforms like Facebook, people can inquire from people on the ground and alumni who have been there,” he said.

He said the main problems students face in Northern Cyprus have been to do with challenges most had back home.

“When most thought they ran away, those challenges followed. Cyprus is a small Island with no industry of any sort, but mainly strives on tourism and education. So preference for the few good jobs that come goes to locals and all the dirty and donkey work remains for students. These include construction and farm work,” Ruzive said.

He said the working conditions were extremely bad with no protective clothing. He also said students work up to 12 hours per day for a small wage.

“It’s not easy to get part-time work here. With that backdrop, many Zimbabweans who come with ulterior motives other than education have their hopes dashed.

“Some Zimbabwean parents send their children here with the hopes that they will work and fend for themselves and that’s almost impossible here,” he said.

He added that being a foreign student means they rely much on support from back home.

“So if things are well for parents, they would be well for students in foreign land. Government has put plugs on sending of money outside Zimbabwe. Parents have to buy foreign currency on the black market at high rates. Think of what young girls will end up doing if a parent fails to support her,” he said.

He said some students have been assisted by organisations like Careshare, a group of fellow students.

“Careshare collects food, sanitary pads, clothes from the haves to assist the have not’s. In worst cases, the society calls for donations to raise airfares so that those who are stranded can return to Zimbabwe,” he said.

How agencies benefit

A Zimbabwean national Ralph James Martins who is based in Northern Cyprus left Zimbabwe in 2015 and is believed to have recruited more than 500 Zimbabwean students getting a commission for his role.

Information gathered by The Herald revealed that each company or individual who brings a student to Northern Cyprus Universities is paid between 10-15 percent of total money the student would have contributed towards studies.

This has compelled agents to lie to students about the realities of life in Northern Cyprus.

The agents also deceive parents and guardians and students of merit based and sibling scholarships which they say are awarded to students that will study in North Cyprus and that students can easily get jobs during studies.

Some greedy Zimbabweans based in Northern Cyprus and have connections also allegedly take stranded students whom would have found their own way there and register them as having been facilitated by them.

As a result, the university authorities give those agents a commission for the role.

At these universities, tuition fees are charged depending on degree programme and on whether a student is using boarding facilities which range from economy, standard to upmarket flats and apartments.

Since the boarding facilities attract different costs, agents usually opt to place students in high value apartments in order to obtain more from the percentage payment that the universities give them per student.

At some point, the universities misrepresented that they will offer merit based and sibling scholarships but nothing of that sort is delivered upon arrival.

The merit based scholarships are purportedly given to outstanding brilliant students and the sibling scholarship is for students from the same family.

Zimbabwean students also go through rigorous medical checks that include HIV, tuberculosis and herpes.

Those found positive of any of the three diseases are immediately quarantined while awaiting deportation while those who pass the tests get a student letter they use to get student visa of $150 per year.

Students who fail to raise fees for the semester are allowed to defer studies by freezing the semester and pay 250 Euros for that first semester in order to resume studies.

A further 500 Euros will be charged for the second semester before student is struck off the register. Students end up paying 1 550 Euros for the semester so that they clear fees arrears including accommodation and dining facilities they would not have accessed.

The universities also allegedly hold on to students original academic certificates until they pay up their outstanding arrears.

Some students have been promised sibling scholarships which never materialised.

The most affected students are orphans who would have sold inherited properties to travel and become destitute on arrival and never attended class in the past three years.

The majority of stranded students whose parents suffer from social pressure also hail from high density suburbs.

ZAOGA church pastor, Hillary Mwale who is based in Northern Cyprus has also been helping more than 300 Zimbabwean students who attend church in Kyrenia Town.

If they could, the students would reset time and go back to the day they chose to study in Northern Cyprus.

Image credit: http://www.iliteentgroup.com

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