Some of the main questions we have been asked throughout this journey include “How do you go about finding someone?” “Where do you look?” “What kind of information do you need?”

What started out for us a blank page in terms of our search, quickly became filled with facts, figures, documents, photos, anecdotes, stories, a kaleidoscope of emotions and real life experience. I have to admit that I did not have much hope in finding much and that was largely due to the fact that the issue was not discussed in our family and there was zero information.

But……if you are willing to persevere, if you are willing to face the truth, then here are the top 10 tips we can share with you to help you in your search for a missing relative.

1. Start gathering documents

There is no such thing that no information exists. Everyone has a birth certificate or their birth is registered somewhere. In Cyprus you need to go to the district office in the area the person was born to get this information. Start with the birth certificate and also try to get copies of marriage certificates, identity cards, school records, travel documents/passports, or the same documents related to the parents of the person you are looking for. Birth records/documents for any siblings can also be useful later on in gathering clues and constructing a family tree.

 

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Our first clue for Auntie Fetine was her birth record. Note that her first name is incorrect due to the way it was recorded in the books at the time!

 

 

2. Special Documents

EVKAF administration in the northern part of Cyprus has a special file on all young girls/women who were registered to get married during the British colonial period. At the time, special permission from the father of the bride-to-be was required, a type of guarantee that the young woman was indeed single and eligible for marriage. Although access to this file is not allowed, you can send a written request to the administration asking them to check for a specific name in the file. If the person you are looking for is in the file, you will be informed in writing. In this way you can also find out the name of the proposed groom and his place of birth.

3. Photos

This is a tough one as photos were quite rare at the time however many of the young women being married during this period will have had to arrange travel documents in order to join their new husbands on the return trip to the Middle East. We suggest to ask all family members, elders from the same community and neighbours for any photos your relative may have been included in.

photo palestinian familyserife photo

 4. Letters/Correspondence

This is also a difficult clue to gather as literacy levels were not so high, however we know that some young women stayed in touch with their families and some dictated letters to literate neighbours. The key here is that if you don’t have any correspondence existing in your own family, find out if anyone else from that area received letters. There may be clues about your own relative in other people’s letters.

5. Books

Check the books written by Neriman Cahit and Cemay Onalt Muezzin. Both contain photos and information about several Cypriot women in Palestine, Jordan and other countries, including photos. The trick here is to see if any of these women lived in areas close to the relative you are looking for. You can get in touch with the relatives of these women or the women (if possible) themselves to see if they may have some information.

6. Local authorities

If you have any leads as to which area your relative may have gone to, get in touch with the local municipality and let them know who you are looking for. Share with them any information, photos or documents you have.

7. Social media

So many people use social media as a tool for research and calls for help. The Missing Fetine/Forgotten Brides documentary page on Facebook is an excellent platform to put out a call for help: https://www.facebook.com/ForgottenBrides/

8. Partner information

In the case of Cypriot brides, if you don’t have a copy of the birth certificate the name of her husband is very useful as the family name is carried on through the father. In this way the children of the couple can also be traced. It is also quite fascinating to find out who they married, what they did for a living, how extensive the family network is and which village or town they belong to. This becomes the foundation of the new identity Cypriot women will have taken on after marriage.

9. Interviews

This is REALLY important. You need to talk to anyone who may have known the person you are looking for. Older relatives are key here. They may not want to talk about “her” right away so start with a conversation about their childhood and memories of growing up in X village. Once they feel comfortable they may tell you more than you expect! IMPORTANT NOTE: Older women have a lot to say, and they feel more comfortable with no men around. Provide them with a safe space to talk to you in confidence and reassure them that you will only share what they feel comfortable with.

10. Respect people’s narrative

You will gather so much information during your search and whilst you may be emotionally connected to the process you also need to stay as objective as possible and be willing to challenge your own notion of the truth. Always respect other people’s narratives, boundaries and cultural sensitivities. There is never just one truth and if you respect that people with share more with you than you could ever imagine.

The most important message here is “Never give up”! Take a break if you are feeling disappointed or if the search is not going anywhere. But I promise that eventually one clue will lead to the next and you will find what you are looking for.

 

 

 

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The holy city of Jerusalem

A couple of weeks had passed since we had made contact with Qalqilya municipality and now that we had more information the reality of moving the search directly to Palestine was seemingly closer. Funding also became available through development funds from the Media Development Programme of the European Union and it was decided that the documentary would be a co-production of Tetraktys Films and Cyprus Cinema Advisory Committee.

Our producer Stavros Papageorgiou called a meeting and a crew was put together (cameraperson, sound technician, and translator) and we held our first meeting to discuss a trip to Palestine. Yeliz’s baby was only a few months old and we all played with her as we discussed the trip. As a mother I wondered if Yeliz had the same fears and anxieties about travelling to Palestine as I did.

But the planning proceeded and in May 2012 our trip to Palestine was organised. I remember feeling anxious, excited and worried. Although it had been my dream to go there for many years, now that it was happening I couldn’t help but worry about how it was all going to work out and what we would find on the other end.

We decided to travel to Palestine via Jordan in case we could arrange interviews or find some leads there as well. The day came and we were at the airport checking in. I looked at Yeliz and I said “I can’t believe we are actually doing this! I can’t believe we are actually going?” We were very excited to say the least. The flight from Larnaca to Jordan was very quick – not even an hour! Getting from Jordan to Palestine means crossing at Allenby Bridge which is funded by the Japanese government.

Now if you have never been to Palestine via Allenby Bridge let me tell you all about it! It is quite a process and not at all exciting. There is a lot of paperwork, waiting around, at least three different buses to change depending on what point in the transfer process you are and a lot of questions. We had a letter from the Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture explaining the purpose of our visit and once we reached the other side of Allenby we had to spend a lot of time explaining to the Israeli police what the whole project was about. From the entire team, only Yeliz and I were interviewed, separately. The officer interviewing me was very interested in my story and even offered to help by checking to see if my auntie’s name was on their population database. As he went into another room with my passport and papers I looked around the massive waiting room. There were families with babies, pilgrims from different parts of the world, old people, and young people. I wondered how long they had been waiting. The officer came back and said he was sorry he could not find anything with my auntie’s name and that if we had her married name he may be able to search again. But I didn’t have that. He asked me to go back and wait. So I did. I looked at the soldiers with their cargo pants, ray bans and state of the art rifles which made me wonder if they had ever had to use these weapons. Then I was interviewed by a female officer, in another part of the building. So when she called me I started to get scared for no reason. But you have to understand that for nearly 6 hours I had to wait and answer questions with different people whilst my passport was being held. I couldn’t leave and I couldn’t stay. It’s easy to get frustrated or stressed or claustrophobic. Then I started to question why do people come here? This place is a mess. This division, this conflict, this dry land with rocks and sand everywhere. What are they fighting over?

But when you get to Jerusalem you do find your answer to all of these questions. And the answer is GOD! This holiest of cities will mesmerize you even if you don’t believe in God. My friend Nesreen had warned me about the effect this old city would have on me. For every step you take in Jerusalem, a prophet has walked their before she had told me.

Our translator had made contact with the family of a Turkish Cypriot woman who was married at a very young age and moved to Palestine and we had arranged to first meet her grandson Jamil in East Jerusalem. We had spent the day walking around the shops in the old town and Jamil offered to take me to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock. Although I am not very religious I knew that I could not come to Jerusalem and not visit this place, but first I had to get through two sets of guards. I had to prove to the Israeli police that I was in fact Muslim (this involved reciting from the Koran and justifying my “tattoos” which were in fact temporary henna ones attained on the street that day). Once allowed in I then had to add an elastic waisted skirt to my outfit as the Muslim guard had deemed my baggy pants “inappropriate”.  I obliged because in fact I did think that I looked fantastic in that skirt with my leopard print shawl as a head cover!

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Just outside The Dome of the Rock

 

Finally inside the mosque, I listened to the birds chirping, watched people sitting silently in prayer, and stared in awe at the amazing architecture and stacks and stacks of old Korans and other religious books. I wondered how a place so peaceful, so close to God, could be surrounded by such chaos and conflict.

In the courtyard some youth played soccer and in the distance, I could see different types of churches, synagogues, residential buildings and lots of Israeli flags. We all know that the land here is contested, but when dusk falls on the city and the pink hues of the sky reflect on the twinkling lights, when you feel the breeze on your skin and the smell of food in the air you can imagine Jerusalem as a peaceful city where religions intertwine with each other and humanity is one. And if you do believe in God, you cannot help but feel closer to God when you are there. It is as if every inch, every particle in the air, is sacred with spirit.

Feeling elated from the visit to Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock, I was so happy that we still had a few hours more in Jerusalem to connect with the person we had come here to meet: Fatma Bedevi. Jamil took the lead as we followed him down a narrow little path to his family home. The sun had set, and the call to prayer was almost over.  We met first with his father who welcomed us and asked us to wait in the outdoor courtyard. He talked to us about their life in Jerusalem, the difficulties, the struggles but also how lucky they felt as Palestinians that that were still here. The family then invited us inside to meet Fatma Bedevi. She was sitting on the edge of the sofa, in a simple dress and a thin scarf tied around her head. Her face and hands were all wrinkled but her eyes were bright and happy. We greeted her in Turkish and kissed her hand and both cheeks (kissing an elder’s hand and placing it on your forehead then kissing both cheeks is a cultural tradition for Cypriots and many other countries in the middle east). Her face lit up and she started to speak to us in broken Turkish. Some female members of her family wept quietly as they watched her speak in her mother tongue.

Fatma Bedevi, from Iskele/Trikomo, Cyprus was 9 years old when she was betrothed to her husband. Her father had passed away and when her mother decided to remarry her new stepfather made it very clear that he did not want to adopt her children. So both Fatma and her sister were married. At the age of 12 she was officially married and spent the rest of her life in Palestine.

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Fatma Bedevi’s Wedding Photo

 

Unlike many of the other stories we had heard, Fatma Bedevi actually kept in touch with her family. She even visited them and I believe they visited her – she had letters and ship travel tickets to show us and these were so old and worn out but still legible. She told us she had a good life and that her new family treated her well. Although her husband was much older than her and had passed away she talked about him lovingly and still had his photo on her bedside table. She was surrounded by many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who clearly loved her and held her in great esteem. I asked her if she knew someone named Fetine Memish but she said she didn’t. My heart sank. I wished she did know her! I hoped as I listened to her, that my auntie Fetine was blessed with a similar life. I hoped that she was also surrounded by people who loved her, and I hoped she’d had a good life. But I knew that I would have to keep searching for her. In the same way that we found Fatma Bedevi, we might find her too. At least we were now in the right place. She might not be so far away now I thought to myself.

As I watched Fatma Bedevi talk, I admired her positive attitude towards life. In reality she was a small child who had no choice but to leave her family and start a life with a new one. She was lucky to have been treated well but what of the girls who were not? Was there any way to protect girls in this situation at the time, in case they needed help or protection? I doubted it, and that made me feel sad. But for now I was happy and blessed to have met the kind soul that is Fatma Bedevi. We were lucky to meet her as part of our journey because she was living proof for us that not all of the stories of these “forgotten brides” were negative, and neither were all the brides forgotten.

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Yeliz and I get in some cuddles before saying goodbye!

 

 

 

 

So this place called Qalqilya (with a Q, not a K as I had originally thought) now become my mini obsession after interviewing Uncle Mehmet and I spent days trawling the internet for whatever information I could find, which wasn’t much really but good old Wikipedia managed to offer some fast facts.

I often wondered, looking out to sea, about Fetine Memish's trip to Palestine.

I often wondered, looking out to sea, about Fetine Memish’s trip to Palestine.

Interestingly this town of approximately 40,000 people which is surrounded by walls in the occupied West Bank somehow manages to have a zoo and a skate ramp for young people – the topic of a film. These were fun; interesting facts that made me start thinking differently about life in Palestine. I had no idea what it would be like to live under these conditions but the fact that life goes on and life happens in Palestine made me happy. Thinking about Qalqilya and the possibility of my auntie being there also made me happy.

What baffled me though was how difficult it was to find any local institution contact details. The facts showed that there was a municipality but there were no email contacts or phone numbers. Perhaps I wasn’t searching correctly. In the end I decided to contact my UNDP colleagues in Jerusalem. When I mentioned the topic they were eager to help and within days I had an email with a phone number for the municipality.

My next step was to call upon my colleague Nesreen who spoke Arabic and could talk on my behalf. She knew my story and we had spoken about it at length during lunch or coffee breaks at work. When I told her I had a phone number she was more than happy to call. We sat together one afternoon in my office and she dialled the number. “It’s ringing” she said. I started feeling nervous. Someone answered and she started talking and explaining the reason for the call and where we were calling from. She was immediately transferred to the external relations manager Mr. Nebil Jawal. When she hung up she explained how excited he was that we had called and he was committed to doing anything he could to help us. Nesreen had his email address and went back to her office to email him the photo of Auntie Fetine.

We waited. About a week passed by. I think I drove Nesreen mad asking her everyday “Any news?” I wasn’t at the office that afternoon when Nesreen called me to say she had received an email from Mr. Jawal asking that she contact him. They had spoken on the phone a few minutes earlier. He wanted us to know that he had some information about Fetine Memish and her family.

I froze when Nesreen said this. “Hello, are you there?” “Yes….. yes I’m here” I said. I was in shock; this was too good to be true. Part of me also felt scared that we were so close. Maybe I thought it would take me years to find a scrap of information, or that my leads would lead me nowhere. But here we were only a few months after finding a photo, only a few weeks after getting our first major clue, with a serious contact in Palestine ready to give us information that would change everything. Was I really going to find my auntie?

Now, I had to call Yeliz and tell her straight away. “You’re not going to believe this,” I said. “Qalqilya Municipality just called. They have information about my auntie”.

“That’s it. We have to go to Palestine,” she said. “We need to film this. This is amazing! When can you take some time off work? I’m calling our producer now – we have so much to organise”. Yeliz was excited. I was nervous. Whilst it had always been my dream to one day visit Palestine, and more recently to find my auntie, I knew it was not an easy place to travel to. I was used to checkpoints in Cyprus but surely the ones in Palestine would be worse. What was the current situation? How safe is it in Qalqilya? I felt like I didn’t know enough to go there.

I also knew that I had to go anyway. Regardless of my fears and doubts. Several decades ago, a teenage girl from my family with long dark braids travelled there by ship. I wondered what it was like for her. That journey to Palestine with a new husband she barely knew. What were her thoughts and feelings as the ship sailed away from the shores of Cyprus to a new and (for her) unknown land? She was far more scared than I was. She also knew less than I did about Palestine. She was the reason why my journey there was already paving its way forward.

 

Uncle Mehmet grips the envelope containing the photo of his sister as he tells us about his recollection of what happened.

Uncle Mehmet grips the envelope containing the photo of his sister as he tells us about his recollection of what happened.

When I was a teenager growing up in Australia, there was this brilliant journalist on TV called Jana Wendt whom I admired greatly. She was gorgeous, powerful and relentless. She was the best interviewer I had ever seen and I wanted to be just like her. So when I finished my communications degree, although I did not go down the path of journalism, I still had this innate desire to one day do a hard hitting interview just like Jana, to break the silence on some issue, to unravel some untold mystery. Well that day came decades later on 27 March 2012.

As I told you earlier on my previous blogs for Forgotten Brides, we had started a search and a documentary project about my great aunt Fetine Memish in September 2011. So far we had managed to get a copy of her birth certificate (she was born in 1922) and miraculously located a photo of her (taken in mid to late 1930’s) after all these years. But we still did not know where she was, where she went or what happened to her after she got married to a Palestinian man and left Cyprus.

Yeliz said to me “OK, we need to arrange an interview with your Uncle Mehmet”. I was, to say the least completely sceptical about this idea. Uncle Mehmet was the only surviving sibling of Fetine Memish. He was now 84 and lived on his own in a village called Duzova (Exometochi) about 20 minutes from Nicosia. I had previously asked him about his sister and he said he didn’t know anything about where she was. We arranged the interview anyway but I told Yeliz that I doubted we would get any leads. She said, even if we got little in terms of information about his sister, she still wanted to capture the moment when I showed him the picture of his sister. I figured he was about 6 years old when she left and he may not remember much but any ounce of information would be helpful. We arrived at his house on that overcast March morning. He made us all a coffee and we sat down. We first started talking about village life “in those days” and about his family life in Aleftora as a child. I asked him about the poverty and the tradition of dowries, how marriages were conducted and celebrated, and what people did to get by. I didn’t ask him specifically about his sister but as he started talking about his father, he admitted that he did not agree with his father giving his sister away.

Eventually I showed him the photo we had found and it was the first time he had seen it. He remembered his sister’s dark braids and in that moment a surge of emotions filled the space.  We sat silently as he (and all of us) cried and gave him time to take it all in.

The next hour felt like a lifetime for me as layers of my family history surfaced in front of me like some sort of animated black and white film as Uncle Mehmet told us his version of the story. He talked about the First World War, lying about his age so that he could join the British army to get away from farm life in his early teens; leaving Cyprus for Palestine and setting up camp at Nazareth. He then went into great detail about his life in the army. His recollection of thing astounded me. He talked about meeting a bilingual comrade called Yahya Usta who, due to his fluent Arabic managed to locate Fetine Memish’s husband Mohammed! In fact he even met his brother in law. I just couldn’t believe that I was just now hearing all this information, after so many years of begging for answers regarding my great aunt.

All this information blew my mind away! Not only did my uncle go to Palestine, he met his brother in law and perhaps would have seen his sister too if they had not moved camp. Apparently they agreed to meet again the following week but he never saw Mohammed again, nor did he get to see his sister.

This story has been riddled from the start with war, division, relocation, dislocation and mass movements of populations both in Cyprus and Palestine. No wonder these women were so hard to trace, no wonder it was almost impossible to find information, records, photos, clues. Both countries had troubled histories and so it was the fate of these young women that they left one conflict for another.

Fetine’s husband told Uncle Mehmet that his sister was ok, and that they had 2 boys. He also remembered the town they lived in. He said it without doubt in his mind. He remembered it as “Qalqilya”.

I had written it in my notebook as Kalkilye and started an online search as soon as I got home that day with no luck. Luckily my Palestinian friends corrected my spelling and soon I was digging up as much information as possible about this amazing town in the West Bank. Could Qalqilya with a Q, be the place where I might find Fetine Memish? Is this where I should be looking?  I knew I had to find a contact there and ask for help.

We were now well and truly on an exceptional journey to uncover a great mystery. It was a good feeling and regardless of what we would find, I knew that moment that it was all going to be worth it.

Image Photo: At Yeliz’s birthday in October 2011, a few weeks before she gave birth to her daughter. Pembe is on the left.

 

Hi, I am Yeliz, the director of the documentary, ‘Forgotten Brides’. My friend Pembe who is also the protagonist of the film, asked me to share with you, how we got started on this journey.

In the year 2003, I resigned from my job, packed my backpack and said farewell to my family and my homeland Australia and went on a trip to Central America, where I would spend seven wonderful months traveling through beautiful, haunting and rugged landscapes and meeting new and exciting people whose culture and traditions I learned about in the process.

At the end of my adventure I flew to Cyprus to see my parents’ homeland one last time. Not just one side as we had in the past but the entire island as a whole. My parents who both migrated to Australia in the 1970’s took my sister and me to Cyprus a few times in our childhood and once when we were teenagers. As children we loved the island so much we didn’t want to go back – the big family connection was very appealing to my sister and I who just had our parents back in Australia. Later though as teenagers we were bored and couldn’t wait to get back to Australia, where we had our friends and endless opportunities.

I actually had no intention of visiting Cyprus ever again but once the borders opened up in April 2003 and access to both ‘sides’ of the island was granted I knew I had to see the village my family came from, the land they spoke so fondly about; to try and understand my heritage. Whether it was the synergy of the people, the new found hope on the island or an ancestral pull, I cannot say but the island I said I would never visit again drew me in and within a few short months I would be living, working and traveling throughout the island in search for my identity and my home.

Moving to Cyprus enabled me to understand more of who I am, something that I merely got glimpses of from my parents back in Australia. It was a new way of looking at myself and the more I searched the more I found out. I believe that since the borders opened and freedom of movement is permitted a new level of enlightenment is being experienced by people who live on opposite sides of the border.

I am still living in Cyprus and in fact now call her home. It’s 2011. I am married and seven months pregnant with my daughter. I have started to finally slow down my pace of work and finally have some time to read! I pick up a book in Turkish I had bought months earlier called ‘Our girls we sold to Arabs’ (Araplara satilan kizlarimiz) written by Neriman Cahit. The book as the title declares, talks about the ‘sale’ of young girls in our community from the 1920’s to the late 1940’s to apparently well to do Arab men. It describes how during the British Colonial period in Cyprus, a time when much poverty had overshadowed the island, Turkish Cypriot fathers were offered dowries for their daughters hand in marriage (an ambiguous custom in our culture). For me the shock of what happened to these young girls and the bending of customs to suit a financial purpose all seemed tragic enough but the secrecy of the subject seemed to be the most devastating. Most of these girls left and many apparently could not contact their families whilst others, embittered refused to do so. I wanted desperately to find out what happened to these girls who, if still alive, would now be at least in their eighties. Whilst the book gave much insight into the subject I felt that I needed to do some research, to ask some questions but where would I start?

It was kismet (fate) if you believe in such things that brought Pembe’s search and my idea to document this story on film, together. One day I saw a Facebook post by Pembe, saying that she asked her mother about the ‘sale’ of her great aunt and that all her questions to her family were met with silences.

When Pembe came to visit me one day, she asked me if I would be working on a new documentary any time soon. I told her my idea, and I asked her if she was sincere about looking for her great aunt because if she was I wanted to document her doing so. Pembe was enthused yet somewhat skeptical but since the day we started talking, asking questions and documenting our search we have found out so much. About the period in question, about the girls married and sent abroad,  about her aunt Fetine Memish and about ourselves.

Throughout this journey, we have been forced to rethink and revise our ideas, to ask more questions, to keep going, to trust our instincts and most importantly to never give up hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo: This was the first photo we found of Fetine Memish (pictured on the right) which was taken with her neighbour and friend Sherife (pictured on the left) in Limassol the day before she left for Palestine. Circa mid to late 1930s.

As I mentioned last time we had our first official shoot for the Forgotten Brides documentary and the start of our formal interviews in September 2011. It was also the beginning of our search on official documentation relating to Fetine Memish. That day at Limassol we were over the moon to get a copy of her birth certificate. Now we knew she was born on 25 October 1922. But what else did we know? We went to Aleftora village and saw her house surrounded by a sweeping landscape of hills and vineyards. We walked along her streets and breathed her air. That air must have had something special in it because something really amazing happened while we walked around with my mum through the village streets.

As we were walking down the same street where the house was, my mum recalled an incident. She said she remembered seeing a photo of her Hala (auntie) one day. She was about 7: “I was playing around here with my friends” she pointed out. Then she came across a neighbour who said “Come I want to show you something”. She showed my mum a photo of two women, one with a pretty face and two long braids and another who was older with short hair. Pointing to the girl with the braids she said “This is your Hala. Her name is Fetine, do you know her? You are named after her.” My mum was shocked and ran home to ask her mother about the whole thing. I guess this is how I felt when I found out about Fetine Memish. I have to admit shocked is a bit of an understatement. There must be so many other emotions that rise up when you find out you have an auntie that you are named after but who you have never met or even known about. My mum explained what she remembered from that day and all the questions she had asked her own mother.

But back to 2011. I was now fascinated to know more about the photo my mum remembered. Who was the neighbour that showed her the photo? Did the family make a copy? Were there any other photos that she recalls? Who was the other woman in the photo? She didn’t have any answers. When we got back to Nicosia that night we started making a lot of calls to village elders to see who may have the photo. After several calls with no luck we spoke to a woman called Nejmiye who told us that the other woman in the photo could be the late Sherife whose daughter Fahriye lived in Omorfo/Guzelyurt. We managed to track down a phone number for Fahriye’s son. We called him but no answer.

So I called my cousin Havva who lives near there.  I said: “Listen here is what we have, it’s getting late so please can you call these people tomorrow morning and see if they have anything?” Havva was so excited she barely slept that night. By the time I called her the next morning, not only had she been to Fahriye’s house but she already had the photo and was at the local photo shop getting copies! Well I have to tell you the whole family was in a state. I jumped into my car to get there and Yeliz sent the crew to follow me. When I got to Fahriye’s house they were all waiting for me. I sat down quickly and they handed over the photo to me.  I was so nervous, happy, excited. Receiving that photo in my hands was like being handed over a rare and intricate treasure. “Oh my God she is so beautiful,” I said, my voice trembling. I could not believe it. She looked exactly like my mum and my aunties. Tears started rolling down my face. Everyone was crying. The rest of the day was all about this photo and the surge of emotions it created. My mum started crying when she saw it. She called my auntie who started crying without even seeing it. Nobody could believe it and it was a miracle.

Finally we an image, a birth certificate and a willingness for people to start talking. The photo renewed our sense of hope because it meant we were one step closer to finding her. I now had concrete evidence to prove her existence and spark people’s memories. The photo was my visual reference for the entire project and finding it was a major turning point in this journey. I started sharing it immediately, especially with Palestinian friends, with a call for information to see what else we could find out about this beautiful girl in the photo.

 

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Photo: The abandoned home of Fetine Memish in the village of Aleftora, Cyprus.

I have to admit, I really didn’t have any leads or know where to start. I had kind of given up on finding my great auntie. My grandfather had passed away in 2007 and I was advised not to discuss the issue with him in his last years as it was very painful for him to have seen his sister leave and to have never seen her again. Then one day I went to visit my friend Yeliz and she says to me: “I really want to help you find your auntie and would you be willing to let me follow you around with a camera and make a documentary about this?” At first I was thinking that maybe it’s not such a good idea. Nobody wants to talk about it. I have no leads. How am I going to find her? What if she has already passed away? What if she is still alive and I find her and she doesn’t want to see us? But then I thought that you can’t want something and do nothing about it. Deep down, I knew I really wanted to find her so I said to Yeliz OK let’s do it! First things first, we have to get some documentation – a birth certificate, marriage certificate, passport, anything. My mum’s side of the family is from a village called Aleftora, near Pissouri in the south of Cyprus. I had called the district office in Limassol to find out if they had any records for Fetine Memish. I was so happy to hear that they had her birth record! This was Gold. I had to get a copy but the bad news was that they would not give me anything, as I was not her child, her sister or her niece. I was too far removed according to them to access this information. My grandfather’s younger brother was the last sibling left and I felt that he was too old to travel with me to get a birth certificate.  It was September 2011 and my mum was here from Australia. I asked her if she would come with me and Yeliz to Aleftora under the pretence that Yeliz was making a film about old village life. She agreed. On the way I told her that we were going to the district office and that I really needed her help to get Hala’s birth certificate. She was quiet at first but then she started talking. She talked for the rest of the day. I think she was more excited than I was to get the birth certificate. I remember getting that piece of paper and feeling great. The search was now well and truly underway. When we went to Aleftora afterwards my mum showed us around the old school, her old family home and finally, her father’s family home. The home that Fetine Memish had left from. Old, run down and abandoned; much like our Hala who had lived there once. The view from the house was amazing – green fields and vineyards and olive trees as far as you could see. I started thinking of what Hala must have been thinking when leaving this beautiful place. Then I started to think about her. I could only imagine what she looked like as nobody in my family had a photo. Yeliz insisted we find one, something to help us know the woman we are searching for. Maybe one doesn’t exist I thought, no matter how much Yeliz pushed me to not give up. With so much poverty at the time who could afford to take a photo? But I knew that if one was taken that I had to find it.

That day in Aleftora a surge of feelings ran through me. Knowing my Hala was forced to leave, and knowing that no one took up the search for her before both saddened and angered me. The village which was once full of bustling activity and beautiful memories was now so quiet, empty and silent as we walked through the streets. Even the village didn’t want to give anything away! But the stories were there and I knew I had to push my family to remember, to sift through the forgotten parts of their memory to give me information about our long lost auntie. Aleftora was going to be the key to reviving those memories and now that we had a birth certificate our next step was to find a photo!

You can see all the photos from our trip to Aleftora on 16 September 2011 at the Forgotten Brides Facebook page and next week I’ll tell you all about what my mum remembered and what new evidence came to light that day!

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Photo: Neriman Cahit and I on the day that we did our first interview with her.

In March 2006 I moved to Cyprus and started working for the UN. Soon afterwards I heard about a book called “Araplara Satilan Kizlarimiz” (Our daughters who were sold to Arabs) written by Neriman Cahit. I bought the book and flicked through all the pages to see if I could find ANYTHING, even just a mention, on Fetine Memish but there was nothing. I felt assured though that at least someone was researching this issue and bringing it to light. The book was an eye opener for me. It said that 4000 girls left during the British Colonial period. That was a lot of girls – somehow it made me feel better that my hala (aunt) would have had some friends where she went. About a year later I finally met Neriman Cahit and drove her mad with all my questions. I was so excited to meet her. She had just returned from a trip to Jordan where she had located some of these women and had spoken to them. It had been a huge ordeal for her as most of these women were now in their 80’s and had forgotten how to speak Turkish. They asked why nobody had searched for them all of these years. Neriman Abla (abla is what we call women that are older than us and this is a sign of respect) gave me some clues and tips on how to search for my auntie. She also promised that she would print the details about my auntie in the next addition of the book to see if anyone had any information or leads. But most importantly she advised me to keep asking questions, even if I thought people would not want to answer them. She said: “Start a folder and take notes, collect whatever information you have and who knows what one bit of information will lead to?” Since that day I felt more confident and more determined to step up the search. Little did I know what surprises lay ahead!

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Photo: My mum Fetine Mentesh with her maternal auntie having a chat. She loves her aunties so I was surprised that she had one auntie she did not even know.

 

Documenting your family tree can bring about amazing stories and facts. They can also reveal hidden facts and untold stories. When I was about 19 I was doing an assignment for university trying to figure out as much as I could about our family tree, which is not so easy when the practice of keeping records was not so big 2-3 generations before me. I asked my mum about her father’s parents and his siblings. I had already written down their names because I thought I knew them all. She starts counting all these names on her hand and then she says “Fetine” which is her name and I’m like “You’re confused, I’m asking about Dede’s brothers and sisters not his kids!” to which she replies “No no I had a Hala (auntie) who was sold to an Arab when she was young – she left and never came back. We never heard from her. I never even met her”. So there I am watching my mum sew at the sewing machine, me standing there with my pen and paper. SHOCKED! “What do you mean?” I say……. “Stop sewing will you? Are you serious? Well where is she? What does Dede say about it? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Why don’t any of you call her? Where is she? How many kids does she have? Who does she look like? Did you ever write to her?” By this stage my mum is looking like she really regrets telling me this and just waves her hand in the air “Ehhhh, that’s just how it was in those days. Lots of girls went. There’s no point in looking for her now. I don’t know anything and your Dede does not talk about it.” She doesn’t even look at me and keeps on sewing. So what, that’s it? Really? Of course I am so furious to a) know that I have a relative that seemingly does not exist to anyone and b) nobody has tried to be in contact with her since approximately 1938! On the other hand my mum is starting to look upset and clearly does not want to discuss in any further. Guilt may be a good word to use here. Maybe she feels guilty, now that I am asking all these questions and she has no answers. “Well at least I know who you are named after” I said and walked away. I wondered what it would be like if I found this woman, I wondered what she looked like and what she thought of Cyprus and her family. I felt bad, really bad. And most of all helpless.  Even if I was to look for her where would I start?