Elena Papamichael

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What are contexts and issues that you work on? How are you using peace education to address these issues? What keeps you going?

Coming from the conflict-ridden society of Cyprus, child of refugees, born and raised without any contact with the ‘other’ and taught history from only one perspective, my context could not have been more relevant to peace education. Cyprus is characterized by social divisions, inequalities and multiple racisms as every society; however, the national issue has been prioritized in public and academic discourses in such a way that other forms of inequalities have been largely neglected. In my work, as a teacher trainer at the Cyprus Pedagogical Institute and as an Adjunct Lecturer at the Open University of Cyprus, I aim to promote awareness and understanding of an intersectional perspective in identifying and challenging the multiple racisms and oppressions. I also train teachers and other groups in teaching and dealing with controversial issues, in the context of human rights education and democratic citizenship. What gets me through the bad moments are actually the good moments, and these are usually the ‘aha moments’ in the eyes of the people I work with, when they come to realize how deep their prejudices are and how by being aware of them, we can change our behaviors for a more socially just society.

What has been your most meaningful or noteworthy moment in your peace education career?

When thinking about the most striking moment in my work, I always go back to one of the richest ethnographic points of my life – meeting a Turkish-Cypriot for the first time in my life, at 26, while in London studying for my MA at Goldsmiths College. He was the owner of the fried chicken place opposite Goldsmiths library. I often chatted with him, thinking that he is a Greek-Cypriot of the diaspora, only to realize eventually that he was an ‘Other’ (albeit, in human form). This emotionally intense realization led me to read a lot and learn some of the missing bits and pieces of Cyprus history, never included in the history books I faithfully quoted as a child and a teacher. My London experiences were emotionally and intellectually intense and convinced me that the ‘recipes’ for intercultural education I expected to find in my studies were non-existent. Gradually, my feelings were transformed into an awareness of the multiplicity of positionalities, inequalities and realities through which every individual’s experiences are constructed and, therefore, the multiple levels on which work needs to be done in order to counteract social injustices.

How and why did you start working in peace education?

My work has always been in the field of education, starting as a primary education teacher after completing my BA in Primary Education (2002, University of Cyprus). My interest in diversity in education led me to London for an MA in Education: Culture, Language & Identity (2006, Goldsmiths College, University of London) and a PhD in Intercultural Education (2011, Institute of Education, University of London). Having the only black child of the school in my first grade at the early stages of my career, as well as two refugee children from Kurdistan with no common language of communication, sparked a further interest and concern about social justice and education. My studies gave me the theoretical background and the research experience necessary in order to deepen my understandings of racisms in schools and the pedagogical and policy interventions necessary in order to counteract them. Since returning to Cyprus, I have been working as a Cyprus Pedagogical Institute Officer at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport and Youth, where I conduct teacher trainings on antiracist and intercultural education as well as controversial issues, coordinate the implementation of the Ministry’s antiracist policy (2014), contribute to policy making and implementation on issues relevant to children’s rights (e.g. sexuality education, protection from sexual abuse, antiracist policy, integration of children with migrant backgrounds), and represent the Ministry in European projects and committees. My recent collaborations with the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research in Cyprus have also been influential in my understanding of peace education methodologies and practices.