It only took a few clicks to overturn Maria Mapporidou's life. Shocked by the case of a serial killer who targeted foreign female domestic workers, she decided to organize a small demonstration in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, via social media. Her appeal was answered by thousands of people, sparking a national debate that had political repercussions.
"Not a day passes when I don’t think of them," says Maria Mapporidou, a 43-year-old Cypriot. "They" are the five women and two girls murdered by a man now infamous for being the first serial killer in the history of Cyprus.
An engineer by profession, Mapporidou is also committed to animal rights, a cause for which she campaigns on social media sites. Her volunteer activism and knowing how to use social media to mobilize people proved critical when it came to exposing the tragic fate of the seven migrants.
While these women had been missing for years, Mapporidou, like many Cypriots, only learned about the case earlier this year in the media. "It took me at least a week to realize what was happening. For years, these migrant women had been disappearing one-by-one, without the police bothering," she explained to InfoMigrants from an outdoor cafe in the heart of Nicosia, where she lives.
Originally from the Philippines, Romania and Nepal, the women had left their countries to seek a better life in the tiny European island, where they were employed as low-paid maids. After a tourist accidentally discovered the body of the first victim, the police quickly identified the alleged perpetrator as a 35-year-old army officer. The police say the suspect provided information that enabled them to gradually locate the bodies of the all seven victims, whose murders he confessed to in a 10-page letter that included sordid details of the killings. The last body -- that of a six-year-old girl from the Philippines -- was discovered Wednesday, June 12, at the bottom of a lake southwest of Nicosia.
A Facebook event sparks a mass mobilization
"Like everyone, I was shocked when the details of the case were revealed," says Mapporidou. "As an activist, I could never be silent about this. Doing nothing was not an option. So one morning, I decided to organize a demonstration. I created an event on Facebook, invited friends and sent some emails to the local press without really thinking that much would come of it. I thought we would be around five or six protesters."
Her first demonstration, on April 26, attracted around 1,500 people in front of the presidential palace in Nicosia. "I was very surprised that it went viral, especially since protests are not really part of Cypriot culture. Over the next few days, I did several interviews with the local and international press. Dozens, may be hundreds, of people contacted me. I guess everyone was waiting for someone to do something," she says.
The following week, around a thousand people responded to Mapporidou’s call to action. "People began to understand that the police did not do their job properly by dismissing these disappearances and not taking them seriously. They also began to realize that there’s institutional racism in Cyprus. Had these women been Cypriots, their murders could have been avoided," she maintains.
Public demonstrations as a ‘trigger’
As public pressure mounted, the country’s justice minister resigned and the police chief was fired. President Nicos Anastasiades also acknowledged that the police had "acted negligently, wrongly and unprofessionally." An internal investigation was opened.
"My demonstrations seem to have been a kind of trigger. I feel that it made a difference. We now have the opportunity to come together again to stage more organized actions. The government knows we will no longer be silent," says Mapporidou. But what’s most important for her is that Cypriots can finally see the "scandalous" living conditions of these migrant women. "They cannot be ignored anymore."
Hiring foreign women to work as domestic servants is very common among Cypriot families. Under Cypriot law, the women get work permits and have a special status. The murdered women from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India and Vietnam, sent most of their salaries to their families back home, where overseas remittances play a critical role in supporting local economies.
Abuse, blackmail and exploitation of all kinds
According to the country’s Civil Registry and Migration Department, more than 74,000 residence permits were issued between May 2018 and May 2019, of which more than 20,500 were granted to foreign domestic workers. "It's not necessarily wealthy families who hire them. Elderly or disabled people also hire these women to help them at home. Families receive a grant from the government to pay for them. Their salaries are usually around 350 euros per month," says Doros Polycarpou, an expert on migration issues and co-founder of the Nicosia-based NGO, KISA – Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism.
"These women are not treated like Cypriots. Their salaries have not risen since 1991, their work permits are linked to their employer, if they leave their jobs, they lose their residency status. They are therefore completely dependent on their employers and the abuses are numerous, including blackmail and exploitation of all kinds," explains Polycarpou.
Their situation, according to Polycarpou, helps explain why the police did not take the disappearances of the seven victims seriously. "It's a system that produces two categories of citizens and makes these women extremely vulnerable. It’s in this context that the serial killer was able to act with impunity," he says.
According to the Civil Registry and Migration Department, 50 foreign nationals were trafficked in 2018, including 42 Indians, six Vietnamese and two Filipinos.
But for Mapporidou, the problem is much larger. She has compiled a list of 32 other missing foreign women. These include a 15-year-old Nigerian girl and a 17-year-old Guinean woman. "We are a very small country of 850,000 inhabitants, we are on an island, they can’t have evaporated! Where are they?" she asks.
The police have not yet established a link between these 32 missing migrants and the serial killer, but their cases are under review. "I do not really trust our system anymore. However, I will wait until the various investigations are completed before acting again," says Mapporidou. "And believe me, if I’m not satisfied with the results of the investigations, I will not hesitate for a second to turn on the pressure and go back to the street. I now have a voice and plan to use it for those women who do not have one."