From halloumi to hope: Festival celebrates Cypriot community and seeks resolution

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By Mary Sinanidis.

The 4th Halloumi Festival in Brunswick, Victoria on Saturday, March 2 and Sunday, March 3, proved to be the most successful yet. A large crowd enjoyed an impressive program with traditional sketches, songs, dances, and of course, a bounty of Cypriot cuisine – halloumi, sheftalies, loukoumades, and more.

Beneath the festive atmosphere celebrating the beloved salty brined cheese, now a staple of Australian cuisine, there were both hopeful dreams for a new Cypriot Community Centre and undertones of a lingering struggle as the community commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

halloumi festival
Pegasus dancers performed on stage.
halloumi festival
Greek Consul General Emmanuel Kakavelakis and Maria Vamvakinou MP enjoy some Halloumi.

Hope: A new community centre

As crowds overflowed the building and spilled the front pavement and backstreet parking, it became evident that the current Brunswick building housing the Cyprus Community of Melbourne and Victoria (CCMV) could no longer accommodate the needs of the 92-year-old organisation.

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‘We’re not Cypriot, but just came for the food,’ they said.
halloumi festival
Traditional delicacies
halloumi festival
Cypriot cuisine and hospitality was on offer everywhere you looked.
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Souvenirs on sale

CCMV President Theo Theophanous, speaking to The Greek Herald, described the expansion of the site as a 40-year-old vision – a “legacy project” he hopes to see realised during his term.

“As a former government official, I’ve worked on exciting projects like AAMI Park, but this one holds a special place in my heart because of its connection to Cyprus,” he said.

Lucent Property Development Group, managed by Panos Miltiadou, has partnered with the Community, and a development agreement has been signed.

Mr Theophanous outlined the ambitious plan: a six-storey building with an approximately 600-sq-metre function room on the ground floor that can be sectioned for smaller events. A traditional Cypriot kafenio (140 square metres) and three retail shops will provide a steady income stream, addressing the existing $2.5 million debt.

The first floor will house community group halls, potentially a school, and a space for a Cypriot consular office. Two levels of underground parking and a rooftop garden – a common area for the community and residents alike – are also planned.

The remaining floors will include 52 apartments for which expressions of interest are being sought.

CCMV Building Artists Impression 2022-10-13 172455
CCMV Building Artists Impression. Photo provided.

“Ideally, at least half will be owned by people of Cypriot or Greek origin,” Mr Theophanous said.

“Imagine living in a Greek village – walk down for your coffee, listen to music, dine at a Greek restaurant.”

An ambitious $30-million concept plan was originally unveiled by former president Stelios Angelodimou in 2019, with a $500,000 grant from the Victorian government. However, the global pandemic caused significant delays.

“People underestimate the complexities and costs involved,” Mr Theophanous explained.

“We need engineers, architects, soundproofing, traffic management, environmental reports, legal fees. The community had to cover all these expenses while navigating objections, such as a request to keep the height at four storeys like the hotel next door. We went to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and compromised, dropping the initial eight-storey vision to six floors.”

Merri-bek Deputy Mayor Lambros Tapinos, present at the festival to show his support, welcomed the project.

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MC Claire Gazi pressures Deputy Mayor Lambros Tapinos to support the new Community centre.
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Merri-bek Deputy Mayor Lambros Tapinos, Peter Kahlil and Kath Theophanous.

“It will secure the future of the Cypriot Community of Brunswick and enable it to grow and offer more services to the community,” he said, emphasising the need to follow proper procedures.

“Changes to the application need to go through the process and meet the planning scheme.”

With the CCMV board re-elected for another two years last Friday, Mr Theophanous anticipates stability and construction possibly starting by the end of the year.

“This project will help our community thrive, and this festival could become a mini-Antipodes,” he said.

halloumi festival
Eleni Tziotzis came from Cyprus when she was 15 and has been part of the community.

Hopelessness: a shared future for a divided island

Electra Melissa, originally from Varosha (the southern quarter of Famagusta currently under Turkish occupation), sat with friends listening to the speeches.

“I have little hope of finding a solution in my lifetime,” she sighed. “Every night, I dream of my home in Varosha. I remember everything – our sea, our sand, our unique culture.”

Poet Andrea Demetriou from Morfou recalled the chaos of the invasion, witnessing wounded soldiers and bloodshed as a little girl.

“We wrapped their injured bodies in dowry linen,” she recalled.

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Yiannis Melissas, Nikos Kostantinos, Electra Melissa and Lia Kostantinou remember Varosha.
halloumi festival

Electra and Andrea represent the displaced third of the island’s population following the Turkish invasion. They are among the fortunate ones compared to the 1,000 missing people and those still living under restrictions in the occupied areas.

“As refugees, we were given feta in Gastouni, Peloponnese,” Andrea remembered. “As a child, I naively asked my mother why they were so poor they didn’t have halloumi.”

Kat Theophanous MP promised to do all she could as a Cypriot Australian politician to “continue advocating for a peaceful and just resolution.”

“Cypriots, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, deserve peace, stability and a united homeland, we cannot lose sight of that,” she said.

halloumi festival
Fr Nicholas Georgiou and Peter Kahlil

High Commissioner of the Republic of Cyprus in Australia, Antonis Sammoutis offered a glimmer of hope with a new round of negotiations on the horizon after a seven-year hiatus. He highlighted halloumi as a symbol of unity, with its protected origin status meaning only Greek and Turkish Cypriots can profit from it.

“It’s a shared heritage,” he said, “halloumi” for Greek Cypriots and “halim” for Turkish Cypriots.

“It can’t be commercially produced by Greece or Turkey, only Cyprus.”

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Celebrity chef George Calombaris and Theo Theophanous

Perhaps halloumi, a symbol of shared culture, can be a starting point for a future where Greek and Turkish Cypriots find common ground.

Mr Theophanous expressed a willingness to open the festival to Turkish Cypriots, inviting them to share their halloumi memories.

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Cyprus traditions

Memories of the past were evoked by Mr Sammoutis, who recalled his grandmother’s goat cheese halloumi and Ms Theophanous who remembered the chewy halloumi in her family’s trahana soup. MC Claire Gazi encouraged the audience to try the traditional Cypriot pairing of halloumi with watermelon (karpouzi).

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MCs Claire Gazi and Lambrini Lambrou Christopher with Theo Theophanous

The event concluded with a sense of hope, and the popular Halloumi Festival, drawing a diverse crowd of people, a celebration of Cypriot culture and cuisine, served as a reminder of the enduring spirit of the Cypriot people.

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Live music

MCs for the festival were Ms Gazi and Lambrini Lambrou Christopher. Distinguished guests included Maria Vamvakinou MP, Anthony Cianflone MP, Peter Kahlil MP, Nazih Elasmar OAM, Telmo Languiller and Greek Community of Melbourne Vice President Anthea Sideropoulos.

*All photos copyright The Greek Herald / Mary Sinanidis (except the photo of the building designs).

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