Usually, we celebrate the achievements of our alumni through our Success Stories by highlighting their personal or professional successes however, this particular interview is a little different as it involves not one but three of our alumnae! External Reach Manager, Dana Aleksic, caught up with two of them, Tiziana Heck and Maria Bakhturidze, to ask them about their work with a migrant-led NGO, based in Cyprus. The NGO, called Project Phoenix, leads social innovation by empowering talented refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. In their work, our alumnae are creating opportunities and contributing to the successes of such talented people.

Maria obtained her B.A. in Journalism in 2019 and the following year, Tiziana graduated with a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science. Having met during their first semester at AAU, they instantly clicked as dorm mates and became friends. Diana Lundholm, a 2014 graduate from the School of Internation Relations and Diplomacy, recently joined Tiziana and Maria at Project Phoenix as the third AAU alumna!

How did you end up working together? 
TH: After graduating, I went on to pursue my Master’s degree in Utrecht, in the field of Cultural Anthropology: Sustainable Citizenship studies. In addition to my studies, I have been actively involved with a Cyprus-based NGO called Project Phoenix,  for a bit over a year now as a Volunteer Projects Lead. I started working with them remotely which was great, under the circumstances, as I was not able to travel to Cyprus at the time. As the project grew, we were looking for someone to focus on our communications, and I knew that Maria was Chief Editor of Lennon Wall before she graduated, and since she studied Journalism and Communications, I thought this would be a really good fit for her. She soon joined our team as a Volunteer Communications Lead. Just recently, we’ve had a third AAU alumna join our team! Her name is Diana Lundholm, and she graduated from the International Relations program in 2014.

Tiziana, tell us about your role at Project Phoenix and how this NGO is empowering migrants and asylum-seekers.
TH: I joined the NGO in a Research and Development role, and started by conducting research, and writing a few articles on our Medium blog about the social entrepreneurs that we work with. Project Phoenix creates opportunities for mentoring, and fellowships for entrepreneurs that have a migrant or refugee background in Cyprus. It is a migrant-led European NGO and social enterprise dedicated to the systemic change of the inclusion ecosystem.
We are currently running a pilot project in Cyprus which has the highest rate of asylum-seekers per capita, in the EU. One of my first projects, alongside writing articles and media pieces, was participating in the Migration Jam conference last year. This was done in collaboration with the organization of the same name, which also supports migrants and refugees to feature their stories and engage in the storytelling event.

What projects have you been working on inside the organization?
TH: English Classes and Professional Mentoring Programme for refugees and asylum seekers. When we were arranging this interview with you, we mentioned another project – English language classes for refugees and asylum seekers based in Cyprus. We started it during the pandemic because our colleague on the ground, Hrishabh Sandilya, who’s also the Head of Operations in Cyprus, saw a need for online English classes as a lot of the in-person classes had been canceled due to government regulations. To make them happen, we quickly leveraged a network of English language professionals that Hrishabh had in India and got them in touch with refugees and asylum-seekers in Cyprus, thus enabling them to attend classes online via their smartphones. The approach of this English program was two-fold: language classes were provided as well as professional mentoring by another member of Project Phoenix. That member provided biweekly support to students and helped them with CV development, cover letter writing, and conducting mock job interviews, whereas I helped by communicating with both students and the teachers. This then developed over time. The third round was just concluded in spring 2021, in collaboration with our partner – Caritas Cyprus, which also ran English classes before the pandemic, to support them in their English learning. 

Maria, how are you engaged with the project, and how did you get involved? 
MB: I actually heard about Project Phoenix from Tiziana, and I started working with them at the end of March as a Volunteer Communications Lead. My main task is to oversee everything and to be involved in every project, not hands-on, but to know everything about them. I’m also in charge of the Project’s social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn) so I keep our followers engaged and help to attract a greater number of new followers. In addition to that, I completed a TEFL course, which enables me to get involved with the project more and start teaching English classes that Tiziana mentioned.

As the former Chief Editor of Lennon Wall, are you aiming to pursue a career in journalism?
MB: Even though I’m open to journalism opportunities that come my way, I’m more specifically interested in copy editing, and proofreading. I’m trying to find something in those fields, in addition to working with Project Phoenix. Justine Nde is a seamstress, who started to make masks for the local Cypriot community during the pandemic. Laetitia Tchakoute Nguea makes clothes and bags with typical African fabrics and sells them in Cyprus. Project Phoenix has been working with her on her social media presence and helping her create a business plan. A very important aspect of our NGO is that we support fellows who have initiative and already have their own ideas. In a way, they become part of our team. The founder of Project Phoenix, Michael Goecken, also highlighted that from the very beginning, which is part of the reason why I was drawn to this organization. The fellows are, of course, receiving some support, but all the energy and effort necessary for the success of their business is very much coming from them.  We’re happy to work with them, and if we can feature some of their work on social media or at local events, we definitely do that.

Could you tell me something about project fellows that have completed a mentoring program or an English course?
TH: Sure. For example, in Cyprus, I can mention two of our outstanding fellows – Justine and Laetitia. 

Before you started working on this project, how did you find out about it? What made you choose this particular NGO? Was there any specific reason or motivation?
TH: Since I did my B.A. in Humanities and Social Sciences, and wrote my thesis on protracted refugee situations, social innovation, and bottom-up development, Project Phoenix was the perfect fit. Furthermore, my supervisor at AAU was professor Robert Warren. Dr. Hrishabh Sandilya, the co-founder of the Project, is a former colleague of Warren. At the time when I had just graduated, finished writing my thesis, and had the state exams, the two of them had had a phone call and were exchanging information about Project Phoenix and the work that Hrishabh is doing on the ground in Nicosia. Hrishabh told professor Warren that they were still looking for volunteers, and he in turn told me about it. Since the project dealt with issues related to social innovation, refugees and asylum seekers, and bottom-up development – precisely the topics that I had explored in my thesis, I was up for the challenge. I sent in my application, along with my thesis, and that’s how I ended up being involved with an NGO that is very closely related to my studies and my thesis. 

Are there any other projects on the horizon?
TH: One project that is developing at the moment, for which we set up a global fundraiser, and that people could donate to, is for the Social Innovation Lab called Constellation! 
It’s envisioned as a coaching/mentoring hub, a workspace, and a pop-up store for refugee-led, entrepreneurial projects. We’re currently looking for the right facilities to set it up in. This space could then be used both as a co-working space, but also, for example, for setting up the sewing business that our two fellows have. It could also be used for mentoring classes or in-person English classes. We would like to have a space for people to come together to collaborate, and really foster this social entrepreneurship and collective mentoring. Even just supporting people on the ground to foster this vibrant community of newcomers and locals is a big help in itself.  To find out more about how our fellows would use the lab, see this video HERE

Tiziana, what are your plans for the near future?
TH: I’ll be moving to Cyprus in September so I can get more closely involved in the project, and also to help with the new Erasmus+ project – “Go4DiGreen”, that we’re working on in collaboration with a few other organizations which support the mentoring aspect that PP focuses on. This supports us in setting up a program that will connect it to the European Green Deal, and it will allow some of the fellows to become Green Social Entrepreneurs. This program is very much in its beginning stages. It’s concurrently running with the fellows program, and we’ll be having focus groups to help develop it further. We can share more information about that as it evolves. 

To end off an AAU note: what is your most memorable/influential professor at AAU? Or your fondest memory?
MB: There were quite a few professors who influenced me, but I would start with Bjorn Steinz. He was our documentary photography professor and a lot of students liked him because you could really see his passion for photography and for the topics he was teaching. He was very nice and very understanding towards students; it was more of a friendship rather than a hierarchical relationship.
TH: I’m thinking about all the classes I’ve taken at AAU and it already seems like a while ago! There was one class I took with prof. Robert Warren, and in particular one project he did with Elizabeth Novacek – the two of them led the International Experience Project in Cape Town which I took part in, and that was very memorable for me. We went there with such a close-knit group of people and had gatherings before the trip to prepare us for our stay in Cape Town. Going there together as such a small group and really interacting with the people was a wonderful experience. Then, when we came back, we were able to show what we researched and talk about the people that we’ve met with the AAU community. That was definitely a very important class and project for me. 

For any further information, advice about volunteering, or opportunities to volunteer remotely at Project Phoenix, please contact, and we’ll put you in touch with Tiziana and Maria.