Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Interview with Yilma Tafere Tasew

The following video was done by Laura Lazić. The interview is with Yilma Tafere Tasew and was done via Skype. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

To watch the second part of the interview, click here.
To watch the third part of the interview, click here.
To watch all parts as a playlist, click here.

Laura Lazić. Laura is 15 years old and lives in Laslovo, a village near Osijek in Croatia. She is attending a Catholic high school called Isusovačka klasična gimnazija s pravom javnosti u Osijeku. In her free time she reads books, writes tales and bakes cookies.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Speaking with those who help refugees

logo_transparentThe following interview was done by Marko Hikl, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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This article will not be like the others; it does not talk about refugees and of their stories but about those who assist them on their arrival and while they go through a transition state, and, if they decide to stay, to enable successful integration into society. This is a story of volunteers. Precisely one volunteer from Croatia.

Ivan Stanic is 45 years old and has lived his whole life in Osijek, Croatia. Currently he is attending a “Demo Academy” (one-year program which is designed to educate citizens for greater participation and commitment to the idea and values of democracy) organized by the volunteer centre of Osijek and their partners. He has a son of 23 years. He was unemployed for some time and that was a fundamental premise to start thinking about volunteering after a big migrant wave started towards Europe last year.

“Anyway. I was already interested in political and social processes in the world, and I followed the dramatic events surrounding the migrants/refugees including the wars in the Middle East. It was hard to stay cool in the great suffering of these people and with all things around it, it was logical to somehow become active.”

picture_marko5But first a little about the Kutina centre where he volunteers. Kutina is one of the few centres of its kind in Croatia and is primarily intended for vulnerable groups, families and teenagers without parental care. The full capacity is around 100 people and it is currently filled. It is important to note here that asylum seekers and non-asylum seekers live together there, which greatly alters the centre´s approach to people and its view of the future.

At the beginning, Ivan was only driving other volunteers to Kutina and then he would go back home. But after a while, he realized that he could help and make the people happier.

“I got the chance this summer when I started to drive a team of volunteers to the Kutina centre for asylum seekers, and after the first few visits I realized that I could be useful. Because once I saw the happiness on the face of a teenager when I helped with his cell phone during one of my first visits, I will keep it in my memory forever.”

On his initiative, the centre could maintain a computer room and internet for all the children – asylum seekers and non-asylum seekers.

“In early summer, the centre and the computers had been resolved. So I went looking for equipment among friends and acquaintances. Very quickly we got a couple of used computers, and people in the administration of the asylum centre provided the room to place all the equipment. Soon the computer room was put in action.”

picture_marko4Later he began to repair everything from bicycles to cell phones. Despite his great contribution in dealing with technical tasks to improve the life in the centre, he still sees its primary activity in talking with asylum seekers. From the most banal questions, such as, “How do you say…?” to the conversation about their culture or the Croatian culture and the various problems that they suffer or have suffered on the way to here, he is always ready to respond with a smile to discuss each topic.

In the six months he has been volunteering, he did not experience any unpleasant situations with refugees.

He says that although some in the media are trying to display refugees as dangerous and as a source of extremist ideas, the truth is that it is not so. Of course in the millions of people who are coming to Europe, there will be a few extremists, but most of them just want a peaceful and decent life like they had before the war. Of course refugees are an interesting story when something “interesting” (read “dangerous”) happens.

“My opinion is probably subjective, but I think that the media is giving too little attention to this topic. Maybe because only incidents, tragedies or similar situations are attracting clicks and attention.”

Of course, as in any organisation, there are always problems, but the most common is about the volunteering time. The looming problem is that, due to the fact that this is no longer a crisis in the current situation like last year when the migrant wave started, unfortunately Ivan will no longer be able to devote so much time to volunteer. Now the necessary work is preparation for future, long-term integration, and it requires greater commitment and most importantly, a lot more time, which unfortunately due to private life and other things other volunteers do not have.

According to the centre, asylum seekers’ integration is extremely important and an essential part of integration is language learning. Some refugees are settling better, some worse, and everyone reacts differently to social change. In case of the language, there are different types: some of them try to talk after a few weeks, and some can’t or don’t know or even are afraid to try out the new language even after several months. What they all have in common is that they start to understand and try to learn what they will need in the near future.

As always we need to look at the country’s plans towards refugees. Ivan, considering that he already has 45 years of life experience, thinks that the state should make better use of opportunities that asylum seekers provide and believes that the country should consider them as an opportunity rather than a threat.

“The vast majority are young people who are willing to learn, work and adopt our culture. I think that, with the obvious current situation where Croatians have a low birth rate, an outflow workforce, and poor economy, we could much better take advantage of the fact that there are people who are looking for a bit, and could give a lot.”

When we got to the topic of the causes and the prevention of the great refugee wave, Ivan said that he believes that this could have been prevented, but it is something that has its roots in the depths of history and that Croatia could not do much about it. Recalling the war in Croatia 25 years ago (in which he took part as a soldier on the battlefield), he said that he now was extremely pleased that the Croatians showed all its humanity by helping refugees and that he would not like to live in a country that turns its back to people in need.

With a smile on his face and proud voice, happy that his country is doing what he thinks is good, he said:

I would not be happy to live in such a Croatia, and it is good that we have shown that we are humans in the last year. I am sure that one day our descendants will be proud of our role in these times.”

By volunteering so long he concluded that his experience is positive. Refugees are people who live in a difficult situation, and sometimes react in a way that seems selfish, greedy, or with envy — and probably we would not be different in their situation. Sometimes they even seem too naive or honest.

picture_marko6The local community accepts them slowly. The mayor is well-meaning, but maybe because of political strategy, he might think that he should not be too much in contact with refugees. Refugees are very active in the community. The children attending school as guests are learning with local kids when they can. Women are participating in the autumn days of bread, a festival where they bake cookies and cakes with their own recipes. And the guys started teams to go on the small football tournament traditionally organized before Christmas. But most important is that there were no incidents with the local population.

What Ivan does and what each volunteer does is extremely helpful and most importantly they do it from the heart, not asking for any reward for it, except the joy on the faces of the people they are helping. Ivan states that more people should recognize the benefits that volunteering provides and if they do not have time to personally get involved in various activities then they should at least not look at refugees and people in need with disgust and disapproval, like so many do. They should rather look at the story from the other side and consider why these people are in such situations.

At the end of the conversation Ivan said something that I will definitely remember, as you might do, too:

“Helping others is something that really meets a man and makes him better. I have seen it.”

Marko Hikl lives in Croatia and he is relatively new in volunteering (2 years). He is a member of the Young Peace Journalists. Marko is 18 years old and is studying to be an electrical engineer. He loves everything from books and movies to music and drawing.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: A journey to freedom, part 2

logo_transparentThis is part 2 of the interview which was done by Andrea Šmider, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. Click here to read part 1.

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We continue our conversation with talking about S.’s new life here, in Croatia, but this time in a different setting. This time we are sitting in a coffee shop, in a local shopping centre. It is quite crowded, and S. is sitting across from me, watching all the people pass by. The first question comes naturally: I ask her about her impression on Croatians.

Her experience with Croatian people, thus far, has been mostly positive, as most of them she met seemed open and friendly.

“Croatian values correlate with my own, and that’s why I like it here. Family, friends and hospitality seem to be as important as they are to me. People that worked with us in Porin I like especially; they are good people.”

She says she enjoys having the freedom to invite her new friends to her apartment, as that’s something she wasn’t allowed to do in Iraq. Most of her time these days, however, is spent on cooking classes, which she attends daily. Apart from working on getting a qualification as a chef, it is also an opportunity for her to bond with people, making new connections and friends .

“I like it there. Everybody is really nice and people seem to really like the food we are making. It really is a chance for me to connect with some like-minded people.”

When she finishes the course she will get a cooking license, after which she hopes to open up a Kurdish restaurant.

“Maybe after working as a chef for couple of years, I can open up my own restaurant serving Kurdish meals. I’m thinking it would be a good idea, as that would be something new for Croatia.”

But of course, there is that dream to be a teacher here in Croatia, something that, for now she says, seems to be only a mere possibility. She seems discouraged by the language barrier. In fact, that is one of the hardest things she finds about her new life in Croatia.

“One of the hardest things here for me is the language. Having a proper Croatian course would really help me learn it faster, which would help my independence as you need to know the language to be able to get any kind of job.”

Interested to know what could improve life for asylum seekers here in Croatia, I ask her to tell me one thing that she feels would help the quality of her own life.

“Well, apart from a language course, I find myself confused with some Croatian traditions and holidays. So what I think would help asylum seekers here is some sort of course where they will be able to learn more about Croatian tradition and customs.”

When asked how else she spends her days here, she mentions one of her hobbies: making traditional Iraqi dresses. She showed me the dresses back in her apartment, when we were doing the first part of the interview. Rather than just describing them to me, she got up and started getting the dresses out of her closet. I was amazed at their beauty – they were all rich in texture and equally vibrant in colour.

“Those dresses are some of the last things I decided to take with me. I left so many of my things in Iraq, because you really have to choose what you are going to bring with you … but I just couldn’t leave them behind.”

S. seems to be a person of many interests, devoting her time and energy to a lot of different things. And so naturally, I’m interested to know how she pictures her life 5 years from now.

“I imagine myself in a nice house, with a good stable job, surrounded by good friends and, of course by that time, I have already learned Croatian. There are too many problems in my country, especially as a woman… I didn’t come here to live a crazy life; I’m not in my twenties anymore and I have no interest in that. I just want my own place and space, where I will be able to recharge my mind, body and soul. I just want my peace.”

I am truly thankful to S. for sharing her story with me, but mostly for making me realize that freedom and equality are the needs of all of us, and whether you have them or not should not depend on where you were born.

I believe that positions of power come with the responsibility to use that power for the betterment of those who don’t. Even though most of us don’t hold powerful political positions, we still can and should use the power that we do have, freedom and equality, to fight for those who need it.

So let us all dare to believe that we CAN make a difference, because, as the famous quote goes, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

As a final question, I asked S. if there was a message she could share with the people of the world, what would it be? And so with that message I am ending this interview.

“When any person is unhappy they want to change their life for the better. And so, my urge to change mine has brought me here to Croatia – I can say my new country that I love and respect. And to every other asylum seeker out there: love and respect the country that opened its doors for you. Even though there are still a lot of things in my life I wish to improve, I can finally say I am happy. Wishing good for everybody.”

 

Andrea Šmider (22) currently lives in Zagreb, where she studies Social Work at Faculty of Law. After volunteering in a refugee camp, she stayed active in the field of refugee rights through attending different conferences and seminars. The urge to learn more in that field has led her to take part in the project Young Peace Journalists. She hopes to continue in that direction in the upcoming years. Her other interests include reading, spirituality and music.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: A journey to freedom

logo_transparentThe following interview was done by Andrea Šmider, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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I interviewed S., a 38 year old woman who left Kurdistan, Iraq back in February 2016. It’s been years since she decided she wanted to leave Iraq, but only 10 months since she finally proceeded with that decision.

Her journey was long and troublesome, lasting 23 days. Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and finally Croatia, where she decided to ask for asylum — a decision she made on the spot, partially because she just wanted her journey to be over. But it’s a decision she says she doesn’t regret. She was first placed in Porin, a former hotel where all asylum seekers are placed, in the capital of Croatia, Zagreb. She spent 6 months in Porin, before moving into an apartment, as her asylum application was approved.

The first part of this interview was done in her apartment.

S. has a passion for cooking, which was obvious from the minute I stepped into her new place. She welcomed me graciously with a traditionally cooked Iraqi dinner. Eating this delicious food opened up a conversation – not only of her past and present but also her future – something that, in her words, back in Iraq didn’t seem likely. When I asked her what exactly was her breaking point, she said that it came down to either death or fleeing.

“I have never known happiness. Constant fear of getting killed and no freedom, especially as a woman. It is no life for anybody. It came down to either dying or leaving, so, in a way, it’s as if I had nothing to lose.”

But still, it was very hard to leave.

“I remember all the people who were traveling with me being very sad. You are leaving everything you have ever known, every tradition behind. Even when you want to leave, you are still leaving everything you know. Your job, friends, family, and instead you are heading into the unknown. Even if you end up really liking your new place, some things will never feel the same… For example, every Friday I would go to my parents’ grave, and now I am unable to do that anymore, and that is very hard for me.

S. is a very open, warm person and it’s hard to believe she went through so much. Her journey started back in February, when she finally decided to leave Iraq, a decision that she says she planned for years.

“For years I’ve been telling my family I will leave for Europe, and they would always laugh at me. Yeah, it felt discouraging, but I knew deep within me my determination was too big not to win.”

Being an open person, she was willing to share everything about her past life in Iraq.

S. was very detailed in her answers, painting vivid pictures with her stories in English, a language she only learned on her journey to Europe. But when asked to describe her life in Iraq, she did so in only one sentence: “It was no life at all.”

Her childhood is dominated by memories of war, as early as age 3, she recalls. I was amazed at how positive and light she seemed. But as soon as we got deeper into the conversation, talking about her life in Iraq, the heaviness of her past was obvious. It was clear that it has left a mark on her.

This is when the conversation got emotionally heavy. She tells me about jeopardy in every area of her hometown in Kurdistan, describing different wars she experienced throughout her earlier life. She tells me about teachers hiding kids in the school basements for the fear of bombs landing on schools.

She knows that part too well because S. herself was an elementary school teacher for 13 years. Talking about her job, she says it’s the only part of her old life she misses. She loves kids, she loved teaching them and she misses them dearly. But she shows no interest in returning to Iraq.

“The only thing I enjoyed about my life in Iraq was my job as a teacher. I love kids and so it brought me great joy to teach them. Sometimes, when I see a school, I remember my job and I just start crying … But I have no interest in ever going back there … That country for me is finished; I am never going back.”

And from what she proceeds to tell me next, it is clear just why.

“It is a war on land, but even more so, a war on women. I had very little control over my own life, simply because I am a woman. Even small decisions, like what I was going to wear, I had no say in.”

She continues talking about freedom. Freedom to wear what she wants, to spend time with people she genuinely wants to spend it with, doing what she wants.

Freedom to not get married to somebody already decided for her by her family.

Not to be defined as less than, solely by being a woman. Something for which she has a constant reminder of as S., when she was a little girl, was forced to undergo female genital mutilation, a practice rooted in gender inequality.

“It is something that before the nineties almost every girl had to go through. I remember joking about it with my elementary school friends, because we had no idea it was a bad thing. In the eyes of people that supported this, every woman was kept as pure as possible, because it prevents you from feeling anything towards a man. And if you hadn’t gone through that process, they believed you were dirty, impure. It was typically done by old ladies, but now the government banned it. I still don’t understand how, my dad being an educated teacher, let his wife take their daughters to these old women to do that to us. It is crazy…”

She doesn’t plan on moving to any other country. When she decided to leave Iraq she had no particular place in mind.

“What attracted me about Europe was freedom. I didn’t really know where exactly I wanted to go, but I remember seeing this different culture on TV, and I wanted to experience it for myself. I wanted to go where women were free to express themselves.”

It is already clear to see that S. is a strong woman with a unique personality…

This is the end of part one of this interview. Part two will be published in the coming days.

Andrea Šmider (22) currently lives in Zagreb, where she studies Social Work at Faculty of Law. After volunteering in a refugee camp, she stayed active in the field of refugee rights through attending different conferences and seminars. The urge to learn more in that field has led her to take part in the project Young Peace Journalists. She hopes to continue in that direction in the upcoming years. Her other interests include reading, spirituality and music.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Young Peace Journalists: An interview with Sadou Diagne

ypj-logoThe following interview was done by Josip Miličević, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Sadou Diagne is a 26 years old Senegalese who has been living in Zagreb, Croatia for the last two and a half  years. He is currently a chef in Taste of Home and a player for football club Zagreb 041.

JM: Hey Sadou, could you introduce yourself in a few sentences?

SD: So, I was born in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, about 26 years ago. Most of my life I spent in the southern part of Senegal with my relatives. I finished high school and had plans to go to university, but unfortunately I had to leave my country due to safety reasons. Since then I traveled to Europe, spent some time in Greece, and ended up in Croatia in the summer of 2014. Here I entered the process of seeking asylum and was granted the same in spring of 2015.

How old were you when you left your home?

It was one year after I finished high school, so 19.

You say you “ended up” in Croatia; does that mean you had some other plans or a different country in mind, coming to Europe?

Well first of all I was looking for a safe country, but also one where I could start a new life. I was thinking about France since I speak French (it is the official language in Senegal), but the journey was very tiresome and I didn’t want to spend more time on the run and in uncertainty; so here I am now, but I can definitely say I don’t regret my decision to apply for asylum in Croatia.

How was it for you in the beginning?

It was really hard, I remember spending the first couple of weeks, maybe even a month, in my room in Porin (name of a former hotel in Zagreb where asylum seekers are situated), just thinking about what to do and where am I and what is next in my life.

What helped you in those moments?

I think I just needed some time to think and decide if I am ready to start a new life here and will I do everything I can. In those first days I prayed a lot and I was lucky to meet some other asylum seekers who were of great help, and these friendships will, I think, last forever.

How was life in Porin? Could you describe one day?

It was very slow and sometimes depressing. It is probably better to say that every day was the same: you had 3 meals and that’s it. That’s how it was in the beginning but then I heard that there were some volunteers coming in Porin and that they teach Croatian, so I started going to lectures. To be honest, I wasn’t the best student but I met great people and they helped me a lot.

What was the strangest thing for you in Croatia?

I lived in Greece for some time so it wasn’t too much of a difference, but I remember the little things that surprised me — for example seeing women smoke cigarettes on the street and how everyone is always rushing somewhere. Also, I remember my first winter here in Zagreb. It was snowing and so cold; I’m more used to sun and sea.

What do you think of Zagreb?

I really like it; it’s not too big so you can reach everywhere using public transportation, but it’s also not a small city with nothing in it. It has everything I need — well except the sea, but I guess I can’t have everything.

How did your life change when you got asylum?

Well I had to leave Porin so now I live in a different part of Zagreb (Borongaj) and getting asylum meant I could start looking for a job and it was a big step forward to actually start a life here. But leaving Porin was also hard because I lived there 8 months and I didn’t know the part of town I was moving into.

Could you tell us something about your job and Taste of Home in general? How did you learn about it and when did you become part of it?

During my stay in Porin, there were some volunteers from the Center for Peace Studies and with them I talked about lots of different things, among others, cooking. They told me about this culinary project that would involve refugees preparing their native food. I really like cooking so I asked to join them. Since then we had a crowd-funding campaign in which we collected enough money to start our own catering. They paid for me to have official courses which I finished and now I work as a chef. We participate in many events or projects and have orders so it’s a lot of work, but it is also fun because with them I traveled around Zagreb but also visited some other places in Croatia.

What do you think of these projects and how they affect refugees?

I think it’s great; it helps people to get to know others and to learn something from other cultures. It helped me to feel accepted but also to introduce food I like to the Croatians; and it helped them to meet people from all over the world. I think it’s great way to fight discrimination and racism.

What do you like to cook?

Well I cook whatever I need to but my favourite ones are meals with fish, rice dishes and couscous.

Do you have any other hobbies or activities in your life?

Before I started working full time in Taste of Home, an important role in my life was playing for FC Zagreb 041.

nk-zagreb-041Why is that? Could you tell us something about that club?

It’s local club that was started about 2 years ago. We played football with some of the fans and they started this club; they decided that they want to include refugees in it. So a couple of us started playing. Once I got my asylum I could register for the club and I played games during first season. Now in its second I don’t have so much time so I only played in 2 games but I have been in the stands a couple of times.

Football fans that support refugees — that’s a not so common thing?

Exactly, that’s why I liked them so much. All of them are great people. I remember my first practices with players; I didn’t know what to expect but they accepted me really fast and it meant a lot to me. Same thing with the fans; they come to every game and cheer for 90 minutes, doesn’t matter the score or weather or anything else. It means a lot to have support and to know you can just relax and play regardless of your differences. (Here is video of Sadou talking about the club at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfOUshUxYLo&t=2s.)

What about language? Did you manage to learn Croatian?

I can understand a lot but I still have problems with speaking it; that’s why I rather use English or French, but with all the traveling and public presentations with Taste of Home, I listen to it so I learn.

Your final thoughts?

I really like Croatia and I am thankful to all the volunteers and my friends in Taste of Home and Zagreb 041 who helped me to get to where I am now. I still miss my family and my home but it’s easier to live with that if you have good friends and support like I have. I hope there will be more projects that involve refugees because there are still people in Croatia who are afraid or hate others just because of their skin colour, but I know that some of them changed their mind when they tried our food and talked with us.

And, if any of you reading this is from Croatia or you visit Zagreb, do your best to come to one of the games of Zagreb 041 or to try the food we prepare.

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Current situation in Croatia regarding refugees/asylum seekers

There are around 600 asylum seekers in Croatia, 500 of them in a reception centre in Zagreb called Porin, and around 100 in a reception centre in Kutina. Compared to the situation before the so-called refugee crisis, for early 2015 it’s huge number, since in that time there was between 60 and 100 people seeking asylum. Most of the people are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but there are also people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Eritrea, Iran and others. There are single men, single women, married couples, families and unaccompanied children, young and old.

People living in reception centres have a right to 3 meals a day and hygiene products; those living in Zagreb have free public transport but what is lacking are language courses (held by professionals, now it’s all up to volunteers), organized activities for asylum seekers, and other different integrative practices and policies.

Josip Miličević is a student at the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb, Croatia. Since February 2015 he has been volunteering in the Centre for Peace Studies, providing language courses and other forms of assistance to asylum seekers and to people who were granted asylum. He is also member of the first and only anti-fascist football club in Croatia, called Zagreb 041.