The 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.
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.
Why 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.
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.