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A UNITES story – The journey to integration and empowerment in Zagreb 

20 June 2024

In 2016, Salam Al-Nidawi left Iraq for Croatia, where he sought asylum. “For me, the most important thing was to find a safe place to start my life,” he explains.

Since then, he has worked as an interpreter and culture mediator in Zagreb’s Rehabilitation Centre for Stress and Trauma. His job became his passion as it positively impacts people’s lives, particularly those who have experienced trauma and live with mental health issues, such as asylum seekers.

Thanks to the NGO’s work, these individuals evolve from struggling newcomers to finding employment, building relationships, and integrating into society, Salam explains. “When they come, it’s really hard,” he says, “but they change with the process. I have seen how they get jobs, start relationships, or get married. These are the best moments,” he shares. 

Having undergone a similar journey of adaptation and integration when he first arrived in Croatia, Salam can personally relate to those experiences. Knowing neither the language nor anyone there made everything more difficult. “If you talked to me in Croatian with a smile, I would say ‘OK, that’s something good’. But now I feel I have a responsibility because I am fully integrated, I have citizenship and speak the language fluently. And I feel I can help others,” he says.

Helping integrating others  

Through his work at the Rehabilitation Centre for Stress and Trauma, Salam has gained experience that he uses to help make Zagreb “a better place for newcomers,” he says. With a background in Law and Politics from Iraq and a master’s degree in Political Science from Croatia, Salam speaks Arabic, Turkish, English and Croatian. He assists asylum seekers and those under international protection, mostly from the Middle East. “We help them reach their goals and integrate into Croatian society.”  

Activities on International Migrants Day – Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan

“When I came to Croatia eight years ago, there were not many people who could be mediators or interpret Arabic. So I felt that there was a need for that.”  

Not only could Salam interpret Arabic, but he was familiar with both, the culture he was born into and the one that welcomed him. “I lived in my country [of origin] for more than 20 years and finished my university studies here [Croatia]. I know both cultures well, and I like to help people,” he concludes. 

Zagreb has seen increased migration from Asian countries such as Nepal, Pakistan and India in recent years. The city involves them, as well as people fleeing Ukraine, in the integration process. However, Salam notes that Arabic speakers struggle longer than Ukrainians with learning Croatian due to different alphabet and phonetics, resulting in “a longer integration process.” 

I feel I have a responsibility because I am fully integrated, I have citizenship and speak the language fluently. And I feel I can help others
— Salam Al-Nidawi

Salam also works with the city as a member of the Coordination of the City of Zagreb for the integration of those granted international protection. While municipal workers assist newcomers with legal procedures and paperwork, Salam focuses on practical matters he can address from his experience. “I am like a bridge between the foreigners and the municipality,” he summarises. 

Co-design, co-design, co-design 

Ensuring integration processes are successful requires including migrants in the decision-making processes as they affect their lives.  

In Zagreb, migrants are directly involved in discussions about policies and initiatives aimed at helping newcomers integrate and thrive. By incorporating insights from individuals within these communities, such as those from Nepal or other regions, the city gains valuable perspectives that enhance the effectiveness of its integration efforts.  

Activities on International Migrants Day – Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan

Salam emphasises the success of this approach, noting that input from migrant representatives provided crucial information that might have been missed otherwise. He advocates for extending this inclusive method to higher decision-making levels, ensuring that migrants can actively participate and contribute to shaping policies, for instance. 

Activities on International Migrants Day - Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan
Activities on International Migrants Day - Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan
Activities on International Migrants Day - Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan
Activities on International Migrants Day - Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan
Activities on International Migrants Day - Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan
Activities on International Migrants Day - Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan

Under the UNITES project, Zagreb has been evaluating all integration measures in place to spot weaknesses and strengths since 2022. “What was important when we did the procurement process for this evaluation was to include persons with migrant background in the research,” explains Jana Radic, Head of Department for Promoting Human Rights in Civil Society in the city Office for Cultural and Civil Society and President of the Coordination for Integration at the City of Zagreb, where Salam is part of. 

What was important when we did the procurement process for this evaluation was to include persons with migrant background in the research
— Jana Radic

The same approach applies to the research and the assessment of the needs of asylum seekers, migrants, those granted international protection or temporary protection, and those with work permits, which the city will develop after the summer. 

“As soon as the needs assessment is done, we will continue to develop a new action plan,” says Radic. The current action plan, which finalises at the end of this year, has laid the groundwork for a one-stop-shop planned for July and the organisation of Croatian language courses. “Even though 10,000 people in Zagreb don’t speak Croatian — some don’t even speak English and they still work in the city —, the state still hasn’t organised language courses,” so the city did. The second action plan addresses the recent influx of non-EU foreign workers from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Egypt. 

Activities on International Migrants Day – Photo by Sanjin Kaštelan

The first integration plan Zagreb adopted was in the context of the project CONNECTION (2022-2022). “CONNECTION was a real change in the city,” says Radic. Zagreb became the first Croatian municipality to develop an integration action plan. “We saw the need for it, and the project went very well. So when we heard about another project, we applied as we wanted to continue our [integration] activities.” Zagreb is part of the UNITES and CONSOLIDATE projects. 

Since then, in 2022, the municipality has financed NGOs yearly. Supporting NGOs such as the Centre for Stress and Trauma is part of the city’s integration action plan. Organisations can express their interest based on the activities listed in the plan. Radic explains that the combination of NGO activities, social protection services and healthcare provided by the city results in a comprehensive local integration action plan.

Main picture by Sanjin Kaštelan

Contact

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer

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