On 9-10 November 2021, the first International Networking path took place aiming to promote exchanges and fostering the emergence of joint policies and initiatives. On this occasion, EPIC partners from SSF, AEIDL, ALDA, the Metropolitan area of Gdansk, JRS Croatia, the Municipality of Sizak and UCL met in Croatia, while other partners followed the whole process on social media and video-conferencing. The event was an opportunity for EPIC partners to meet with stakeholders in Croatia to further exchange newly-acquired knowledge and experience.
On the first day, EPIC partners visited the City of Sisak, about an hour from Zagreb, to meet with local stakeholders. After a brief introduction of the EPIC project from the Project Coordinator, Dolinda Cavallo, and welcoming address from Janko Gredelj of JRS Croatia, and the representative of the City of Sisak Zrinka Hafizović, local actors took turns to give an overview of their work. These presentations painted a picture of a city where efforts to build an inclusive community involves holistic actions to ensure migrants’ access to rights and services and to support social cohesion between residents and newcomers.
A presentative of the Central State Office for Reconstruction and Housing from Zagreb highlighted the particular challenges of the 2020 earthquake causing extensive material damage in the region. One of the priorities of the recovery plan was to create safe conditions for households to return to the affected areas, which involved the reconstruction and/or construction of housing, provision of financial assistance and temporary accommodation.
Representatives of the Sisak Red Cross presented the wide range of their activities involving medical, educational, administrative, employment and welfare assistance, the provision of clothing, food and school supplies and the organisation of cultural exchange workshops. Among the actions implemented jointly with the Municipality of Sisak, there is the provision of a private residence to support the inclusion of persons with international protection.
A representative of the Centre for Culture and Dialogue presented their activities for welcoming newcomers and the workshops for economic and social integration in Sisak. Social activities and cultural and inter-religious dialogues involve the celebration of religious holidays with people of all faiths, as well as excursions, artistic activities, sports and outings to cultural places such as museums and theatres.
Yunus Emre shared his personal journey as a person on the move. Of Turkish origin, he arrived in Croatia in 2020 and lived in a refugee camp in Zagreb. He soon started working in a library with a strong desire to integrate into Croatian society. By making friends in the local community, he quickly learned the country’s culture and language. He also received online training in software and digital marketing. He later moved to Sisak, where local organisations generously welcomed him. Feeling part of the Sisak community, he concluded his speech with a note that it is very important for both newcomers and host societies to counteract negative stereotypes about migrants and refugees.
The Civil Rights Project Sisak NGO implements housing projects in collaboration with the Central State Office for Reconstruction and Housing. This includes helping beneficiaries to obtain housing rights, a reception and integration centre for foreigners, free legal support and advice, language courses and capacity building to accompany integration into the labour market.
A teacher from Braca Bobetko Primary School introduced us to the ECEC Play Hub and Toy Library. The ECEC Play hub prepares the community to welcome children by implementing cross-sectoral cooperation with the municipality, the municipal library, the primary schools, the municipal museum and kindergartens. In addition to lending toys, games and books, these facilities provide a space where children and parents can play together, and receive information on health, education and child development. In addition, these places allow families from different cultural backgrounds to meet and socialise by participating in creative and social activities.
A representative of ALD Sisak presented the NGO’s mission to stimulate the development of inclusive societies at the local level by fostering citizen participation and accompanying democratic processes that promote human rights. Through the “WalkON” project, the NGO aims to foster community cohesion by providing tailor-made activities and strengthening the skills of teachers, and community youth leaders and workers, to assert themselves as welcoming neighbours, to counter hate speech and to promote peace building. The project involves community stakeholders at different levels and equips them with the necessary skills and expertise to combat these negative phenomena in their environment.
After these inspiring presentations and exchange of good practices, EPIC partners went to visit a flat accessible under the Housing Services for Migrants programme, guided by the Representative of the Central State Office for Reconstruction and Housing. These apartments are fully equipped and furnished and provide families with a safe place to live as soon as they arrive in the city, giving them the opportunity to properly settle in. Accommodation is free of charge, including utilities, for two years, which is considered sufficient to allow families to integrate into the labour market and social life of the city and to find a new home.
Back in Zagreb in the afternoon, EPIC partners participated in a working session on narratives, facilitated by Patricia Martinez, from AEIDL. This short session had two objectives: to get to know the overall planning of the 8 local communication campaigns as well as exchanging among partners on possible ideas and actions that the consortium wishes to undertake at the project level. The idea behind the second objective was to have a first participatory brainstorming session, involving all partners, to co-create an alternative communication campaign at project level aiming to sift the narrative from discourses portraying prejudices and stereotypes or sending racist comments towards refugees.
On the second day, EPIC stayed in Zagreb for a fully hybrid day on the upcoming activities of the project. This day was dedicated to the reflection on the pilot projects that will be implemented by the partners. Marta Siciarek, from the Metropolitan City of Gdansk, facilitated the session by reminding participants that this pilot project is a tool for change, which is a means to empower communities and project implementers and a learning opportunity. She also clarified the importance of adopting a human rights-based approach, which implies that the source of the problem is analysed and that the project makers position themselves as rights holders of local citizens, guaranteeing the access to their rights, rather than a needs-based approach, where they are perceived as helpers of people in need only. This distinction is crucial because it refocuses the action at the centre of the fight for respect of the fundamental rights of people on the move. It is not a question of aid but a question of humanity. Also, she stressed that the method used must ensure active participation, engagement, empowerment and cooperation of the different stakeholders. In a second phase, EPIC partners started working in groups to identify, as a team, an approach, a target theme and a means of action for this activity. Although there are many needs, the partners focused on the areas in which they want to take action, thinking specifically about the kind of change they want to see in their community and what they can do to make that change happen.