Amid high unemployment, the EU’s newest member state saw a 58-percent decrease in asylum claims last year.
Zagreb, Croatia – Sandra Wahech, a 23-year-old refugee from Syria, has been living in Croatia for nearly two years. She has done her best to integrate into her host country – learning Croatian and attending university in Zagreb. Still, Wahech feels like an outsider.
“From my experience, Croatian people will always treat me as a foreigner and you will always be ‘the other’,” Wahech told Al Jazeera.
“It is not easy for me to deal with it everyday. Some days I am OK with it, but most of the time I am sick of it.”
Social isolation, like Wahech is experiencing, coupled with lack of job opportunities, have made Croatia an unpopular destination for people in need of protection, according to Sanja Pupacic of the Croatia Red Cross, an NGO that provides assistance and counselling for asylum seekers.
In 2014, as the European Union as a whole registered a record rise in the number of asylum seekers, Croatia saw a decrease of 58 percent in asylum claims. The reason: many people, like Wahech, who manage to escape the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa choose other European destinations over Croatia because integration into a homogeneous society that has very few migrant communities is very challenging.
In an effort to ease integration within Croatia, several NGOs have come together to collaborate on an initiative that creates shared culinary experiences for refugees and locals. Called Taste of Home, the culinary gatherings include cooking workshops and public show kitchens, where refugees are invited to introduce traditional dishes from their native countries to locals, and then everybody eats together.
The initiative – funded mostly by the EU, which Croatia joined in July 2013 – is a “culinary, language and cultural exchange”, according to Emina Buzinkic, programme coordinator at the Centre for Peace Studies, one of several non-governmental organisations that collaborated to create the initiative. Buzinkic said one of the goals is to raise Croatians’ awareness of the new cultures the refugees bring to the society.
“We aimed at sensitising Croatian public to refugees’ needs, and combating prejudice,” said Buzinkic.
Wahech – who left her homeland because she could not get used to living in fear and insecurity – was very excited leading up to the Taste of Home gathering in which she was the cook. She wanted to show her Croatian friends and acquaintances that Syria was about much more than just war and bloodshed.
“Since I moved to Croatia, I always mentioned how Syrian food is rich with vegetables and very tasty, so I tempted my friends’ belly,” she said.
For the main dish, Wahech cooked freekeh – a roasted green cereal with beef that has peas, almonds and pine nuts sprinkled on top. She also prepared a fattoush, made of chopped parsley, purslane, mint, cucumber, tomatoes, and onions, with pita bread on the side. She said the Croatian people and the refugees who took part in the event were very impressed by her cooking.
“Everyone ate, and filled their plates twice, and said – ‘Wow Sandra… It’s really delicious!'” Wahech recalled.
“I became more open to people and made friends who make me feel that home is not where you were born but where you are surrounded by people who love you and care for you.”
Wahech managed to find the ingredients for her dishes in a small Iraqi grocery shop in Zagreb. However, for Prince Wale Soniyiki, a refugee from Nigeria who also cooked at a Taste of Home event, it was not so simple.
Soniyiki, 30, said the ingredients for the egusi soup he wanted to cook were not available anywhere in Croatia – a country with no African diaspora. Some members of the Centre for Peace Studies travelled 370km to Vienna, Austria, where there are shops selling African food products, in order to provide the ingredients needed for Soniyiki’s cooking event.
“I cooked food which my mom used to cook for us on Sundays or special occasions. It is traditional food in Nigeria,” said Soniyiki. “I was excited to take part because I want people to taste some of my culture. I wanted to show the richness of Africa to other people.”
Soniyiki, who was granted refugee status in Croatia three years ago, cooked a three-course meal comprising egusi – a hearty soup made with vegetables – seeds, meat, and a plantain.
He said the Croatians who took part in his cooking event were at first very surprised by the taste, but later ate everything, and asked many questions about the dishes.
He thinks these kinds of culture exchanges are critical in order to fix the perception Europeans have of Africa.
“This is creating diversity, this is creating integration,” Soniyiki said about Taste of Home. “If this kind of project would be done in other European countries it will show to people another side of Africa, a beautiful side.”
Follow Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner