Unique Integration Conference for Asylum Seekers Held in Fuzine, Croatia
On Monday, September 24, 2018 the unique six-day conference was completed in the picturesque village of Fuzine, Croatia. More than 50 asylum seekers, including an international team of facilitators, humanitarian and faith-based activists from twelve countries, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran including, came together to wrestle with a number of burning questions that asylum seekers in Croatia and Europe are facing daily in their prolonged processes of waiting between interviews and issuing of the final government decision to their requests to stay permanently in Croatia.
This dynamic and at times intense conference, with the theme “Moving Forward in Truth, with Courage and Hope,” represented the extension of the ROM – Renewing Our Minds international leadership project, and was organized by “Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation” (US), and “Business as Mission” (Zagreb, Croatia), in partnership with ECPM – European Christian Political Movement, from Brussels, Belgium. The conference was conducted in English, with simultaneous translations provided into Farsi and Arabic.
The conference objectives included helping seekers of the international protection in Croatia, and those who have had their asylum statuses favorably resolved recently, gain a balanced understanding of the integration processes and related challenges in Croatia. Likewise, the conference organizers wanted to hear from the participating asylum seekers what are their most daring challenges as they are often waiting for two to three years, driven by uncertainty and anxiety, to have their requests answered by the Croatian Government? In short, the objectives of the conference were to help immigrants in Croatia and Europe to integrate well, and to help them grasp the essentials of European culture and Christian faith.
The daily afternoon workshops helped the conference participants, most of whom were family men and women with children, to vocalize their most urging needs and anxieties. Some of the most frequent questions were: Why is the process of waiting to receive the final decision taking so long? Why are some asylum seekers, who have come to Croatia only recently receiving their positive answers sooner than those who entered Croatia two or three years ago, and are still waiting to have their cases finalized?
Other questions included: While only a few asylum seekers have been allowed to work legally in Croatia, as they are waiting to have their asylum requests finalized, why are many more denied the privilege to work legally? Why is it that under the law some helpful privileges are promised to the waiting asylums seekers, such as learning the Croatian language and access to health care, while in practice those privileges are seldom accessible? Why is the Croatian government not helping reunite the families separated in different places and countries along their refugee trail?
Through carefully selected lectures, and much time devoted to questions and group conversation, the organizers of the conference devoted their attention to the issues of law, culture and place of religion in the Croatian society; the three overlapping areas whose understanding is necessary if the Integration into the Croatian society is to be fully appreciated and implemented. Special attention was given to building of friendship and trust between Muslim and Christian asylum-seekers, as well as building friendship and trust between asylum seekers and the Croatian citizens and institutions.
At the workshop about the role of faith and religious communities in Croatian it became obvious that the asylum seekers are expecting more empathy and support from the religious communities of Croatia than from the government. “Since it is in the nature of religious communities to care about vulnerable groups,” they reasoned, “religious organizations, churches and faith-based groups should be able to put in place a synchronized care network” that could efficiently help asylum seekers in the months and years of uncertainty and prolonged months and years of anxious waiting; and also help the asylum holders who have recently been granted the right to remain in Croatia. For example, they could help the new asylum holders, especially those with children, to find their first home and first job.
The strength of this conference was that it dealt insightfully and compassionately with the challenges of integration as observed and handled by the three sides involved in the lives of asylum seekers: as they are handled by the Croatian and European laws and legal systems; as they are experienced by the asylum seekers themselves; and as they are addressed by the church and faith-based organizations and groups. Since most of the asylum seekers are spending long periods of time anxiously waiting for the final and affirming decision from the government, often being previously rejected two or three times, it became clear in the initial days of the conference that most of asylum seekers-in-waiting have suffered from the loss of trust in the Croatian government, its institutions and supporting agencies. The conference leadership team, which included also a group of asylum seekers and asylum holders, worked diligently to see the damaged trust and relationships healed and restored, and promised to contribute to the conversation by making the findings of the conference available to the public and relevant institutions.
The quality of the conference was enhanced by the choice of speakers and facilitators, and experienced ROM (Renewing Our Minds) team members. Among them were Heather Staff, an emerging UK politician and Policy Adviser to Kate Green MP; Leo van Doesburg, Director for European Affairs for the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM); Amir Hekmatpour, spiritual advisor and faith mentor from the US; Donya and Shayan Spanta, asylum holders and humanitarian activists from Iran, now Croatian residents; Mihal Kreko, Christian pastor and humanitarian activist from Zagreb, Croatia; Tihomir Kukolja, Renewing Our Minds (ROM) Director; and Ana Šutalo, a representative of the Croatian Ministry of the Interior, and Asylum Support Expert. Ana Šutalo’s contribution to the conference was especially significant as she explained in detail what needed to happen once an asylum seeker has received a residential status in Croatia.
Although the conference dealt with very serious themes and issues, often accompanied by heated but honest discussion, this event also became a festival of friendship through the relaxing, and spirit-lifting hours of sharing in the energetic feasts of music, dances, customs, culture of the countries represented at the conference, and moments of thanksgiving. However, the special feature of the conference were the moments that addressed the spiritual hunger manifest by all participants at the conference, Christians and Muslims alike. No hours were too long, and no optional workshops too many for the groups of participants who never ceased to ask new questions as they listened to Amir Hekmatpour, even in the hours outside his official speaking sessions. Amir Hekmatpour, from the US and with the origins from Iran, served as a spiritual adviser, mentor and speaker at the conference.
“The results of this integration conference surpassed all our expectations” – stated Mihal Kreko, one of the organizers of the 2018 ROM Integration Conference, and the director of a unique integration project currently under construction in Zagreb, Croatia, known as “The House of Hope.” Heather Staff, a speaker at the conference and a UK politician commented: “I’ve never before experienced the level of honesty in our conversations as at this conference, and even when we disagreed we did it agreeably.” “The Thanksgiving Eveningon the closing Sunday demonstrated that we all became one forgiving, forgiven and reconciled family of friends who loved each other. By the end of the conference one could see that the faces of asylum seekers radiated with new hope and new joy,” said Liviu Bocaniala, the conference music director. And Tihomir Kukolja, the ROM – Renewing Our Minds Director stated: “This conference opened my eyes. I learned more about the hardships of being an asylum seeker in six days of this conference than in previous three years”.
At this time the organizers are involved in the speedy preparation of a memorandum that will be presented to the governmental and non-governmental organizations before the end of this month, as well as to a number of church and faith-based organizations in Croatia and abroad. This document will present in detail the conference’s objectives, conclusions and recommendations. It will be released in Croatian, English, Farsi and Arabic, and presented to several international organizations too.
Tihomir Kukolja, ROM – Renewing Our Minds, DirectorLearn More
Two weeks ago Bojan Ruvarac, new Renewing Our Minds director, and Tihomir Kukolja (ROM Director 2001-2019) were visiting Uganda.
We meet with the leaders of the Africa Youth Leadership Forum (AYLF) from Uganda and Eastern Africa. We shared our work experiences with the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) ministry and our governing organization Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation. Our African friends shared their work experiences with AYLF and Cornerstone Development.
We were impressed, humbled and inspired as we watched how young people of Uganda and East Africa were becoming transformed into the future leaders of this region thanks to the dedicated work of the African youth Leadership Forum and Cornerstone Development, and their vision of “nurturing a new breed of African leaders”. Out of our visit and time spent with our friends from AYLF a new vision has flourished: AYLF is seriously planning to move forward with an African version of ROM.
Thank you friends from Uganda for your wonderful welcome and hospitality. Special Thank You goes to our friends Phillip Ojok, Gabriel Odhiambo Achayo, Allan Shepherd, and our new friends Branly Madatii, Monicah Monique Waithera, Emmanuel Baraka, Josephats Yeeko Izaacs, Tim Kreutter, Samuel Wanyagira and Yusuph Athuman, and to a number of other new friends from Uganda and the region.
Tihomir Kukolja, ROM – Renewing Our Minds, DirectorLearn More
Heather N. Staff, ROM – Renewing Our Minds Core Team Member from UK, reflects on what she had gained at the 2018 ROM Regional Follow-up Trip, June 2018, as the team visited the ROM and EDI Alumni in Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Romania.
A celebration of friendship that engaged people where they were at, listened, reflected and learned. The trip not only engaged on a personal level with people but also physically was a chance to see where people lived, worked and went to school. We saw the highs and the challenges of everyday life and the community that was sustained through the common denominator which was ROM/EDI.
For some our visit brought renewed hope and encouraged a sense of right time and right place, for others it was a chance to remember why they were part of ROM. Yet this was not just about engaging with old friends it was also a chance to meet people who had questions about Jesus, about politics, integrity and where the world is headed. These people I hope will come to be part of ROM/EDI next year.
It was clear from conversations that ROM has impacted people, often career choices were changed or studies undertaken because of what was heard at ROM, it brought home the responsibility leaders and speakers have at ROM. What we say is not forgotten and can have life changing impact. ROM made people think, issues came up of grace and forgiveness, people did not have an issue with ‘too much Jesus’ and for the most part they wanted to be challenged.
There were feelings from some people that we need to talk through issues of nationalism and engage with past conflicts in case we forget them. People also seemed happy that we had addressed the refugee crisis and invited refugees to be among us. In Romania and Albania there was a desperate thirst for examples of good political leadership and ways to combat isolation, corruption and how to argue/disagree well. How do you give dignity and respect while maintaining principles, how do you work through issues that are not black and white but complex?
It was in Albania and Romania especially that perhaps a new format for ROM could be looked at, more intimate gatherings or living room talks and panel interviews/debates that can go along with talks. These panel events were effective and engaging as they allowed greater questions from people. The living room dialogue session in Cluj was a great example of an informal way to talk about politics, yet open it up to a wider framework where friendly dialogue without judgement could be had.
The biggest take away for myself however came in the sense of community that followed us wherever we went, quality conversation time amongst those that came and the people we came to serve.
I was amazed by a conversation in Novi Sad, Serbia with a lady I had not met before, it highlighted how ROM gave her community and how she felt loved and never judged. How much she missed the sense of being in community and how life at the moment is difficult for her. She was able to connect with a lady in a similar situation and they are now able to talk regularly, she really needed our visit. Another young man shared how he changed his studies and as a result now works for Samaritans purse and is looking for other jobs in humanitarian aid.
In Belgrade, Serbia I was amazed by the hospitality we were shown and the growth in some people, likewise seeing people from my small group who are on a journey not just with Jesus but in making change in the lives around them. I feel we were able to bless many people who had little and I hope we also helped people to engage with what is going on around them and examine what it is they really think and feel.
In Macedonia there was a small group of people but we had quality conversations including the excellent bookshop/culture centre that is one of those ideas you think wow this needs to happen in other areas. I was so encouraged to see 3 ladies who had been friends since 2002 and met because of ROM. Perhaps a ROM coffee shop/resource centre could be started in different places? Dream big as they say
In Albania I was amazed by the amount of people who came to the dinners, and the quality of conversations, looking back Albania really needed our attention for much longer. The church service in Berat was excellent and spiritual refreshment for me. The panel interviews and talks engaged people and showed a desperate need for leadership in politics. Those that had been on ROM were hungry for more, but also showed incredible kindness and hospitality. ROM and EDI have clearly impacted people here and I could see how hard it is to not slip into the trends of nationalism but they are fighting it and trying to promote quality thinking and good disagreement.
Cluj, Romania was my stop, and I was blessed in every way by the sculptor Liviu Mocan and what his art is bringing to Cluj and Romania. Even though the weather was against us, again we had quality conversations in the evening at a group set up by Debora Salgau, a young lady who had been on ROM last year. Even though I spoke at this event I came away incredibly blessed that there are people willing and wanting to fight corruption, the informal setting was perfect for discussion. I was also blessed by the hospitality shown to me by the people I stayed with, incredible Christ like love,
If I have to summarise my time on this celebration of friendship it would be to say community is vital, people need community and miss it. ROM has helped to build it and it must be sustained which includes follow up, communication, a text now and then, especially from leaders and speakers. ROM can change people’s thinking and this can make life harder when people leave, and may require some after care.
For ROM to stay relevant it needs to keep Jesus at the centre, His life, love, grace and forgiveness are what makes ROM so distinct from other gatherings and talks. It is because of Jesus that we do what we do and seek to help people become better leaders who act justly, love mercy and walk humbly. Jesus inspires how we should talk and care for each other even when we have differences of theology or political opinion but it also makes us brave. ROMs relevance is needed more than ever, its vital we do not shy away from tackling the ideological positions that the world seems to be taking around – fascism and communism or simply nationalism.
It is vital we keep helping people to see the perspective of each other ‘to walk in their shoes’ and learn how to forgive and show grace. It is vital we show how to speak truth while doing so in love and it is vital we help people to build community and show love to not just the neighbour but the enemy. ROM is relevant, it allows for complexity of thought, dialogue and the ability to connect Jesus teachings to everyday leadership. It should not be afraid to welcome those of other faiths and help them journey and see why Jesus teaching is different and why it stands the test of time and it should always do so from a place of love.Learn More
Let me share five video reports we have produced in 2019 that highlight several aspects of the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) ministry in 2019 as well as partnerships connected with ROM in various ways. ROM20 #3, Jesus Plus Nothing: Since its birth in 1999 ROM - Renewing Our Minds ministry has always remained faithful to …
Preparations and registrations are well on the way at this time for the 1999-2019 ROM (Renewing Our Minds) Celebration Gathering, to take place in Ohrid, Macedonia, 29thJuly to 5thAugust, 2019. This leadership and reconciliation gathering, under the banner “20 Years of Empowering Ambassadors for a Better World,” will summarize the first 20 years of contribution …
Dear Friends, In October last year the organizers of the ROM (Renewing Our Minds) Integration Forum released the Croatian edition of the Memorandum on the ROM Integration Forum, with conclusions and recommendations for Croatian government and non-government organizations and institutions, as well as for EU and international organizations that could benefit from the findings of …
For many years this house was a home of drug addicts and prostitutes. After several moths of hard work and some opposition the work of the building transformation is almost complete. Mihal Kreko shares the latest video update. Hope House March 2019 Report...
John Masuku, a seasoned and senior radio broadcaster, producer and journalist in Zimbabwe, and a member of the international community of ROM - Renewing Our Minds friends, sent us today the following statement issued jointly by a number of prominent media organizations in Zimbabwe. Since the Zimbabwean Government has shut down schools, banks, roads, transportation, media, …
Three years ago the Renewing Our Minds volunteers witnessed the incoming waves of refugees entering Europe via the Balkan route, and crossing Serbia and Croatia. We were only a small part of a much bigger effort that engaged churches, faith based organization, non-profits and individuals who dedicated days, weeks and months, and some of them …