He found work via a TV show and a former army leader, now he wants to help other immigrants do the same.
The African Cuisine & Bar opened in Zagreb three weeks ago. It distinguishes itself from the other new venues opening in the capital in three ways:
- Firstly, it’s the only African themed eaterie in town
- Secondly it eschews the popular minimalist modern style in favour of a more cosy, scruffy feel
- And thirdly it is run by Prince Wale Soniyiki, one of the first people to gain asylum in Croatia and one of the few to have permanent work.
Immigrants with asylum protection barely register in the Croatian employment figures. Partly because the state is welcoming fewer and fewer and partly because jobs are hard enough for native Croats to find, let alone newcomers with a basic grasp of the language.
Sitting in a restaurant, among African flavours coming from the kitchen and the rhythm of drums in the background he speaks comfortably in Croatian about the good fortune which set him up in the country.
He arrived from Nigeria in 2011 after losing two brothers in ethnic fighting. His intended destination was Italy but on route from Libya he drifted off course. „I was one of the first to obtain asylum in Croatia. I was, I think, number seven,“ he recalls
After a short spell of work secured by an NGO he featured in short documentary on public television.
Watching was former Croatian army general Ante Gotovina, who, after being acquitted at a war crimes trial in the Hague had started a tuna farming business in Biograd na Moru, a small village on the Adriatic coast.
“He called me on a phone and ask if I would like to come to work for him“, says Prince, who worked there as a fisherman until last year when the migration crisis hit. “I wanted to help with my experience and language knowledge people arriving in Croatia so I quit my job,“ he observes.
For those fortunate enough to gain asylum status, more good luck is required to find a job and even then it is usually low skilled and low paid. Graduates mostly find their qualifications are not recognised.
Prince himself studied business in Nigeria. He wanted to continue his education, but Croatian public universities treat those with asylum status as foreign citizens so they have to pay fees. Prince can’t afford it right now: “I will finish my studies. Even if I will have grey hair at the time I start“, says smiling.
According to data from the Croatian employment service there were 30 full time workers in the country with asylum status last year. Almost half worked in warehouses, a small group acted as cooks and there were also a couple of goldsmiths, a farmer, a stonemason and a pedicurist. Eighty five registered unemployed had been granted asylum.
‘I pay my own rent’
Weithi Bongo is another of the lucky ones. A training course from the Red Cross helped him find work as a truck driver.
“We had 3 months of teaching and three months of practice“, says Bongo, mixing French and Croatian in the apartment that he shares with a roommate from Senegal. “Now I pay my rent with the salary I earn every month“, he notes proudly.
Paying for the apartment is one thing but simply finding a place to stay can be a challenge. Last week the Jesuit Refugee Service warned that dozens of refugees are looking for accommodation in Zagreb because many property owners refuse to rent them apartments.
“I am very happy because I am working. And I have the opportunity to practice my Croatian language with colleagues from Croatia“, says Bongo as the TV in the living room murmurs in the background. It is one of his ways to learn the language.
While waiting to hear about his application, he passed a language course provided by the Croatian government, which is a legal obligation.
“These are basic courses that lasts only 70 hours. That is not enough“, says Sara Kekuš who works for the NGO Center for Peace Studies „The state does not invest enough in their education.“
So far Croatia has approved the protection for around 300 people. Since the beginning of 2016 almost 3,000 people have claimed asylum in Croatia, about 130 applications have been approved.
Most of them come from Afganistan, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq. Human Rights Watch Report warned at the beginning of the year that the police were deporting asylum seekers without giving them the opportunity to register their claims.
Prince wants to help by employing up to five people in his restaurant. “First they have to learn how my mum used to cook“, he says.
By Mašenjka Bačić