Prince Wale Soniyiki, a refugee from Nigeria, says his own story shows how migrants can find their place in Croatia – if the country gives them a chance.
In Croatia, just 30 refugees have jobs. Prince Wale Soniyiki wants to change that. 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 Zagreb in three ways:
- Firstly, it’s the only African themed eatery 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 of them 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, Wale 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.
A Christian living in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, Wale went through very tough times in his earlier life. His two brothers, twins, were both killed there.
“They were born on the same day and died on the same day… I saw it and couldn’t do anything,” he said, gently giving a sign that he does not wish to go into details, while connecting his experience with that of other refugees these days across Europe.
Running for their lives
“These people from Syria who are running, are running for their lives, for the right to be alive,” he said. “If something like this happened in Europe, Europeans would move and would run elsewhere, to Africa, or America,” he said, urging the EU to do more to help the refugees.
He said everyone should bear in mind the hardships these refugees have endured on their way, mentioning deserts, storms on the sea and the brutality of the police in places like Macedonia. They are deeply traumatized, he said.
He described leaving Nigeria, going north through Niger and then into Libya, which was in the midst of a civil war. He had to pay money to the rebel militias there, since, according to the popular local belief, “all black people” were fighters for former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
In Libya, Wale boarded a ship that took him to the Croatian coastal city of Split. There he found out that Italy, where he has relatives, was nearby and he decided to go there by taxi.
“The taxi driver charged me 600 euros. Although I had some 630 in total, I told myself, ‘Just get to Italy and my troubles are over’… But he actually drove me to Zagreb and said, ‘Here, this is Italy,”’ he recalled, smiling, as if did not matter anymore.
Wale soon found out he was still in Croatia, talked to the police and applied for political asylum. He waited for his asylum procedure to be completed for around five months in the asylum centre in Kutina, some 80 kilometres from Zagreb. After he obtained asylum he moved back to Zagreb, where the state pays his rent for the next two years, as the law stipulates.
“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 Wale featured in a 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 Wale, who worked there as a fisherman until last year when the migration crisis hit.
Africans are good citizens
One reason for changing jobs was his wish to continue working in the Association for Africans in Croatia, which is dedicated to promoting African culture, tolerance and the integration of Africans in Croatia.
They organize festivals, seminars, workshops and visit schools around Croatia. His association wants to correct the common stereotypes people have about Africa.
His association wants to help all refugees who seek asylum in Croatia, help them integrate and raise awareness among the Croatians that people coming to Croatia are usually good and that there are already Africans in Croatia who are “good citizens”.
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.
Wale 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. He can’t afford it right now: “I will finish my studies. Even if I will have grey hair at the time I start,” he 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.
Wale 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.