Croatia helps migrants settle by cooking 'taste of home'

Zagreb (AFP) - In a family kitchen on the hilly outskirts of Zagreb, a group of chefs from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Croatia sprinkle salt into flour and grate orange zest as they whip up a range of breads from their home countries.

The bakers belong to "Okus Doma" or "Taste of Home", a project that helps migrants and refugees to start new lives and make friends in Croatia through cooking together and sharing recipes.

"Settling down in a new country is very difficult," said 34-year-old David Ajobi, a medical student from Abuja, as he kneaded dough for Nigeria's popular "agege" bread, a recipe taught to him by his mother.

"Okus Doma wants to bring people together, they can come out and show their skills and show what they can contribute," he told AFP over a table scattered with mixing bowls, rolling pins and jars of ingredients.

Croatia, where memories of a brutal 1990s war are still vivid, is currently known as a quick transit point for refugees and migrants.

The Western Balkan nation has seen hundreds of thousands from the Middle East, Asia and Africa cross its borders since mid-September on their way to start new lives in more prosperous northern Europe.

But Okus Doma was set up to welcome newcomers who end up staying longer, whether they are fleeing war or persecution, coming for work or study, or moving for family reasons.

Since it began in 2006, initially to document refugees' memories, the project has brought together people and dishes from around the world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe and Algeria.

- Culinary dreams -

Those in the collective, including Croatian volunteers, share food and stories in home kitchens around the city, take part in workshops and festivals and prepare dishes on informal catering requests.

They now have big plans to expand their culinary activities with the eventual goal of opening a restaurant, serving favourites such as Afghan pilau, Kurdish falafel and North African couscous.

The partly EU-funded project also tries to raise awareness and understanding among Croatians, whose homogeneous society of 4.3 million people is predominantly white and Roman Catholic.

"Institutions are very traditional and not very open... people aren't used to seeing different skin colours," said Emina Buzinkic, a local activist involved in the initiative since its early days.

She said that preparing food with refugees and other newcomers helped Croatians to feel "much closer" to them.

"They realise these are people with fears and needs and lives. It's an exchange, it's very important."

The recipe sharing began after Croatian activists and asylum seekers they worked with began meeting up, often in cafes, to discuss their lives and experiences.

"We are also people who have gone through war and we also had a lot of refugees. We wanted to show we understand that," said 31-year-old Buzinkic, referring to Croatia's four-year independence war that began in 1991.

- 'Losing roots' -

Buzinkic recalled a Palestinian woman, Sara, who told her about a pie that her grandmother used to make, one of her strongest childhood memories.

"She never ate it again, and she felt like she had lost her roots," Buzinkic said.

Sara eventually moved from Croatia to Western Europe, but her story was one of the inspirations for Okus Doma.

Participation in the project varies because many of those seeking refuge end up leaving Croatia -- obtaining asylum here is a lengthy, difficult and often unsuccessful process, while other European countries offer better opportunities for education and jobs.

Some Syrians involved recently took the chance to move to Germany with the huge wave of people currently passing through the Balkans, Buzinkic said.

But the chefs who remain have been fundraising to expand the project, with plans to develop a catering business, cookbooks and various language courses ahead of the end goal of a restaurant.

Among the budding restaurateurs is Sadou Diagne, a Senegalese 25-year-old who has been in Croatia for more than a year.

A registered refugee, he prefers not to talk about why he had to leave home, saying only that "it's something I really want to forget".

But he fondly recalls cooking with his mother and aunt as a child, and he now shares Senegalese classics such as "thiebou dieune", a spicy fish and rice dish in tomato sauce, with friends at Okus Doma.

He said the chance to learn new recipes from different countries had been a "big pleasure", and one that also helped him to build a new life in Zagreb many miles from his relatives.

"It's about a new family and a new experience for me," he said.

More information about Okus Doma can be found at: