This week, Kafkadesk sat down with Henrieta Valková, a Slovak social worker who, throughout her whole life, has witnessed first-hand how many of her co-citizens suffered from social isolation and exclusion. After realizing that many foreigners in Slovakia were, also, feeling left out of society, she decided to do something about it.
For many foreigners, integration can be hard in Slovakia, and the cultural shock is particularly challenging for people coming from non-EU countries, whose numbers doubled in 2018. Some of these troubles mainly pertain to daily matters, like dealing with the Foreigners’ Police, taking care of their health care or having trouble getting used to halusky. But when it comes to expatriation and life in a new country, small worries often reflect a more existential problem: people just don’t fit in. “The first contact with Slovakia was not pleasant” Samia from Somalia admitted, a rather widespread opinion among expats, who often perceive Slovaks as cold and distant. The current social and political climate, mired in aggressive rhetoric against migrants, only makes matters worse.
Although this creeping xenophobia is mainly directed toward people from Africa, the Middle-East or Asia, even more “mainstream” expats from Western countries also suffer from a lack of institutional structure and support in their integration. Interviewed by the Slovak Spectator, head of the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture Elena Gallová Kriglerová summed up the issue pretty clearly: “We have been trying to open the topic of integration of foreigners since 2008, but municipalities are not aware of the need to integrate foreigners. They almost always say they do not have any problem with foreigners, so they don’t need to pay special attention to them”.
And despite a few steps taken in the right direction, a lot still has to be done for foreigners to feel like their attempts at integration doesn’t amount to wishful thinking. And due to the country’s demographic decline, it’s also in the interest of Slovakia to be more welcoming toward foreigners. According to economist Vladimir Balaz from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, “we would need at least 10-15.000 migrants per year” to maintain the rate of economically active people.
Henrieta Valková is one of the people working on the field to solve this problem. After working in a hospital for cancer patients for 20 years and becoming director of a retirement home, she now heads the social care department of Ruzinov, Bratislava’s eastern district with approximately 75.000 citizens – coincidentally, roughly the same size as the expat community in the country. In other words, she knows one thing or two about vulnerable people suffering from isolation, social exclusion and loneliness.
“After several encounters and spending time browsing through the Facebook groups of expats living in Bratislava, I was shocked to see how many of them expressed negative feelings about their integration and life in general in Slovakia”, she told me when I met her. So, she decided to expand her activities and started working, outside of her day job, as a volunteer to connect Slovaks and expats, facilitate their integration and help them understand the local culture. “I decided to tend to this expat frustration to show them what Slovakia really is about, and how wonderful a country it turns out to be once you give it a chance”.
In March last year, she started organizing tour guides for expats in Bratislava, a city she knows like the back of her hand, in English – a language she started learning in her late 30’s and that she now masters completely. “When it came to foreign languages, the initial nudge came from my daughter, who studied in Japan. Once, when we were on holiday abroad, she refused to keep translating stuff to me back in Slovak. That’s when I decided to get down to it”.
After city tours, she also started contemplating organizing cultural events such as small day trips or special folk dances workshops. “I’m trying to build a safe environment for people with different backgrounds and points of view”, she explained, “a sort of extended and challenging comfort zone if you like”. She’s also planning new events this year, including a beer tasting in a monastic brewery, on January 25… all the while working full-time for the Ruzinov social care department.
“Thankfully, I only need to sleep five hours a day”, she smiled when I asked how she managed. The task isn’t easy, and resistance comes from both sides of the cultural wall: while foreigners can have a hard time getting used to specific aspects of life in their new country, Slovaks too can be unwilling to make the first move, especially when it involves speaking English.
When you’re doing something with passion, you don’t count the hours. And that obviously applies to Henrieta. “I absolutely love it: I meet people from different countries every day and form new lasting friendships. I’m also able to see first-hand the progress they’re making”. An interesting combination of cultural tutor and life coach, Henrieta helps expats with a range of issues, from understanding the history of Bratislava to grasping Slovak customs and how (not) to behave with Slovak women.
“In the end, the goal is just to make my country a better and more pleasant place for everyone to live in”, she said. And while Bratislava may be “very liberal and open-minded to other cultures” for some, not everyone feels the same way. But thanks to engaged people like Henrieta, social coexistence and mutual understanding is improving, one step at a time.