Life as a Foreigner at Croatian Diaspora Conferences

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November 14, 2018 – What is it like being a foreigner at a Croatian diaspora conference with no Croatian heritage? Some observations of a British fly on the wall after recent conferences. 

I will confess to a mild fascination with the Croatian diaspora, a fascination which grows stronger the more I find myself immersed in its complexities. And there is nowhere more fascinating to observe the Croatian diaspora than at the various conferences that are held each year, with the aim of better connecting the diaspora with the Homeland. 

My knowledge of the diaspora is rudimentary, but growing all the time. For the first 12 years of my life on Hvar, contact with Croatians who lived abroad was mostly limited to Aussies and Kiwis with connections to the island who loved Total Hvar, as it gave them an English-language connection to the island of their father and grandfathers, and I will never forget finding a Facebook group in Chile sharing an article I wrote about the almost deserted village of Zastrazisce on eastern Hvar:

“Look,” said one in Spanish. “An Englishman has put a picture of our village church online. I have never seen it before, but my father told me so much about it.”

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Looking back now at the origins of TCN, I have to laugh. I knew that the diaspora was a key market for us for readership – after all we were supplying news from the Homeland in a language they could understand. I knew little of the politics of the diaspora back then, and I was determined to have a high-profile interview on the first day to show we were a serious news organisation. And an interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs was quite a coup, right?

It did not take me long to deduce from the torrent of abuse from Australia that the choice of Vesna Pusic on the opening day was perhaps not the smartest.  For some in the 1941 Australian diaspora timewarp, TCN was some UDBA conspiracy, funded by Soros or Putin (or both) with a mission to bring Croatia within Greater Serbia. 

I decided that the relationship between TCN and the diaspora was not going to work. While the abuse did not bother me, the intensity of it surprised me. If these people had so much capacity for hatred, why not put it into something useful and positive for the Homeland they professed to love? 

And then slowly, email after email, I realised that there was much more to the Croatian diaspora than that vocal Aussie brigade. A much bigger section of the diaspora that wanted to connect, to invest and to look to the future, not dwell on the past. Young Croatian entrepreneurs here who wanted access to diaspora markets and investments, for mutual gain. And the more I looked, the more youthful energy and determination I saw, and this connection of young Croats and at home and abroad is a real positive, something addictive which – if managed and organised correctly – has the potential to bring effective and permanent positive change to this country.

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And then I was invited to speak at a diaspora conference in Osijek this summer. Apart from the chance to reconnect with wonderful Slavonia after far too long in a city I think is one of the most underrated in Croatia, I was more than curious at how these events look a little closer up. Language and cultural differences are the two obvious things to note when looking around the room. And then when you look a little closer, the absence of politicians apart from the opening ceremony and photo shoot, and the different branches of the diaspora – those who want to dwell on and remember the past and a growing number of the younger generation who want to connect, look to the future and get some business done.  

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In a way, I guess I feel a part of a diaspora community too. A Brit married to a lovely Dalmatian and living here for 16 years is a different version of a Venezuelan who comes home to his grandfather’s country every two years, or an American second generation diaspora with three words of the mother tongue to his name. It is a real melting pot, and whatever the beliefs – past v present, entrepreneurship versus respecting traditions, all are united in their love of the Homeland, and the desperate desire to see it succeed. At such moments, I feel a total outsider – as a Brit, I have never had such passion for the Motherland, nor gone through the trauma of war or emigration – or both.  

What you get out of a diaspora conference can largely be determined with who you hang out with, and I am very grateful to Ognjen Bagatin – Mr. Connected himself – for his tireless enthusiasm and energy in bringing like-minded people together with a view of a brighter Croatia tomorrow. Here he is, above, telling the diaspora that they are Croatia’s greatest ambassadors in developing Croatia’s medical tourism story. 

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One very nice thing about this week’s G2.4 diaspora conference in Zagreb was the session where everyone was asked to introduce themselves and say why they were here. There was laughter for an Englishman trying to speak Croatian, but I was struck too at the number of people who struggled with the mother tongue and yet tried to get out a few words. One South American wanted to present himself in Spanish, as that was his other heritage – it did not matter that most could not understand. 

I liked that. 

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I like also the youthful energy. Young people in Croatia with bright ideas, older Croatian diaspora with cash to invest. And not a government agency in sight. If that direct bond can be nurtured and developed, it could prove to be very significant in Croatia’s future in the years to come. One session at G2.4, for example, was ten Croatian startups pitching their new businesses and looking for investment. There was plenty of interest, and good luck to all ten, including winner Rio Bot, whose CEO Belma Gutlic, left, is seen picking up her award from Ante Lucic.  

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Diaspora conferences also have great speakers, and I particularly enjoyed Nenad Bakic at G2.4 with his very dark portrayal of perceptions of life in the modern Croatia, followed by his uplifting report on his IT efforts to provide a better education for the youth of Croatia today. You can read more about that here

I get the impression that the diaspora is getting more organised, and connections with the Homeland, without going through lecherous State institutions, are getting stronger. Although they are all Croats, the emigration stories come from different centuries and are located on different continents, and it will take time. But there are wise old heads and bright young minds in North America, South America, Australasia and parts of Europe, who are slowly coming together and strengthening connections with the Homeland.

And unlike in Croatia, where a foreigner’s opinion is not welcome, the Croatian diaspora not only are interested, they encourage you to speak. Here is one fat Englishman, for example, at the 3rd Croatian Diaspora Congress in Osijek this summer – see video above. 

In many ways, the Croatian diaspora is a mirror of Croatia itself. Diverse and disorganised, and struggling to find its feet. But unlike Croatia – at least its State institutions, the diaspora is getting organised on all continents – slowly, but surely – and connecting with the entrepreneurial young generation of Croatia. 

It is a pleasure to watch from the sides and support through TCN. 

Until the next conference… 

For the latest from the Croatian diaspora on TCN, follow our dedicated section.

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