Yusuf Muhammadzoda: „A mutual dialogue is necessary for a successful refugee integration“

Written by a journalist Virginija Kučinskaitė 

In recent years, refugees‘ integration topic of discussion is becoming more relevant not only in the global, but also in Lithuanian society.

Every year, our country becomes an asylum for families and individuals from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Libya, Southern Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Russian, Ukraine, Belarus, etc. In most of the cases, people are forced to flee due to the war, political persecution and violation of human rights. 

Refugee Council of Lithuania

Individuals that have received refugee status are one of the most vulnerable social groups, thus, an idea to establish an organisation in Lithuania which would be represented by persons belonging to this group, was developing for some time. In 2019, during one of the projects which was supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and coordinated by an arts agency “Artscape”, the first refugee representative meetings were held and subsequently, in 2021, Refugee Council of Lithuania was established. It is a non-governmental organisation which aims to develop the strongest possible social, economical and cultural connections between people with refugee status and local population as well as various state and other institutions and organisations.

„Organisations, which represent the interests of refugees in the development of their integration policies, are extremely active in other parts of the world, thus, it was wanted for an organisation like this to operate in Lithuania too. Today, we are taking the first steps with the support of Lithuanian organisations such as „Caritas”, arts agency „Artscape“,„Diversity development group“, – says one of the founders of the Lithuanian Refugee Council, Yusuf Muhammadzoda. – Our aspiration is to get to know a local refugee community and to mediate in solving their most sensitive problems. There is a lot of work to be done, integration processes of refugees are not changing so fast, but the  need for the situation to change is substantial.”

Not an easy fate of a refugee who has fought for human rights

Yusuf Muhammadzoda

With 10 years of experience working with international organizations, Yusuf is well aware of how asylum seekers feel, what challenges they face, as he, a political refugee from Tajikistan, has been on this difficult path with his family for years. The Tajik was forced to flee the persecution of the remaining pro-communist government in his country.

After 1991, after the declaration of independence of Tajikistan, there was a civil war in that country for five years. Employed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kurgan Tube, Yusuf took care of the repatriation, reintegration and rights of citizens who had fled the country during the war, as they spoke out against the authorities and were discriminated against, persecuted and killed. Yusuf worked for 9 years in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and in 2002 he founded and led a non-governmental organization active in human rights and democracy promotion for 15 years. The organization raised issues unfavorable to the government: it criticized human rights violations, elections that violated the principles of democracy, etc., so its activities were eventually banned. For another couple of years, the KGB did not stop persecuting Yusuf and his family, so with the help of Freedom House in Lithuania, they managed to leave the country. Today, the Tajik lives in Vilnius, but not the life he would like.

“Understandably, the people who have a refugee status, like any foreigner, have to adapt, participate in social life, defend their interests, and present their culture to the Lithuanian community. However, integration requires a two-way dialogue: if the people of this country do not see refugees, and do not hear about the way they live, the exclusion will only increase, there will be no dialogue. Problems are solved only by talking about them out loud. “I believe that it is the dialogue that solves many issues,” Yusuf is convinced.

Language barrier and unemployment are one of the most sensitive causes of social exclusion

With regard to the factors leading to successful integration, Yusuf says that there are a number of elements in this process, one of the most important being language skills and employability.

“Naturally, a foreigner who knows Lithuanian gets more opportunities, so we would first like to develop projects as an organisation to improve the accessibility and quality of Lithuanian language teaching. Children can learn the language over a longer period of time at school, but this is a major problem for adults: when they arrive, they must support their family, but with poor language skills they are first confronted with unemployment,“ says Yusuf.

With all due respect to the organisations providing Lithuanian language courses, an expert with international work experience says that the language course for the refugee community as it currently stands is not enough: although time dedicated is sufficient, the training system itself could be more efficient and flexible. Unfortunately, refugees with extremely low income cannot afford to pay for private courses. Therefore, due to poor knowledge of the Lithuanian language, even though knowing Russian or English, highly qualified specialists are forced to do unskilled work.

“I myself speak Russian and English in addition to my mother tongue, and my wife‘s Russian skills are worse. My and my wife’s first job was in Kaunas, in a bakery of one of the major shopping centres. I worked there for just a month and a half because the atmosphere was negative and humiliating: managers treated the employees disrespectfully, shouted constantly, forced them to deceive customers, and the workers who suffered psychological violence would cry.”

Today Yusef and another fellow countryman work at an international company. He has been helped to find a job by “Socialinis Pokytis”, an organisation that cares for the integration of socially vulnerable members of society. Yusuf’s wife, a primary school teacher with a master’s degree, works in a low-paid and unskilled job. She is a teacher’s assistant at a school for children with intellectual disability.

“The Tajik community has more educators. For example, one Russian language teacher is unemployed and a biology teacher works as a welder. We have two nurses, one unemployed and the other working as a dishwasher”, regrets Yusuf.  “Do you feel well not working according to your education and skills? When work is only a survival rather than a self-fulfilment, there is no internal motivation, you lack personal development and happiness. What matters to a person is not only pay, but also well-being and self-esteem.“

Dialogue is essential to address systemic educational challenges 

According to the UN Refugee Agency, half of the global refugee population is children and young people under the age of 18. They usually arrive in Lithuania as family members of refugees. This is why another equally important and relevant question, according to Yusuf, is a flexible education system which would help young people to adapt. In this regard, the refugee community also feels the lack of more effective integration strategy. His surrounding environment is a clear example of this problem.

“We raised five children and fled with the two youngest ones. At that time, my son was a second-year student (he was studying medicine in English). He would now be a fifth-year student, but in Lithuania, due to language barrier, he started his studies in VU Faculty of Medicine from scratch. Although it is possible to continue the studies in English, we simply cannot afford it,“ says the father of five children. “Students are struggling here too. The young generation mostly does not speak Russian to continue education in a language that they somewhat know (the Tajiks or other refugees from the former Soviet bloc countries often send their children to schools with the teaching language of Russian because they have some knowledge of this language themselves and can help their children to study). And the continuation of education in the new language, particularly due to the grammar of Lithuanian, has led to a significant drop in the level of academic performance of some children. It is even difficult to think about pupils who became alienated from the education process when their families lived in refugee camps. Children face many psychological problems. They need the assistance of psychologists, specialised and social educators.”

Stigmatisation of newcomers discourages closer communication 

Yusuf Muhammadzoda

Both children and adults lack an environment in which they would always hear Lithuanian, which is one of the objectives to be pursued by the Refugee Council of Lithuania. It is welcome that more and more steps are being taken towards mutual cooperation, but newcomers are an excellent indicator of the problems we have in our country and in which areas we should improve.

It is easier for refugees from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to adapt in Lithuania, as their Christian culture and mentality are closer to ours. However, around 40-50 % of refugees came from Muslim countries. Looking at the Lithuanian population’s attitudes, the greatest social distance persists specifically towards these people. According to the Institute for Ethnic Studies survey (2020), the Muslim community is the third undesired neighbour alongside Roma and those having left prison facilities: as much as 41 % would not want to live in the Muslim neighbourhood, 39 % would not want to rent an apartament to them, 28 % would not want to work in the same workplace.

“The main problem is, of course, the negative attitudes of a part of society towards newcomers, unreasonable fears and stereotypes. In recent years, the refugee crisis and the attacks by Islamic extremists in Europe have severely affected the Muslim community. The media has already created negative attitudes in people’s consciousness. Muslims are stigmatised, perceived as dangerous and are avoided. It is a vicious circle that hinders integration, social and cultural participation and full membership of society,“ notes Yusuf with concern.

“Lithuanians are scared of the influence of other nations, which is understandable after years of occupation. But refugees are also afraid to lose their culture and religion. The Tajiks have suffered Soviet occupation for over 70 years. Even our Persian characters have been changed to Cyrillic, but feeling hatred against Russian is not a solution, especially if it is the only language in which we can find contact and avoid extreme isolation,“ Yusuf insists. “Syrians, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis speak Farsi, but they live remotely from each other and their communities are closed. It is understandable that people who are tired of war or persecution don’t trust each other. Most families forced to flee their country have experienced and are still experiencing severe psychological stress. Adults feel like they have shattered the fate of their children, their chances to get education and build their future in their own country, and when you don’t believe that you will be accepted in this country, it is extremely difficult to live,“ says Yusuf.

Mutual dialogue is effective in the language of hearts

Yusuf says he is grateful for the opportunity to live in Lithuania. A democratic, deeply culturally rooted country, in his eyes, is on the right track and offers many opportunities for a person who wants to improve. Freedom of speech, good social security, developed infrastructure, coherence between nature and city are advantages that matter to everyone. While building a socially responsible society, as already mentioned, both people living in Lithuania and asylum seekers should be more open to each other. According to Yusuf, it is not easy to go beyond your beliefs, but it is useful to expand your mind and break the borders of mistrust between each other. The language of a particular country is not always needed, but companionship is. This is the language of hearts. Only this language delivers results.

“People have never been and should never be the same. Both sides are afraid of losing their identity and, of course, it is important to preserve it, but it is equally important to accept differences. We would like to work in that direction so that we can turn our differences into strengths. Although we represent different religions, traditions and cultures, we are all similar: we marry, we give birth to children, we care for our families, we love. There are all kinds of people everywhere, no nation is good or bad. It takes many years to change our established attitudes, habits and behaviour, but we can start now”, says Yusuf. „Globalisation is changing people, but it must happen without forcing. We need to find the most just and mutually acceptable way so that there would be as few isolated islands in society as possible. People dream of a better place, environment, but there’s no such thing. It needs to be created by ourselves. This is difficult, but it’s worth it. There is no other way.“

Activities related to refugees in Lithuania are carried out by:

Caritas of the Vilnius Archdiocese – since 2000 takes care of the social integration of foreigners. Much attention is paid to the teaching of the Lithuanian language, the involvement of foreign adults in the labor market, and children in the education system. Pabradė Day Center “Kultūrų įkalnė” started its activities in 2008, and later, in 2016 The Community Integration Center “House of Cultures” opened its doors in Vilnius. https://vilnius.caritas.lt/prieglobscio-ieskantų-uzsienieciams/
The Lithuanian Red Cross Society provides social and humanitarian assistance to socially vulnerable people. https://www.redcross.lt/
Public Institution “Social Change” provides services in the field of social integration to persons experiencing social exclusion. https://www.facebook.com/socpokytis/
An arts agency „Artscape“, seeks to initiate social change through high-quality art projects, and organizes summer camps for children of refugees and asylum seekers. https://artscape.lt/
The Lithuanian Refugee Council of Lithuania is a refugee-led non-governmental organization representing refugees in Lithuania and around the world, addressing sensitive issues. https://en.refugeeslt.com/
The Lithuanian Diversity Charter is a non-governmental organization uniting private, public and non-governmental sector organizations seeking to create an open and inclusive work environment and strengthen their social responsibility. https://diversity.lt/apie-mus/
„Freedom House“ is an international non-governmental human rights organization running the „Asylum for Democracy“ program. https://freedomhouse.org/