Foreigner organizations in Lithuania. How do refugees contribute to the improvement of society?
Journalist Ieva Šepetytė
“We came to Lithuania, we live here, and we should contribute too. To be included, we should not look at society from the outside but provide as well. Otherwise, we will be left out,” says Ishak Akay, President of the Balturka Culture Academy.
Foreigner integration organizations, present in Lithuania, aim not only to help the newcomers but at the same time to encourage the locals to take an interest in other cultures and get to know people from distant lands. Several integration centers were established by refugees themselves, who do not merely rely on being supported but organize various projects that benefit us, Lithuanians, as well. The members of the Balturka Culture Academy organize various events, engage in social initiatives, learn from Lithuanians, and at the same time share the traditions of their home country.
Ishak Akay, President of the Balturka Culture Academy, together with a number of volunteers, participates in the event of Poetry Spring Festival “Under the umbrella of Lithuanian language and culture”. At the festival broadcasted by the LRT Culture, foreigners recite Lithuanian poems, sing songs and organize concerts. According to I. Akay, the event is attended by guests from as many as 35 countries! The members of the Balturka encourage Lithuanians to take an interest in foreign traditions and organize a “Turkish Night”, an event during which the guests can enhance their knowledge of Turkey and taste its national dishes. This cultural center also hosts different food nights to sample dishes from all over the world. The Balturka Culture Academy even has a special kitchen dedicated to this activity. The guests only have to pay a small fee for the products and can try a variety of dishes.
I. Akay organizes excursions to the Lithuanian Parliament, the Presidency, assists the “Food Bank” (lit., Maisto Bankas) hand in hand with the volunteers, engages in the initiative of “Darom” and, on Saturdays, invites Turkish children to the Lithuanian language and culture lessons.
“We even tell our friends that we must follow this principle: we came here, so we should also help Lithuanians and share with them what we have. For example, Lithuania is a green country and that is very important for Lithuanians. Therefore, we along with other foreigners plant trees. There is an opportunity to plant a tree and name it. Last time we planted approximately 150 trees!
I always go to“Food Bank” by my own car. Last time I drove to Lentvaris to visit the people who do not have the means of picking up the food by themselves.
We also organize blood donations. We inform all the foreigners we get in touch with and go to donate the blood together.
So, we are socially active. During Easter, we paint eggs, showcase various presentations on daily life, customs of Lithuanians, and celebrations of traditional holidays to foreigners, and discuss the subtleties of local culture.
For the foreigners to get familiar with the way o life here, we often visit Lithuanian families. At the same time, we help Lithuanians to understand that a foreigner is not something to be afraid of,” says I. Akay.
Foreign as well as Lithuanian women unite for a common cause – helping the women
The International Women’s Association of Vilnius (IWAV) community pays special attention to women from abroad. Its main goal is to help foreign women socialize, feel a sense of community in Lithuania, and contribute to various charities. The most important initiatives of the association are the International Christmas Charity Bazaar and “Blossom of Hope”, a charity event dedicated to the prevention of breast cancer. IWAV members also provide essentials for families, women, the elderly, orphanages, and children’s day centers.
“In total, thanks to the International Christmas Charity Bazaar, more than 1 million Euros for charity was raised since 2003. Each year, more than 40 embassies and organizations participate in bringing hundreds of volunteers and IWAV members together in organizing this event. Hundreds united by the common cause help organizers prepare handicrafts, souvenirs and Christmas dishes for the market. The gifts are offered to the donors (carefully screened and selected by the organizing committee) in exchange for donations. Each visitor can try his luck in a lottery, win exciting prizes donated by sponsors, and enjoy live entertainment while looking for special and traditional items from around the world. All the funds raised at the Christmas Charity Bazaar are donated. Every year, the beneficiaries are selected by the organizing committee from a list of the registered public institutions in Lithuania. The aim is to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, women, and the elderly. We mostly support projects that have a long-term impact and improve the lives of people in difficulty,” shares Vaida Kisiėliūte, Chair of IWAV.
The organization encourages both foreign as well as Lithuanian women to communicate with each other. At the same time, cultural exchanges take place, and women from different countries form friendships and get a sense of what it means to be a significant part of the community.
“On the first Friday of each month, there is a Coffee Morning, organized for welcoming the new members and discussing the events of the upcoming month. Group walks are designed to introduce women to undiscovered as well as widely known places in Vilnius, to visit interesting historical or natural objects. Wednesday Lunch (Lunch Bunch) is designed to trying out various cafes or restaurants in Vilnius. During the monthly Happy Hour, different places in Vilnius are visited and everyone gathers to spend a meaningful evening together. In addition, visits to museums, art galleries or sports events are organized,” says V. Kisieliūtė.
Most IWAV events are cost-free and there are around 15 events per month. Foreign women wishing to join IWAV organization should email at email@example.com. After the form is filled and sent, and within 5 working days after the payment of the annual fee is made, the membership is confirmed
A person from far away can be close to us
Caritas Lithuania is an international Catholic organization that carries out humanitarian activities and helps the poor all over the world. Caritas provides individual integration plans, consultations on employment and employment issues for the refugees who have asylum in Lithuania. The staff helps to find housing, psychological aid, interpreter services, and organizes classes for children.
The community of Caritas has a principle of encouraging the foreigners to become independent, rather than doing all the work for them instead. Therefore, to learn faster, the organization always encourages the refugees to join the ranks of volunteers themselves.
“We follow the principle of the church – to help our neighbor. If a person is in a difficult situation, separated from his country, does not have food and clothes, just as it is with Belarusians today, it is our duty to support him. It does not matter if he came from another end of the world and I don’t know him at all. Because of the love of Christ, he is close to me, so I want and can help him, – says Vilija Tauraitė, the Project manager for the integration of foreigners, – Working at Caritas makes your heart open. It helps to realize that there are all kinds of people in the world. The people working here must have empathy in order to be close to those who suffer. And each one of the refugees had hardships. This work also creates friendships. The people we help and welcome, call some of our team members even after five years and share where they are living, where they got a job. It’s a meaningful work. You can feel that you’ve really helped someone. That’s a great feeling.”
Sentenced and imprisoned people from abroad are not castaway
Caritas is in partnership with the Lithuanian Red Cross, which has a special program designed for refugees running for 25 years total. The organization provides assistance to foreigners who have come from outside the European Union, regardless of their legal status. It means that the Lithuanian Red Cross has access to foreigners who are detained or imprisoned. In addition to legal assistance, the organization also provides psychosocial and humanitarian assistance, helps to restore broken family ties and meet the family members, helps integrate those granted asylum in municipalities, and takes care of their basic needs in the country. There are also Lithuanian Red Cross centers in Kaunas and Klaipėda, where foreigners can access social, legal, psychological, employment consultations, learn the Lithuanian language, participate in events and training together with the local community.
Two other important courses of action of the Lithuanian Red Cross are the monitoring and advocacy of the conditions of the admission and detention of the asylum seekers, drawing the attention of state institutions to systemic problems, and providing the input on how they could get solved.
“Everyone’s situation is individual. At different stages in life a person needs different things: sometimes help, and sometimes advice, encouragement, or empowerment, so the most important thing is to hear and understand the person, to seek solutions together and not to make the decisions for him or to judge the decisions he made. In our organization, we talk about taking up the responsibility for oneself and one’s own family, recognizing one’s abilities to solve the difficulties, and maintaining your independence,” says Eglė Samuchovaitė, Program Director of the Lithuanian Red Cross.
Each day millions of Red Cross and Red Crescent workers and volunteers, despite national, racial, religious, or political beliefs, and focusing first on humanity, take action to help those who need it most: Haiti earthquake victims, refugees from Afghanistan, those devastated by the fires in Greece. People who join the Lithuanian Red Cross are motivated by their own civic duty and the will to help others without judging them.
Lithuania is an open country for foreigners, it is ready to welcome and help them create a dignified and fulfilling life. Such organizations as The Center for Social-Educational Initiatives “Plus”, Kaunas Refugee and Migrant Center “InLT”, and the Information Center for Migrants in Klaipėda also help in implementing it. Immigrants are also invited to join a group discussion “Foreigners in Vilnius” on Facebook.
|International Women Association in Vilnius, IWAV|
|The Balturka Culture Academy|
|Kaunas Refugee and Migrant Center “InLT”|