Alexander Ceban leaves flyers at Brno's central bus station with helpful information for newly arrived Romanians and Moldovans.

Without fanfare, Brno is helping foreigners make their way through the bureaucratic maze.

Since 2017, the city of Brno has employed a small group of intercultural workers who act as bridges between several of the city’s foreign-born communities and public institutions. 

“My husband went to the local authority once. He doesn’t speak Czech very well,” says Ms. Ahmadi, a Syrian living in Brno, the major city of the Czech Republic’s Moravia region. “He was concentrating so hard during his conversation with the clerk that he began to frown. She was insulted. A misunderstanding, in short … It wasn’t until Karin entered the situation and explained to them both what had happened that the atmosphere calmed down.”

“Karin” is Karin Atassi, an intercultural assistant employed by Brno City Hall. Her job, simply put, is to serve as a bridge between the Arab community and the local authorities and other public institutions. “Bureaucrats tend to believe that if they raise their voice when they speak, the client will hear them better and comprehend what they are saying. The client, on the other hand, perceives the bureaucrat to be yelling even though the client has done nothing wrong. I’ve had to address such conflicts many times. Everything was better after that,” the smiling Czech-Syrian woman says of her experiences. 

Brno may have an eternal reputation as the country’s “second city,” but when it comes to working on coexistence between the Czech majority and foreign residents, it has a thing or two to teach Prague and other Czech cities.

The intercultural workers have been on the job for four years, helping integrate foreigners into Czech society. The fact that very few people can even imagine what these workers’ job entails is sad evidence of the fact that the relationship between the Czech majority and foreigners is broken, above all the Czech attitude toward refugees. For their part, the city leadership prefers not to actively “brag” about the project.

When we arrive for our visit, the intercultural staffers for the Arab, Moldovan/Romanian, and Russian/Ukrainian communities in Brno are all in their office at City Hall with Lenka Safrankova Pavlickova, coordinator of the integration project. The only one missing is their colleague who works with the Vietnamese community. We ask them: What’s the point of all this?

Lenka Safrankova Pavlickova, the coordinator of Brno’s integration program.

Since 1989, most migrants have tended to travel through the Czech Republic to destinations in Scandinavia or Western Europe, but today more than 590,000 foreign nationals live in the country. An estimated 33,000 foreign nationals live in Brno, roughly every 11th or 12th inhabitant. 

Foreign residents staff the big multinational IT and other firms, work in factories and the service sector, or are related to such workers; some of the arrivals have applied for asylum. Until recently, those seeking assistance to integrate into Czech society and orient themselves in the bureaucracy had to rely on civil society organizations. That wasn’t good enough, and the result was stress, both for the bureaucracies and institutions and for the foreign nationals. Today, though, things are different. 

The idea of anchoring intercultural work in city government itself came from the grassroots level. “When Brno began to systematically address the subject of social inclusion in the city in 2015, a broad spectrum of people came together to discuss it, for example, from the various offices, civic organizations, social services, and the universities. Their consensus was that foreign nationals in particular are a very neglected component of the city, and that the city should pay more attention to integrating them,” Safrankova Pavlickova says. 

“Conquering” City Hall From the Inside

The project staff currently comprises three full-time positions for the Arab, Moldovan/Romanian, and Russian-speaking communities, and two half-time positions for the Vietnamese community.  The community managers also have assistants.

They have personal experiences with integration as immigrants themselves – all but the woman who works with the Vietnamese community, a Czech who is knowledgeable about Vietnamese culture. Her husband, a Vietnamese man, is employed by the project as a field worker. A Vietnamese woman also works for the municipal project, as does a Czech man who has studied Vietnamese culture and the Vietnamese language for roughly a decade. 

Of course, intercultural social services are not just a Brno phenomenon. The Integration Center Prague and other non-governmental groups also offer assistance in the capital. However, those services are chronically underfinanced and not accessible to all who need them, and they essentially focus just on interpretation. “In addition to that, we do field work, run information campaigns, map the needs of everybody involved on all sides of the integration process, and develop systemic solutions so that as many foreign nationals and local authorities as possible can get advice even without a live interpreter on the spot,” Safrankova Pavlickova explains. 

Brno City Hall is also demonstrating what can be achieved in terms of integration when local authorities meet the foreign residents halfway. This first happened thanks to a project called “Increasing the Intercultural Permeability of Public Institutions in Brno,” co-financed by the European Union. 

“The fact that the intercultural workers become part of City Hall has afforded them many benefits. The bureaucracies immediately approach the clients differently when you show them you are a municipal employee and not working for some association. The doors are open to them,” explains Tomas Jurcik, head of Brno’s social inclusion department with ultimate responsibility for the intercultural project.

Running from October 2017 to September 2019, the pilot project lasted two years with a budget of 8.1 million crowns (314,000 euros), 90 percent of it provided by EU social funds. But the intercultural staffers did not leave City Hall when it ended. They managed to defend the value of their work even when a new coalition came to power following local elections and began to change the emphasis to different goals and target groups. “We have conclusive data demonstrating this is a functional, necessary innovation,”  Safrankova Pavlickova argues.  

According to Jurcik, the results achieved by the intercultural office convinced the politicians of its usefulness. The office’s workers have mapped the field, looking for localities where foreign nationals live and seeking the “gatekeepers” – respected individuals who could introduce the intercultural workers to their communities. That has led to establishing contacts and winning people’s trust.

“Because we know what’s going on in the communities, we are also aiding the city with improving security. Mainly, however, we assist foreign nationals with integration,” Jurcik says.   

The end of the pilot project did not signal an end to the intercultural initiative. In March 2020 the city began a new, three-year project, “SKILL Center for Foreign Nationals in the South Moravian Region,” again with major financing from the EU (40 million crowns). One goal of the project is to share the Brno intercultural workers’ experiences with municipalities throughout the South Moravian Region.

“We will be expanding the project beyond Brno now, so we will be looking for new colleagues,” Safrankova Pavlickova says.

“The aim is to kickstart practices that will make it possible to identify foreign nationals in the South Moravian Region and to make use of their skills and qualifications or even improve them. We want to support the effective use of their economic potential,” she says, adding that the project drew inspiration mainly from Belgium and Finland.

“Foreign nationals in our country frequently get stuck in positions that do not require qualifications. The Czech Republic has a lack of qualified employees in both the private and public spheres – for example, doctors, caregivers, nurses, and such. In practice we often encounter cases of nurses who come here with practical experience but who, even after a decade of residence in the Czech Republic, are still just cleaning in hospitals, or doctors working as barbers, or a caregiver who is unemployed even though she is trying to find a job,” she continues.

The intercultural staffers operate primarily under Brno City Hall. However, thanks to the collaboration with the South Moravian region, they are transmitting  their know-how to other cities in the region, starting with Breclav.

Intercultural Workers Are Made, Not Born

In Brno it took several months to find and hire project staff. 

“An intercultural staffer must have excellent knowledge of the language and culture of the given community. They must also be in a position of trust and have trustworthy acquaintances and contacts,” Safrankova Pavlickova explains. She used her deep knowledge of the local environment and sent advertisements for the positions to civic groups and foreign nationals’ organizations, as well as sharing the job offer through contacts in Prague and other cities.

Safrankova Pavlickova knew Karin Atassi, who comes from Syria, from previous projects and volunteer work. She reached out to her and today Atassi is the liaison between City Hall and the Arab community. 

The project coordinator found Julie Lien Vrbkova through an acquaintance at City Hall. The student of Vietnamese originally planned to continue her academic career in Vietnam, where she had earned a doctorate and worked for the Academy of Sciences. She accepted the offer from Brno because she sees intercultural work as meaningful.  

“I really liked that City Hall gave its auspices to the integration project. During my studies, I frequently felt powerless working for civic initiatives. I saw that people had many problems, but aid was given just to some individuals. Now I have the feeling I will be able to assist many people,” Lien Vrbkova says.

Alexander Ceban, from Moldova, found out about the position of intercultural staffer for the Moldovan/Romanian community from an acquaintance. As an interpreter and Orthodox priest, he already had significant insight into the issue of integration.

Katerina Hertlova has been living in the Czech Republic since the late 1990s. She came here from Ukraine to study and then remained. A friend told her about the position after seeing a classified advertisement in newspapers for the Russian-speaking community in Prague.

Greasing the Wheels of Bureaucracy

“When I look back on it, the most difficult aspect was communicating the idea that the intercultural worker is not just there for the foreign nationals, but also for the local authorities,” explains Daniel Topinka, director of the education and research organization SocioFactor, which contributes to the project.

In addition to educating intercultural workers, SocioFactor analyzed how they work in other places: Vienna, Barcelona, Montreal, several cities in the Netherlands, Finland, the UK, and the United States. To adapt their experiences for Brno was not easy, however, because the city knew very little about the foreign nationals on its territory.  

“We have a great deal of information about foreign nationals at the level of the state, but not at the level of municipalities,” Topinka says, adding that producing regular surveys of foreign nationals is generally a neglected matter in the integration field.    

The intercultural workers accompany clients to the labor office, trade license bureau, and other government bodies as well as when they visit the doctor or hospital. They work in the field, visiting construction sites and reaching out to people living in workers’ hostels.

“If you come here on the basis of permission to work in a factory, then your job defines how you spend your free time – if you even have any – and it defines your access to channels of communication, whether, for example, there is access to the internet in your accommodation, and from whom you receive what kind of information or disinformation,” Safrankova Pavlickova explains. 

A Different Path to Each Community

Julie Lien Vrbkova shares her insight that for the Vietnamese community, the most effective communication method is to create informational videos on social media. “My videos are viewed between 8,000 and 16,000 times, all over the country,” she says.

Karin Atassi set up a WhatsApp group for Arab women, at first to post information about Czech-language courses. She is also in contact with Brno’s mosque, where she teaches Arabic to children. That is how she got to know the other women. Her group now counts about 100 women and is constantly growing. “These are women from Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq,” she says.

Hertlova and Ceban, on the other hand, mostly work in the field. Among Moldovans, Romanians, and Ukrainians, they have found that people like to share information with each other in person. “Most of my clients do not use social media. We walk around the city and leave fliers with our contact information in selected locations. For example … in the bus station in Brno where the workers first arrive from Romania and Moldova. The salespeople in the Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Moldovan shops and pubs all have my contact information,” Ceban says.

To illustrate what his job is like, Ceban describes the case of a Romanian man who was not paid for his work and had to walk the 70 or so kilometers from the town of Svitavy to Brno:  “I found him begging in a shop. Eventually I aided him to return to his native country.”

“Gatekeepers” also greatly aid the work of the intercultural project. One such person is, Lia, a middle-aged Moldovan woman who works in a fast-food restaurant near Brno’s bus and train stations. She has lived in the Czech Republic a long time; her name is known to the entire community; she has many contacts; and she works at a good location in the city center. People come to her with their problems, and she sends them to Ceban. 

Intercultural workers used to make field visits several times a week. During the pandemic, however, they have been providing their aid by phone. “In the spring I was explaining to everybody that during the state of emergency nobody will be throwing them out of the Czech Republic,” Ceban says.

Knowing When to Step Back

The project staff all agree that it took them some time to get accustomed to their roles. Winning acceptance from other city offices and their foreign clients themselves was far from automatic. Setting the boundaries between their jobs and their personal lives was important as well.

“As an intercultural worker you are part of the community – you know the people and their sometimes dramatic lives. However, it’s impossible to continue in this job long-term without boundaries. That means knowing when to admit to yourself that even though you might know a client, you will not answer their calls after work hours or on the weekend,”  Safrankova Pavlickova says. In her view, it is also important to reconcile oneself to the fact that it is not possible to aid everybody with everything. “If we do not have that power or competence, we direct the clients to the right services,” she says. 

Hertlova has also had to address domestic violence. A woman complained to the owner of a Ukrainian shop that her husband was beating her. The woman said she wanted to leave him, but she was afraid of what he would tell others and she didn’t know what to do. She was financially dependent on her husband, and they had young children.

The shop owner informed Hertlova of the situation and she got in touch with the woman.

“We gave her contact information to an organization that could aid her with finding housing … We pointed her in the direction of getting legal advice from a civic advice bureau, where they can assist her with filing for divorce. The lady knows all this, but she hasn’t contacted me yet. She has to make her own decision,” Hertlova said, adding that she sometimes encounters very sad stories.

“Separating my professional life from my personal life was difficult in the beginning. I often took the clients’ problems personally, and I did my best to spend all my free time solving them. Gradually, however, I realized I was going to burn out if I kept working like that and then I wouldn’t be able to aid anybody.” Now, she no longer answers the phone outside of office hours.

To help prevent burnout, project staff are able to attend group sessions with a psychotherapist who has also worked in social services. If they have more complex problems to solve they can attend individual sessions lasting six to eight weeks. 

Despite its demonstrable successes, Brno’s integration project is not being discussed much, and the city does not publicize it. “Even so, the project is quite scalable and can aid the situation in other Czech cities,” Jurcik says.

In his view, Czech politicians see foreign nationals and their integration as a subject that will score them more negative points than positive ones. 

Praise From Brno and Brussels

“In the beginning, we used to hear that everybody integrates themselves on their own. However, it turned out that in some areas – typically in the schools, in the field of health care, or in communicating with local authorities – intercultural workers are irreplaceable,” Jurcik, the social inclusion department head, explains. “Even the bureaucrats eventually acknowledged that it’s fine to have us there during meetings,” he says.  

Schools also praise the project. “The intercultural staffers are a big inspiration for the work of the teachers,” says Olga Bauerova, the principal of a primary school in Brno. “Julie Lien Vrbkova made the biggest impression not just on my work, but also on my heart. It was she who introduced our teachers to the customs and cultural differences of the Vietnamese minority, among other things. Together with her I also organized a meeting with the Vietnamese parents of our pupils where she very sensitively interpreted the information provided about the Czech schools and about what children do in school and what they need.”

“In return, the school now enjoys the respect and trust of the parents. This constantly improving mutual collaboration benefits the children,” she adds.

The project has also received not just financial, but promotional backing from the European Commission, whose department of employment, social affairs, and inclusion highlighted Brno’s intercultural work in a recently published catalog of successful social innovation initiatives from each of the EU’s 27 members, praising the Brno project for inspiring other cities in Czechia and Slovakia.

Fatima Rahimi is a reporter with Denik Referendum, a news outlet based in Brno. This article first appeared on Denik Referendum and was produced as part of a Transitions project to support solutions journalism in our coverage region.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. Photos by Fatima Rahimi.