Illustration by Daniela Nunes


Finding a second family

 by Sunčana Kusturin 

 When a child’s own family is unable, even with support, to provide adequate care for the child, the State is responsible for ensuring appropriate alternative care. An estimated 1.5 million children in the Council of Europe member States live in some form of alternative care. Children can be placed with relatives, in foster care or other family-like settings, or in residential institutions.

Council of Europe,


According to Arnett (2000), young people today undergo a distinct transition from adolescence to adulthood and experience a developmental phase known as emerging adulthood. Typically spanning from the ages of 18 to 25 or 30, this period allows young people to explore their potential identities in various facets of life, such as love, education, work and lifestyle (ibid.). Unfortunately, young people living in countries grappling with armed conflict are deprived of this opportunity to enjoy the “luxury” of self-exploration and safely search for their own life path. They are catapulted into adulthood from a very early age as they have to deal with responsibilities and adverse situations that most people do not experience in a lifetime. And as if that horrifying life experience is not enough, they have to face many challenges when they finally reach a safe place and when they try to make a life for themselves. This article will explore just that. What Abi, a young man from Afghanistan, faced when he tried to find his new home in a small town in Croatia and what helped him in this process. Abi and Goranka Gunjević, a care professional employed at the Centre for Providing Services in the Community Lipik (a state facility that cares for children without proper parental care, hereinafter: Centre Lipik) shared their experience with me and I tried to extract wisdom that could be important for youth work and other stakeholders involved in the process of inclusion of refugees.

You might wonder how the three of us got in touch. Well, it was 2021 and my colleagues and I established the accolade “Zvone” for care professionals in alternative care systems. Current and ex-beneficiaries of alternative care were invited to nominate their care professionals who had made a significant impact on their lives. As I was part of the co-ordination board, I read a nomination written by a 20-year-old young man from Afghanistan who, for the past four years, lived in the Centre Lipik. He wrote about a care professional named Goranka who helped him when he came to Croatia. Among other things he wrote:

“It is very important for me to say how the care professional Goranka enabled me to play cricket, which is my favourite sport that is played in Afghanistan. She even loaned me money to play cricket in Zagreb … Care professional Goranka was the one who taught me cooking and cleaning, using household appliances. When it was difficult for me, she would always find advice for me that would encourage me. We cooked chicken curry and other specialities of Indian cuisine together and she tried very hard to get spices from my country … The Centre in Lipik is like my second family.”


 From a youth perspective social inclusion is the process of individual’s self-realisation within a society, acceptance and recognition of one’s potential by social institutions, integration (through study, employment, volunteer work or other forms of participation) in the web of social relations in a community. In present-day European societies the concept is relevant to all young people as youth is the life stage when young people make the transition from family dependence to autonomy within the larger society under rapidly evolving circumstances. It has a particular meaning to those young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and live in precarious conditions. For them social inclusion involves breaking various barriers before acquiring their social rights as full members of society.”

  Youth Partnership,

So, when a question from the Coyote editorial team came to write about the inclusion of young people that came from countries affected by war it was only logical to write about them. To explore what that practice could teach us. And I am aware that work done by care professionals goes in the category of “working with youth” and that “youth work” is the core focus of Coyote. But if we want to really talk about inclusion then we need to explore the connections and synergies between all stakeholders.

Abi (the name is changed in order to protect his privacy) came to Croatia in 2017 as a 15-year-old young man after a quite long and adverse journey from Afghanistan to Croatia that lasted for two and a half years. When he was caught by Croatian police, he and two other young men whom he met during his journey were sent to the Centre Lipik. They were the first young refugees from Afghanistan that were placed in that Centre. The other two young men left the Centre Lipik on their own within the next few days but Abi decided to stay. He said that no one needed to persuade him to stay as he decided to do so because he felt good there.

Abi: “I had friends here. I started to play football. The situation with my uncle changed and I could not count on his help as it was planned at first. I relaxed and recovered from the journey and did not want to go on another journey that would be filled with uncertainty. I had protection here and did not have to worry about where I would sleep and if some animal, police or army would come during my sleep (as I was mostly sleeping in the woods). The first night that I was sleeping in the woods I started to sleepwalk and since then I was always afraid that I would end up somewhere where I should not.”

Abi is 21 years old now. He graduated from a vocational high school and four months ago he got a job. He lives in an apartment that is part of the Centre’s services. He has a strong social network and a girlfriend. He is active in the football club and leads a very active life in that small community. Abi’s journey exemplifies the transformative power of inclusion.

These are the essential elements that supported Abi on his path to finding a new family and a new life in a small community called Lipik (it has only 5 126 inhabitants):

 Have a friend to talk to:  Abi said that when he came, he needed a friend to talk to and to rest. He experienced a lot of fear during his travels and the fact that he found friends in the Centre enabled him to relax a bit and get relief from the journey.

Abi: “You do not need to know the language in order to understand a joke. They understood me and accepted me the way I am and that helped a lot.”

 A way to connect with the family:  During that period, Centre Lipik faced the challenges of having a poor internet connection, which posed difficulties for Abi in maintaining regular contact with his family. As a lesson learned from this experience, both Abi and Goranka stressed the importance of ensuring a means to facilitate communication with family.

 Respect the religious practices:  It was the first time that Abi was supposed to fully start Ramadan as a young man. The kitchen in the Centre never prepared Halal food. Goranka mentioned that this food practice is now part of their routine and no one questions it but it was not so easy to change at the beginning. Also, today they have a good connection with imam who regularly comes to their Centre. Both practices are an improvement of Centre Lipik work and it eases the inclusion of all Muslim young people that are placed in the Centre.

 Fill in the free time:  When Abi came to Croatia it was May and he could not start school immediately. Goranka recognised that it was so important to fill his day with meaningful content. For example, kids in the Centre taught him how to play football and Goranka invited him to join her when she was providing after-school service to children from the local community.

 Start with language learning as soon as possible:  Abi was able and willing to communicate in English and that made a huge difference at the very beginning of his stay. If that were not the case, they would need the support of an interpreter which is not so easy to find in a small community. Abi started to learn the Croatian language in the Centre and continued to learn it in school. That eased the learning process and communication with other youth in the Centre, school and local community. Abi is now fluent in Croatian and actually, we had this interview in Croatian.

Abi about Goranka: “She was friendly, and helped with all that I needed. She was at first my “Google translator” and translated all I could not say.”


 Involvement in hobbies and free-time activities:  Abi was playing cricket back home and the nearest cricket club was in Zagreb, the capital city, 102 km away from Lipik. During a visit to Lipik, a journalist that interviewed Abi offered to connect Abi with the Zagreb Cricket Club. She also generously offered to finance Abi’s initial trips to Zagreb. Later on, the Centre covered the cost of Abi’s travel to Zagreb. This opportunity not only allowed Abi to reconnect with his past and culture but also enabled him to integrate them into his present life in Croatia.

In Lipik, Abi discovered a new passion for football and he joined the local football team. That football club warmly welcomed him, providing a supportive and inclusive environment. To this day, the football club remains an integral part of Abi’s life.

Abi: “I remembered my childhood when I was active in cricket. I was playing it a lot. I was playing it every day in my room with my brother, outside with my friends, I went to matches, and I was connected to it.”

Abi: “At first, I was afraid as I never even heard about Croatia. Football helped a lot. My friends from [the] Centre were trying hard to convince me to go to football with them. I did not want to because I did not know how to play (I’m still not good at it). They managed to persuade me and there I met even more friends from the local community. I now follow football regularly and I like it even more than I like cricket.”


 Inclusion in school:  Abi joined regular classes and had additional Croatian classes with a few other children. The fact that his friends from the Centre Lipik and the football team were in the same school helped a lot.

Abi: “I wanted to start school in order to meet more friends. I had some football friends and I wanted to go to school just to talk to them. We could talk and have fun and they accepted me. That was good for me.”

Goranka mentioned that it was crucial that Abi was willing to open up, to fit in the community, to interact with others and that he was not afraid of other people. The small local school was able to support Abi and he succeeded in finishing vocational school.

 Make contact with someone who is already integrated into the community:  It is very significant to have someone who has gone through a similar life journey, shares the same mother tongue, and is already integrated into the community. Goranka emphasised that they did not have that kind of person in their local community, however, there were occasions when other guests came to the Centre as guests and established connections with Abi, providing invaluable support and understanding.

 Create a safe environment and prepare for risk situations:  Lipik, being a rural area, is not well connected with Zagreb. This meant that Abi was frequently travelling alone by train to and from Zagreb, often returning home late at night. During one of his train journeys, Abi encountered a situation where the police stopped him. Fortunately, Abi had already learned to speak Croatian, which proved to be immensely helpful. The policeman checked his documents and upon realising that Abi could communicate in Croatian, he reassured him by saying, “You speak Croatian? You are okay, you are one of us.” This encounter brought a tremendous sense of relief to Abi. It provided him with a sense of security, knowing that he was accepted and embraced as part of the community.

 Allocate appropriate pocket money:  Having money for social activities and everyday expenses, such as meeting friends for a cup of coffee or buying flowers and a present for a girlfriend’s birthday, plays an important role in fostering a sense of inclusion.

 Legal support and education for professionals:  Although the staff at Centre Lipik had extensive knowledge and experience in caring for children and youth within the social care system, their understanding of the legal aspects pertaining to refugees was limited. This was remedied through a comprehensive educational programme offered by the Red Cross. The Red Cross provided Centre Lipik with legal support regarding the intricate administration process associated with obtaining asylum, a personal identification number, health insurance, and other relevant matters.

 Involve civil society organisations:  Centre Lipik had a fruitful collaboration with Civis Mundi, an organisation based in Rijeka, which played an important part in Abi’s inclusion journey. As part of their inclusion project activities, Civis Mundi covered the expenses of Abi’s driving school. This proved to be a valuable addition to enhancing Abi’s employment prospects.

 Transitioning to independent life in the community:  As a beneficiary of the Centre Lipik, Abi could use the services designated by Croatian law for children and youth lacking proper parental care. This means that even after he turned 21, he can continue using the Centre’s apartment for independent living. Thanks to the recent changes in the law, Abi is permitted to remain in the apartment despite being employed. This will allow him to save for his future as he prepares for independent life.

Abi actively participated in the Centre’s regular workshops designed to prepare youth for their transition out of the care system. Moreover, Abi received financial support from the Foundation “Vaša pošta” (Your post), which specifically assists youth leaving the care system. The Foundation made an exception for him and allowed him to use a portion of the funds to purchase a car. In this way his emancipation can really be an individually tailored process.

 Nourish intercultural learning:  Goranka remembered how this four-year period was a period of intercultural learning for all of them. For Abi that was a process of cherishing and questioning his own culture and accepting parts of his new culture (for example, at first, it was difficult for him to do “housework” chores as that was not a man’s role in his culture; or, his view on the role of women changed when he found a girlfriend…).

Abi: “It is different here and it is different there. I think that here is better because women can leave the house, go for a walk, see the world and not just be at home and care for children.”

Both Goranka and the Centre Lipik changed as well. Centre Lipik welcomed a few more young people with war experience into its care. Goranka sees how the inclusion of these young people now goes very smoothly.

Goranka: “Relationship with Abi is a window to a different world, journey, way of life. He can be a good model to anyone regardless of if that person is a refuge or not. He is a model on how to overcome adversity with own resources. His good upbringing that he brought from his homeland and family in a combination with his willingness to learn, to adapt, to respect the other … all that contribute to his success … I’m sure that our relationship will be maintained regardless of his future plans. We have something permanent. He had a profound influence on me.”

 Do not rush and be flexible:  Goranka highlighted the importance of not rushing young people. The process of adapting to a new country, culture, institution, people’s lifestyle can last up to a year for some. Abi further stressed the importance that the care and support professionals are relaxed during this process.

 Prepare the community:  It is crucial to prepare and sensitise other young people in the community because they can be great peer supporters. This is not only beneficial for the youth in need, but also provides an opportunity for their peers to develop empathy and embrace diversity. Goranka highlighted that her own experience as a young refugee likely made a significant difference in fostering understanding.

Given that Croatia itself experienced war (from 1991 to 1995), including the Lipik region, many people were directly affected. Many people were internally displaced and many sought refuge outside of Croatia, thus having first-hand experience of what it means to be a refugee. I can only presume that sharing this experience made people more sensitive and inclined to offer help and support to Abi. They did not have to imagine how he felt, they just connected with their own personal experience.


 Internally displaced people (IDPs) have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home. Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. Refugees are outside their own country because of a threat to their lives or freedom … The term “migrant”, on the other hand, is not defined under international law, and is sometimes used differently by different stakeholders. Traditionally, the word “migrant” has been used to designate people who move by choice rather than to escape conflict or persecution, usually across an international border (“international migrants”), for instance to join family members already abroad, to search for a livelihood, or for a range of other purposes. The term is increasingly used as an umbrella term to refer to any person who moves away from their usual place of residence, whether  internally or across a border, and regardless of whether the movement is “forced” or voluntary. UNHCR recommends that people who are likely to be asylum-seekers or refugees are referred to as such, and that the word “‘migrant” should not be used as a catchall term to refer to refugees or to people who are likely to need international protection. Doing so can risk undermining access to the specific legal protections that states are obliged to provide to refugees.



Before concluding this article, I wanted to express my heartfelt gratitude to Goranka and Abi for sharing their extraordinary inclusion story, which is very much like the song: “What a wonderful world” by Louis Armstrong. Only this is not a story or a song, it is a reality that I would like to see more of in the world today. It is not a perfect reality, but one where people acknowledge areas for improvement and actively work towards change; where equal emphasis is placed on empowering young people from within and transforming their environments, communities and policies. It is a reality where no one expects “the other” to change and conform, but instead, a reality that cherishes differences, embraces diversity, changes their own identities and practices, and ultimately enriches their own personal cultures.

As mentioned earlier, the work carried out by Centre Lipik falls into the category of “working with youth”, but all these elements can be additionally supported by youth work too. Youth work is experienced in building bridges between communities, cultures and institutions. Any youth work organisation (even if it does not strictly focus on the inclusion of refugees) can offer just that. They can offer a place to spend free time, to learn a language, to make friends, to join diverse non-formal education that contributes to emancipation. Basically, they can offer a place where a young person can start to be part of the local youth community and explore their own identity. And all that is in the core of youth work. I can only imagine what Abi, Goranka and the Centre Lipik would achieve if they had a youth work organisation to lean on.



All websites accessed on 9 August 2023.

If you want to know more, take a look at:








 Issue 33

 In times of conflict 



Suncana is a trainer in the youth field with great experience in inclusion and alternative care.