With delicious and various food as a tool for social inclusion Okus Doma (Taste of Home) is putting itself on the map of Croatia. Its director is Zinka Mujkić. She once started as a volunteer at the organisation, which is a catering business as well as the organiser of all sorts of cultural activities related to food, integration, language, storytelling and cultural memory. For Mujkić, Okus Doma is more than work, it is a lifestyle. It is a way to recycle fear, hate and prejudice into compassion, mutual understanding and social change.
“Okus Doma exists for eleven years now, but not always in its current form and constitution. First it was a voluntary project from the Centre of Peace Studies in Zagreb, where they carry out research on human rights and do public advocacy. In the context of one of their programs (‘Peace Studies’) the Centre organised a course called ‘Asylum and Migrations‘, which was a trigger for the students to think how they could connect with the asylum seekers at the shelter. So they went to the shelter and started talking to the refugees over there. They started their conversations with the topic food: “What was your last meal in your homeland? What do you remember exactly about that moment?” Thus, they shared their homeland recipes as well as their memories with the volunteers. The volunteers, guided by their teacher, collected all these homeland recipes and stories of the refugees and bundled them in a cookbook. The title of the book was Okus Doma, which stands for ‘Taste from Home’.
“The catchphrase of the campaign video was: ‘We accepted the food, why not the people?'”
These culinary traditions of migrants also formed a part of the campaign of the project Qualitative Steps Towards Integration of Refugees in 2014. The documentary production house Fade In contributed with a short video (“We accepted the food, why not the people?”) and with a documentary Taste of Home. And there were more public actions to come: show kitchens and food demonstrations by means of which we connected refugees wit locals. The empowerment of the refugees through workshops was crucial to these events. At a given moment it all became a bit more serious: a group of volunteers sat down and decided to create a social cooperative, a catering business serving food at all kinds of events. So from the beginning of 2016 Okus Doma transformed into a registered cooperative for intercultural collaboration.
So at the moment catering is our core business. We cater for business meetings, conferences, major events and parties, but also for private people, who are throwing a birthday party or are celebrating their graduation or wedding. We also participate in several festivals, in fact everywhere where food is and where we can connect people. We discovered that food is always welcome and many events require food. So we developed a network for which we offer somewhat different and interesting catering. We cooperate with several NGOs, with whom we share a mission and a vision. We’re also moving to the market for the private companies and the corporate sector, but we’re still not there 100%. We are developing our services constantly and sell a really great product, not more or less.
“By means of food we try to spread positive vibes around other cultures through the local communities. It is a way of sensitising them about the necessities of migrants and about the difficulties they face to integrate in the Croatian society.”
In Croatia the laws concerning cooperatives and social entrepreneurship are very difficult. Lawmakers do not clearly see the benefits of social entrepreneurship. So if you are trying to realise a project as a social entrepreneur, you need to jump over a lot of hurdles to get anything done. Obtaining funding is almost impossible for us in the time being. But we try anyway, on our own. We are legally and officially a cooperative with sixteen co-founders. Some of them are employed in Okus Doma and receive a regular salary. Others combine their work at Okus Doma with other projects. We try to spread positive vibes around other cultures through the local community by means of food. It’s a way of sensitising the local community about the necessities of migrants and refugees and on the difficulties they face to integrate in the Croation society.
We call these people a problem, a migrant, a refugee. We label them, but we forget that they are people and we should call them new members of our society, or new neighbours. Language matters, we should pay attention to how we express things. For example, in our society the term ‘social’ sometimes gets interpreted like something that can never be very good in our modern world. So we try to stand out with the quality of our products, with a good selling point and with the people who stand behind what we are doing. We strongly believe in it and we are ready to do anything to make this thing work, because we see the added value, the bigger picture. It’s an example for the European people who are scared of refugees coming in growing numbers to show them how you can do things differently, without fear. We want to be a platform and people can copy us if they want. We want to have a network all over Europe. People see us here as an ‘exotic story’ and we don’t really like that, but we use this prejudice positively to spread the word. We do struggle a bit in the financial part, one has to be very patient around here. We are now in our second year and if we pass the first three years, we feel our biggest obstacles will be behind us. We will receive the European Civic Forum Award in Brussels in November 2017, for the best social entrepreneurs in 2017. It’s a nice recognition and visibility boost, especially because it’s on an international level.
“In the Croatian system there is a problem with the eligibility of different organisations to apply for certain financial resources, such as European Union funding. There is no clear national strategy of facilitating the growth of social entrepreneurs.”
In my personal point of view we get a lot of support: everybody is enthusiastic. But we also need other, concrete support like funding, to invest in human resources, equipment and working spaces. In the Croatian system there is a problem with the eligibility of different organisations to apply for certain financial resources, such as European Union funding. There is no clear national strategy of facilitating the growth of social entrepreneurs. In our case for example the cooperative is a profitable legal entity, a fact which closes many doors for financing. So it seems like: “You earn your own money, so you don’t need any extra money.” That is very unfair because we are reinvesting most of our profit and we are very different than usual private companies. We need to invest, grow and develop our projects and with the few people we have we can’t reach that goal. But I believe that it will happen one day. You have to know which door to knock on. The people who have the power to change something need to help you. We’re all full of energy and I think we will get there anyway. We also work 100% by the rules, which is in a country like this very hard to do. There is a lot of administration, bureaucracy, obstacles, and certificates. But we do have everything required and we really do our utmost best, so nobody can find just one dirty spot and say: “You go down!”
It’s so powerful, because I strongly believe that if you have something like this, with this kind of energy, these kind of people, who are really devoted and really committed to this, and if you are working hard, every day, then there is no chance to even think about failure. Even if we experience small failures, it is chance to learn and grow for us. We take the negative, give it a spin, and turn it around. There is one person in our video whose name means ‘trash’ and he explains it very well. People don’t realise you can recycle everything, and you can always change trash into something useful. So he said: “I’m a human being, I feel pain, hurt and I have all these emotions like everybody else, but I take it with my spirit, I take it, and do my best to turn it into something positive. And if it is useful for me and it can be useful for others, I am here to give it.” Then I said: “Can we recycle hate? Can we recycle prejudice and fear?” It’s there, prejudice is a normal thing, your brain works like that, but then you gather information and come to another conclusion, but this is natural what people do. Can we change that? We believe we can.”
Interview and photo by Sonderland