The Women to Women collective uses art as a way to bring together women who want Croatia to be their home together for whom Croatia is already home, to facilitate the integration of women into a new ever-evolving community. Through workshops, gatherings and excursions, women share and gain skills, knowledge, and empowerment while building on a support network and shared values of mutual understanding, tolerance and embracing of diversity into a dynamic inclusionary society.
The idea of the project is to create a safe, secure and intimate space for women to exchange ideas, problems, solutions or simply to spend time together by connection through womanhood that often take precedence over cultural biases projected or perceived.
Transformation over the years
Since 2016 we have weekly gatherings in our own space in Zagreb for workshops in ceramics, glass, sewing, body-voice and other arts. We organize excursions around Croatia and numerous parties. The safety and intimacy of the space allows for healing, discoveries and transformations to occur. Though we avoid press exposure on regular gatherings, our members engage in public outreach when they feel empowered and sufficiently safe. We also are being more proactive in our role in impacting the public narrative on identity, on community and on engagement.
Through some powerful collaborations with local artists, we have seen aspects of the collective transform and our ability to impact public perception. In 2020 we worked with artist Selma Banich to make a banner “Ne mogu nas sve pobiti” (“They cannot kill us all”) along with “love & rage” for the International Women’s Day night march that we were even invited to lead by the organizers Faktiv (pictures). We were proud to use our banner again for the Black Lives Matter protest later that year. Such activities have helped garner support and recognition and in July 2020 we received the Nada Dimić Award (pictures). We collaborate again with Selma Banich in 2020/2021 with a collective work on political storytelling born out of her collaboration with Marijana Hamersak, culminating in a traveling exhibition that begins 14 May 2021.
We are also being more proactive in going out into the public to engage directly with people and are organizing traveling workshops outside of Zagreb (Osijek, Sisak, Pakrac and Karlovac) to interact and learn from local populations while sharing our member’s skills, knowledge and experience. The series of workshops and exhibitions is born out of our tea trainings with Ljiljana, Tyhe and Tea of the Wandering Art Tea Academy and our ongoing ceramic workshops with the generous input and guidance of Anja Slapničar and Lidia Boševski.
We are grateful to all our members and volunteers for the dedication of their time, resources and shared visions that help us grow into the collective we are today, working on participatory decision-making with a focus on process over destination.
Women to Women – Our Space
Providing a space, without men and children, can help to ease the burden of family duties while helping build strong ties in Croatia—from women to women—away from the stress and pressure of living in constrained spaces with an uncertain future in reference specifically to the women waiting for a refugee status. It also provides intercultural exchange through community- and peace-building opportunities with a chance to improve their livelihood.
Each week, since the spring of 2016, Živi Atelje DK hosts women from Dugava and women who live in the Zagreb area including those who have asylum to meet and participate in various artistic activities from ceramics, knitting, crocheting, sewing, painting, drawing, jewellery-making, body-breathing-voice and other arts. We also are organizing short-term workshops such as glass flame-working on torch that was done in 2017 with our partner Udruga Stakleni Svijet that continued through more intensive trainings again in 2020 and 2021 culminating in an Equinox exhibition. Women mentors are either from Zagreb or from the refugee community coming from various parts of the Middle East, North Africa, West Asia and Europe and gatherings often include at least four languages including Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Turkish.
Part of what we make during our art and crafts workshops are tailored for sale as during our bazaar in December 2018 and 2019 and in some of the exhibitions in 2021. The process involves the conceptualizing of crafts and arts, their making, marketing, and selling and participating in discussions on how to share and distribute resources within the collective. The sale of goods can further empower the makers in their ability to contribute in the improvement of their financial situation.
Živi Atelje DK also matches volunteers to specific needs of individual women or the group from finding an appropriate partner for teaching an illiterate adult woman, to finding people to facilitate workshops.
Women to Women – Going out
We aim to have an excursion or gathering once a month to involve more women from Zagreb to get to know women from the refugee and community. The excursions, within Zagreb and its immediate surroundings are to take place outdoors or in parks, or at events such as exhibitions, to open up the group and provide further opportunities for multifold integration.
So far we have had nine major gatherings that involve gift exchange and/or cooking, dancing and engaging. In March 2017 we had our first major gathering of about 100 women who came together for a gift exchange and a celebration at Klub Moćvara. We had a second gathering in November 2017 when women from Zagreb opened their kitchens to cook together with their partners before sharing the food and a party with the rest of the group also in Klub Moćvara. Celebrations also took place in January, March (during the Persian and Kurdish new year festivals), October, December of 2018, in March 2019, December 2019 (thanks to the Youth Initiative for Human Rights for providing the space). Our first post-lockdown party was in May 2020 (thanks to Stari Krovovi in Dugo Selo for hosting our first party outside Zagreb).
We also had our first ever retreat for Women to Women in June 2020 in Kuterevo. We are ever grateful to the Velebitsko utočište za mlade medvjede – Kuterevo (Velebit refuge for young bears – Kuterevo) for sharing their time and precious resources to host us and help discover their area.
These events are not made public nor is there much media coverage out of respect for the privacy and security of the participants. However, women have engaged in public events, for example, to cook food from their country of origin. One such case is the No Borders 2018 Integration of Art – Art of integration project and the resulting exhibition were catered by members of the Women to Women collective and the various bazaars we have held and occasional opportunities to exchange and speak about our collective.
Our thoughts on integration–What it means to us
We consider integration to be more than a two-way process in which all of us, together, have to integrate in this ever-changing, dynamic, new society created by us, peoples of different origins and world views with a lot in common. Here relation and mixing of cultures is inevitable. In giving an opportunity for all women to interact with women of various countries and origins we facilitate the breaking down of stereotypes, fear and discomfort in meeting of the “other” and “unknown.”
Furthermore, the project itself, though organized by Živi Atelje DK, has attracted many volunteers who have come to be part of the collective and support the activities including individuals affiliated to different organizations from Are You Syrious, Center for Peace Studies, the Dobrodošli Initiative! (Welcome Refugees), Domaćigosti, the Food Not Bombs collective, Klub Močvara, Mali Zmaj and Borders None. The project itself is a show of successful cooperation among civil society members.
From 2019 the project has also received the support of the Center for Peace Studies, BRIDGES project for the bazaar, our gatherings and our first Women to Women retreat in Kuterevo.
In 2017, the No Borders project was honored with a grant by a coalition of local organizations in their Dobri Domaćini (Good hosts) campaign. The women’s group received special recognition as one of the projects throughout Croatia to get the financial support to take us to the next step. A special thank you to Dobrodošli! (Welcome Refugees), Are You Syrious?, Koalicija Solidarnosti Split and SOLIDARNA (Foundation for Human Rights and Solidarity).
Asylum seekers and refugees live in uncertainty about their status, their family and friends in their country of origin—the one they were constrained to leave—and their future. Given the fluctuating political and economic situation in Croatia and Europe, and the strengthening of the position held by many that more borders, control and deportations are needed, anxiety about the future is great. All together the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear adds to the stress refugees and asylum seekers feel and can complicate integration during their time in Croatia.
Furthermore many people within the refugee and asylum seeker community are dealing with prolonged traumas from what they survived in their home country and/or during their journey to Europe. Lack of care is sometimes due to language barriers, resources and missing set of skills among those who do speak their language. Untreated traumas in turn can cause longterm physical and mental health complications (even for health professionals aware of the consequences). The trauma often spreads beyond the individual to the family and immediate community, causing social and integration problems and others including domestic violence and substance abuse among others.
The gathering in and of itself, provides further opportunities to better know oneself, face ones prejudices and improve community relations. The gathering also is a step toward healing invisible wounds whether formally through art therapy or informally in the sense of creating a secure and intimate space for women to express themselves and to help each other. The gathering helps with individual empowerment, so that a woman is dealt with as an individual rather than as part of a larger group of foreigners in Croatia or as a wife/mother in a family component.
Next step of the Women to Women’s Group
The reach and scope of the gatherings depend on available resources. Up to now individual donors have given the generous resources of time and materials for the workshops. Many of the materials we use are donated. We now have a Webshop as part of our membership to the Cooperative for Ethical Financing – Zadruga za etično financiranje (ZEF) and have sold through our bazaars and word-of-mouth. We aim to partner with local people or groups to be able to find sustainable ecological solutions to the packaging, for example, of the arts and crafts we make and prepare for sale.