Croatia – Intercultural sensitivity and competences training for public officials, NGO workers and volunteers


What does it take for the integration of newcomers into a community to be successful? What integration actually means and who is affected in the process? In WELCOMM we believe integration is a two-way process, in which both newcomers and members of the host community are somewhat changed as a result of an interaction, and community is transformed to accommodate new relationships.

In these terms, integration is always happening and, in our age, there is hardly any monocultural society. Because cultures, as well as identities, are not static but change over time.

So, do we need a special set of skills to manage and embrace the diversity that comes with interacting with people with various cultural backgrounds?

In modern, global world changes are faster and sometimes overwhelming. Challenged by the unknown, people can experience insecurity and rely on familiar, good old “our own ways”. Even if they are professionals, committed to support and facilitate the integration of newcomers; even if they are dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers, set to offer help to the less fortunate.

Convinced that competences for exploration, understanding and managing cultural differences and to interact constructively in the intercultural setting are acquirable and can be enhanced, in WELCOMM project we developed intercultural sensitivity and competences building training program.

In Croatia, Rehabilitation Centre for Stress and Trauma and Centre for Peace Studies piloted this training program from March to May 2019, with three target groups: public officials, NGO workers, and volunteers.  Each group took part in five-day training, organized in two modules:

  • intercultural competences, and
  • competences to provide trauma-informed services.

The first module, lasting 18 teaching hours, aimed to develop and improve knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to:

  • understanding of culture, cultural diversity, interrelation of identity and culture and effects of migration on both identity and culture;
  • intercultural sensitivity, intercultural competence, and particularly intercultural communication;
  • understanding internal and external sources and mechanisms of stereotypes and prejudices and how to prevent and tackle them.

The second module, which lasted 12 teaching hours, was set out to introduce and develop knowledge and skills related to:

  • mental health vulnerabilities, as well as preventive and protective factors, in the face of war, destruction, and forced migration,
  • understanding how traumatic experience affects psycho-social functioning and integration capacities of forced migrants,
  • individual, organizational and institutional approaches and specific methods that contribute to the delivery of trauma-informed services, facilitate resilience and recovery as well as prevent emotional exhaustion and burnout of helpers.

The training is piloted with 28 participants in total. Public officials were recruited from social services, housing, employment, and education system, with various degree of experience in work with refugees and migrants. NGO workers came from organizations deeply involved in help and support to asylum seekers, refugees, and other migrants, but participants themselves varied from very experienced to newly recruited, which provided a wonderful opportunity for peer learning. Volunteers came with diverse educational and occupational backgrounds, from professional helpers to dedicated enthusiast, but most of them had a lot of experience in assisting refugees and migrants.

Even though NGO workers and volunteers had the opportunity of similar learning experiences, feedback showed that they benefited from this training program. NGO workers declared that understanding the links of identity, culture and migration and how those interconnections pose challenges to the mental health of forced migrants, added significantly to their knowledge and skill set. They also valued the knowledge on trauma and approach to trauma recovery that builds on strengths and resilience of survivors.

Volunteers are often exposed to refugees’ and migrants’ traumatic experiences without being properly prepared and equipped to handle it. That’s why it seems they benefited greatly from the module on mental health, trauma, and recovery, particularly regarding prevention and overcoming their own emotional reactions to difficult content.

Public officials, on the other hand, were exposed less to equivalent training experiences. Interactive approach and a lot of exercises particularly appealed to them and the opportunity to express themselves and to exchange both with fellow trainees and with trainers. Understanding mechanisms of stereotypes and prejudices seemed to helped them a lot and they quickly recognized the patterns in relation to other groups of beneficiaries (from the local community). This experiential learning certainly contributed to their intercultural sensitivity, and they declared that they understand better the challenges refugees and migrants face, as a result of cultural differences as well as all the integration pressures put on them.

This training program and materials will be offered in English and adapted version in the Croatian language, in WELCOMM Community section. We hope it will be useful to build intercultural sensitivity and competences of many more professionals and citizens in the pursuit of a truly intercultural society.