“I focused on the HMI’s operations and in conducting activities targeted towards the benefit of Croatian communities around the world. I think we are now on the right path to facing the new trends – to develop cultural identity and preserve the mother tongue.”

In the past people moved out of the homeland for political or economic reasons, but today, it appears, there are no rules. Everything is different, only the nostalgia remains the same. There is no longer an age group, profession, employment status or a bad spate of affairs leading people to leave for a “better tomorrow”.

Everybody – immediately and everywhere – is embarking on this “cruise”. Not long ago we observed with astonishment that so many young people were leaving the homeland. Then we watched in bewilderment as their friends and the nuclear family followed. Then their parents followed, and people that have jobs in Croatia. The real numbers are hard to imagine!

It seems that nothing new could surprise us as the “truth or dare” bottle is pointing directly at those who stand just a few years away from their deserved pension.

We spoke with Mirjana Piskulić, the acting director of the Croatian Heritage Foundation – a sixty-six year old institution that has watched many of our compatriots leave the homeland – about this and many other topics.

You were appointed to the post of acting director in late July of 2016. At the time you noted that you faced many challenges. What precisely were you referring to and what is the current state of the institution?
Assuming the helm of an institution with such deep-rooted traditions and a wealth of history is a challenge without equal. I focused on the HMI’s operations and in conducting activities targeted towards the benefit of Croatian communities around the world. I think we are now on the right path to facing the new trends – to develop cultural identity and preserve the mother tongue. Working in synergy with the State Office for Croats Abroad we wish to strengthen the presence of Croatian high culture among our emigrant communities in general. This is our burning challenge.

You were born in South Africa; that is to say, you are yourself the child of emigrants. How much of an asset is this at the helm of an institution of this calibre?
It helps a lot, not only now that I am leading the Croatian Heritage Foundation, but also in my many years of work with emigrants and in the diplomacy. I have the memory of a childhood spent in two diametrically opposed political systems. I have an understanding for people that are scattered around the world with their families, but whose heartstrings tug back to the homeland. I also understand their children, who live an inherited culture in a new environment. This experience encourages me to seek ways to bring worlds together in my work, planning and vision. You know; the experience of dual affiliation enriches us.

You began your career in the diplomacy in 2005 as the first secretary at the Croatian embassy in Australia’s Canberra. From 2008 to 2013 you served as general consul in Sydney. Three years ago you returned to work with the Croatian Heritage Foundation and took over the leadership of the emigrant information department. How was working from within the emigrant community, and how is it now from the homeland perspective?
When you are among our emigrants – especially those who moved far from their homeland – you are immersed in their lives, their families, successes and failures – you take part in the life of the community. You also work with Croatians who do not frequent Croatian clubs or churches, but hold to their roots. Croatian diplomats have a burden of responsibility and the honour to be an enduring link between the communities abroad and the homeland. Our people are often successful mediators in economic and entrepreneurial activities. Croatians around the world, along with their up to recently dominant role as leading participants in the labour pool, are taking on a new socially and culturally integrating role at all levels.

Do Croatians from the emigrant communities still want to invest in their homeland? What are your experiences in this regard?
When you consider the business successes achieved by our emigrants in various economies around the world, it makes you wonder why they have been unable to achieve this in their own homeland.

And why is that?
There are many reasons – especially pertaining to the business climate in Croatia. I will venture to say that it is customary, when speaking of emigrants, to assert that their “potential” has not been sufficiently tapped, basically alluding to their money. The Meeting G2 project was launched a few years ago led by a group of second generation emigrant Croatian returnees, whose objective it is to network the business community and work on increasing diaspora investment in the homeland. Many of our people living abroad turned out for the two conferences they have staged to date. There is interest, then, and we should not miss these opportunities.

You have often referred to other types of emigrant investment of which little or nothing is known?
Exactly. This includes, for example, contributions in human capital and the knowledge of leading international researchers of Croatian extraction whose unselfish mentorships support research projects in the homeland and, on the other hand, open the doors of some of the most eminent laboratories around the world to our best experts. Third generation Croatian emigrants see their future and an opportunity for success in their homeland. A dual identity helps them in their work. The question of the attitude towards the Croatian emigrant communities has become one of the few areas in which there is a consensus in the homeland, irrespective of political affiliation.

You are an expert advisor and one of the people most responsible for launching the Večernji list daily newspaper’s My Croatia portal, which is seeing amazing levels of visits. Some of the articles you penned reverberated among the many Croatian places around the globe where Croatians feet have walked. What paths have these Croatian feet walked?
To me the Croatian emigrant communities are a part of our history and our present; a magical world of intertwined beautiful and, at times, hard stories, the impressive achievements of individuals that have indebted the world with their discoveries, and of touching stories of the “common” people, who often for existential reasons were compelled to move abroad to provide their families a decent life. The Večernji list My Croatia portal has opened the door to this magical world for many readers. I like to write because my thread adds to the overall tapestry. It was a great idea to publish articles from archived issues of our own Matica magazine we thought had been forever forgotten. The 135 articles to date have seen over 900 thousand views.

What is your assessment of the proposal from President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović that she meet with the representatives of Croatian emigrant and minority communities abroad on the 22nd of July of 2017?
As has been announced by her office the president would like to use the opportunity to recognise the important role emigrant Croatia played in the development of the homeland and to thank all our communities around the world for their continuing support and aid. It is worth noting that the president has been studious in approaching the role of contemporary Croatian unity at the global level and in the homeland, essential in moving forward in the maturity of our society and economy. That day will also see the closing ceremony of this year’s Croatian World Games, which will see the participation of a thousand young people from around the world. Zagreb will be home to many visiting emigrants. When they leave again we will lose several pieces of the puzzle without which Croatia is incomplete.

Is the Croatian government doing enough to create links between the homeland and the emigrant communities and what is your assessment of the idea of setting up a ministry to cover this issue? Is this critical, as many say, for Croatia’s economy to take off?
Unfortunately, our people at home and abroad have adopted a mentality of criticism and negativity, such that everything positive and achieved is degraded, including what has been done for emigrants. For example, in this period of crisis our government has, by way of the State Office for Croats Abroad, granted five hundred scholarships in this academic year for ethnic Croatians living abroad. Experts say that you need to create the conditions for the economy to take off, i.e. amend overly restrictive legislation and reduce the burden of taxes, contributions and levies. More can be achieved working from higher up, but I leave the decision to those determining policy. What is most important is that the State Office for Croats Abroad, and thereby also the Croatian Heritage Foundation, has the support of Government in work that covers a vast and diverse theatre of activity.

By: Ivan Ril Photography: Davor Višnjić