By Gurvinder Singh, IFRC

“I crossed nine countries to reach here,” said 17-year-old Salman from Afghanistan. Salman is one of hundreds of boys who have arrived in Croatia on their own from countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Now Croatian Red Cross is taking care of him.

As for most children travelling alone, Salman’s journey into Europe was difficult, distressing and almost deadly.

“I’ve seen so many dangers,” he said. “In Iran, I was shot at. To cross from Turkey to Greece, I went on the sea for the first time. The boat had so many people and I held onto the edge so tight for two hours. Later, 12 of us were put into a car that normally fits four people. It was difficult for me to breathe.”

The Croatian Red Cross has qualified and experienced staff and volunteers who act as legal guardians for unaccompanied children at the reception centres in Zagreb and Kutina. This involves being responsible for children’s care and safety, helping them access legal services including applications for asylum, and joining children for their asylum interviews with government officials.

Sven Novosel, a Red Cross guardian, explained: “It’s important for us to take the role of guardians for these kids because they are alone and have no one to turn to when they are in need. They often don’t know what their rights are and how to obtain them, and they are not always aware when their rights are being violated.”

Essential services

The Croatian Red Cross provides unaccompanied children with access to essential services at the reception centres like getting into schools, provides Croatian language tutors and buys school supplies like back-packs, clothes and shoes.

To protect their health, regular doctors’ visits are organized for the kids, and medicine is bought for them when they are ill. The Red Cross also has specialized staff who provide psychosocial support to children – this is especially important, as the experience of travelling alone and unprotected can be extremely stressful.

“When you see the accomplishments of these children you feel proud,” said Sven.

“When they are sad or miss their family, we are there for them. Our role is to ease their integration and support them in becoming independent adults. Most importantly, it is also giving them the chance to be kids, an opportunity that was taken from them.”

The role of guardians and other support is essential because life has many challenges for children on their own.

“I talk to my family twice a week and try to stay busy,” said Salim. “I volunteer in the kitchen and try to study in my free time. I like Croatia and know if I work hard here I can be successful.”