The UNICEF Emergency Response Office have been situated in BASE since March 2022. Their current task is to ensure suitable living conditions in Slovakia for families coming from Ukraine. Through cooperation with the government and various non-governmental organizations, they try to facilitate their conditions and integration into society . Michaela Bauer, Country Coordinator of the Slovakia Ukraine Refugee Response team, explained to us what their activities consist of and why they decided to be based in the flexible offices of BASE.
How does UNICEF operate in Slovakia?
We currently have two offices in Slovakia. One is the Slovak Foundation for UNICEF - our National Committee that works on fundraising and advocacy, the other, which I am heading, is the UNICEF Emergency Response Office focused on the Ukraine Refugee Response.
Could you describe the role of Emergency Response Office?
The UNICEF Emergency Response team has been established to help refugees fleeing from Ukraine to neighboring countries. While our focus remains on Ukrainian women and children, it is important to point out that our attention is not limited to them. The reason is simple, if we want access to services for Ukrainians we also need to support Slovak society. For example, if there is a lack of kindergartens, we need to support the government to increase the number of kindergartens for every child in the country, not just the Ukrainian kids. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t be fair. We want to support social inclusion and integration of Ukrainian children while they are here.
The UNICEF Emergency Response Office is only planning to stay here for a year or two. We hope that by that time, most Ukrainian women and children will be able to return back home, or they will already be integrated into society, attend school, and have access to medical care.
What is your main goal, at the moment?
Our goal is defined by the UNICEF mandate which focuses on children aged 0 – 18 but we also support young people up to 24 years. Our aim is to make sure that all children are protected and aware of their rights. Children have the right to health, education, family life, play, and recreation, an adequate standard of living and to be protected from abuse and harm. We have created teams which cover the specific areas of the children’s rights.
For example, there are teams that cover the area of education or child protection. Child protection is particularly relevant to children who are here without their parents, who travelled unaccompanied. We also have a team that specializes in social protection. They cover things like the social assistance payments, which we are providing to help refugees. Another team is responsible for facilitating healthcare. Ukrainian refugees currently can only get immediate or urgent health treatment, but they do not have access to routine healthcare – this is something that we are hoping to change.
We also needed to set up teams which would oversee the cross-cutting areas such as early childhood development. When you are between 0-3 or up to 6 years old, you are dependent on the support from your parents, teachers, and pre-school, as well as health services. The same applies to adolescents and young people. We want to make sure that they can acquire the skills they need, feel included, make friends, or participate in sports together with their peers.
Who do you cooperate with?
We work with the government and support them in this big challenge. Welcoming all these new people and intergrading them into society can be really challenging for such a small country like Slovakia. Therefore, we have been helping the government with social assistance payments to the refugees, for example. We also cooperate with municipalities that have a high number of refugees like: Bratislava, Košice, Michalovce, Nitra, and others.
How many people do you currently have in your Refugee Response team?
We will be finalizing our recruitments in early 2023 and will have a team of 25 people. We also need colleagues who will be working on consultancy contracts to give us some additional expertise.
Can you give us more examples of your activities that support the government?
We have an overarching partnership through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that describes our work here. We have prepared workplans and Memoranda of Understanding with other ministries.
Together with the Ministry of Health, we are supporting civil society organizations and NGOs which help refugees get access to additional health services and to hire Ukrainian doctors for one clinic in Bratislava, to expand their staff. Solutions like these, which result in reducing the shortage of workers, could be an opportunity to help the entire health sector. In Slovakia, there is a limited number of pediatricians in some areas. We are, therefore, working with the Ministry to speed up the process of recognizing the professional qualification of Ukrainian doctors so that they can be hired as additional pediatricians.
With the Ministry of Education, we are also working on expanding and improving the already existing services like kindergartens or schools. We either work directly with the Ministry and help them with funding, or we work with NGOs and provide them with some additional services. We certainly do not want to create parallel systems; we want to make sure that the existing system becomes available to Ukrainians as well.
The language barrier surely poses another obstacle. Do you help refugees overcome this issue as well?
Yes, we and some of our partners do. It is important to understand that we don’t work alone. In Slovakia, UNICEF works very closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but also with other international organizations such as International Organization for Migration. It means that it is not always UNICEF who provides the language courses, it can be the UNHCR or some of our partners as well. We focus on language acquisition for Ukrainian children and adolescents. In cooperation with the Ministry of Education and the National Institute for Education, we have printed the first ever set of language textbooks with Slovak as the foreign language. This is something that did not exist before, there had been only Slovak textbooks for Slovak children. We consider this a great achievement because this textbook will not only serve the Ukrainian refugees, but also any other foreigner who wishes to learn Slovak.
We are concerned about the fact that teenagers from Ukraine are mostly learning online. Many are about to finish high school, but they still suffer from the language barrier which could lower their chances to enroll at universities or find work. We really want to make sure that they have the ability to meet friends while they continue their online education because real life contact with peers is an excellent tool for language learning. We will also be cooperating with several NGOs in Slovakia that work with adolescents and focus on language learning as well.
Do you approach these organization with an offer of cooperation?
I would say it’s a mix. You know, Slovakia is a small country so after a while you get to know everyone. Also, all these organizations already know each other and cooperate. For Example, UNICEF and some of our UN sister agencies are all supporting the Gabčíkovo accommodation center. In some cases, we also work with the same NGO partners.
Sometimes, we approach a specific organization which has the expertise we currently need. Sometimes they approach us first. Other times, we work with partners that our Regional Office in Geneva has already been working with at the regional level – for example Scouts or Duke of Edinburgh Award.
Once again, it is important to say that our attention is not solely focused on supporting Ukrainian children, we also want to help other vulnerable groups which could benefit from the same services; for example other migrant children or Roma children.
"We don’t want to encourage separate services or separate schools as that would be the exact opposite of inclusion."
Why have you decided to set up your office at BASE?
BASE truly is a beautiful place. The building is a landmark, and everybody knows it.
There is also a more practical reason - we have a short time frame for our presence in Slovakia. We will be here for a year or two, who knows. It isn’t feasible for us to rent and furnish an entire office. We find BASE to be very useful because it’s modular.
"We also enjoy working in an open space. Sometimes, our colleagues from the Regional Office come over and we need extra space to seat them."
To sum it up, BASE is a beautiful space, it is located right in the city center of Bratislava, and it is a great place for work. It brings together people working in different fields.
Were you considering other coworking centers as well?
We had to. When looking for an office, we must always consider security as the UN has already been attacked in many places before. While Slovakia is a very safe country, nothing is ever guaranteed.
Of course, we also did the math and considered whether it would be cheaper for us to furnish an entire office or if the price would add up if we rented a place. Eventually, BASE turned out to be the most cost-efficient solution for us.
Jurkovič Heating Plant is a beautiful building. When I talk to people who don’t know much about Slovakia, I tend to compare it to the Tate Modern Museum in London, which also used to be a heating plant. I am happy to be here every day.