Hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and a strong earthquake at the same time, Zagreb residents are self-organizing to provide food, repair houses, run errands for people in isolation, and offer free psychotherapy support.
“We are trying to act, and not mourn,” says Filip Brničević, founder of the OAZA Joyful Kitchen restaurant. The vegan restaurant had recently opened in the center of the old town when Croatia closed all contact-based businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Brničević said his business was inspired to act when an earthquake of 5.5 magnitude hit the city of one million. It was the strongest in 140 years and it damaged many buildings in the old part of the city, leaving some people homeless. Brničević and his team began cooking and distributing free meals.
“We wanted to do something for the benefit of our community. Many people are now closed in their houses or some shelters, some of them lost their jobs and might be depressed. We want to put smiles back on their faces,” he says.
They launched a crowdfunding campaign Zagreb Earthquake – Food for Life to support two months of free meals. One little girl hand-made a drawing and sign that read: “Thank you for helping us. Ena loves you.”
In addition to the restaurant’s efforts, a social media initiative “Jedni za druge” (which translates to “for each other”) is activating people who want to help others who are self-isolating due to the coronavirus crisis. The group quickly grew to over 16,000 well-organized volunteers, who go to the supermarket for the elderly and who can be reached through one phone number in Croatia’s five biggest cities.
“We are still focused on people who cannot get out of their homes, we do shopping for them, bring them food from the public kitchen; medicines. We receive other types of requests also and try to connect them with authorities in charge. And sometimes people just want to talk to someone or want something nonessential, like board games. We try to find time for this too,” says Tia Špero, a coordinator.
Volunteers are also helping clear the thousands of chimneys that were shaken loose by the quake, threatening to fall. A team of local alpine climbers has volunteered to secure the dangerous chimneys.
“Many people cannot afford to pay construction companies to fix their roofs so we help them. We receive so many beautiful emails, people say we gave them back the trust in humans in general. It is really nice to give them hope, says climber Ana Kontrec, after her fifth consecutive day of roof volunteering.
“We like to climb and for us this is also a challenge, to use our skills and solve a problem. It’s not a sacrifice, we like doing it.”
Mental health workers have stepped in to offer support to people feeling isolated, or experiencing shock and trauma from the earthquake and the loss of jobs and homes. A group called Niste sami (You Are Not Alone) has engaged psychotherapists and psychotherapy students to offer free online and phone support.
“I was surprised how many educated therapists and students volunteered (to join) every day. It is wonderful to see how many people are willing to offer their support,” says platform founder Rajana Radosavljev.
The platform launched the day after the earthquake. People can book their sessions via an online form and a volunteer will answer.
“We realized this kind of support is needed more than ever. At first, people were most afraid of new earthquakes and there were lots of issues with panic. At the moment, it is more about isolation and fears from pandemic consequences. It is not about somebody having to have a huge problem, every emotion somebody might have is welcomed,” says Radosavljev.
Tia Špero said it seemed the crisis has brought out the best in Zagreb’s community.
“People feel the need to engage in their local community, we hope this will continue,” she says.
This article is part of our reporting on The People’s COVID-19 Response. Here are a few articles from the series:
- Coronavirus catalyzes growing wave of grassroots action despite social distancing
- The coronavirus pandemic calls us to share more than ever
- The People’s COVID-19 Response needs you
- 10 ways to share during the COVID-19 pandemic
- The pandemic isn’t a portal, yet
- The Response: Resisting COVID-19 with mutual aid in Chico, CA
- 20 ways Shareable readers are helping during the pandemic