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The Integration Centre Prague (ICP) has a new director – Alen Kovačević. We asked Alen 10 questions, and he shared something about himself and his vision for the ICP.
Text: ICP’s website
At the beginning of July you became the ICP’s new director. What are your first impressions so far?
My first impressions are still very positive. I am very happy and looking forward to this new challenge. At the same time, I do appreciate being given the opportunity to head this amazing organisation and I see it as a great responsibility. There are a lot of personal and group meetings with my closest colleagues ahead of me. Also, having moved from a managerial position to the top director position, it’s been quite a change for me, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking how certain things could be rearranged.
Did you have any childhood dream job? A director, maybe?
Oh no, I dreamt of the things boys usually do. I thought about becoming a basketball player as I’ve always liked playing basketball. But then I understood I’d never be 2 metres tall, and at the age of 15 I gave up professional basketball, mainly the hard work and practice. For some time I considered a diplomatic career, because I thought that as an international relations graduate I might be of use to my country of origin, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Back then, I had only Bosnian citizenship, but during my university studies I realised this was not my path. In Prague I felt at home and that was the most important factor: returning to Bosnia would be a step backwards.
You’ve been working at the ICP since the very beginning. How did you actually get to the integration of foreigners?
By chance. I knew Zdeněk Horváth, the former director, thanks to our collaboration at Slovo 21. He approached me about the possibility of starting a new organisation – the Integration Centre. Apart from the aim to help foreigners by providing services for them, one of the main ideas was to build a team consisting of Czechs as well as people with migrant background who have gone through a successful integration process. I was extremely fond of this idea and 11 years later I still see it as a crucial key to the success of the ICP. Colleagues who have gone through integration themselves are now able to share their experience with newcomers and this is very helpful for building mutual trust with the target group. Our clients often mention this as one of the reasons for positive feedback, together with the high standard and quality of our services.
Now back to your question – setting up the organisation was a long journey. After the first meeting we had to wait for 6 or 7 months for the ICP to be approved, only then could we launch the first project. It was pretty dramatic.
What is your evaluation of the ICP’s 11-year development? And how did your role evolve up until your head position today?
There were six or seven of us when we started to meet at cafés, which is where our first steps were planned and put into practice. Our team included for example Jiří Vízek who has been working with us until today as a financial director. The project officially started on 1st April 2012 and we got one small office here on Žitná street. This was when another important colleague, Anca Covrigová joined us, and she has been with us until today, too. Interestingly, I got my own office only in October 2012. It was in Pankrác because my first official position was head of our Prague 4 branch. In the meantime, I did everything that needed to be done to raise awareness of our services and activities. We spoke to foreigners on the streets a lot. These are nice memories, even though back then, we were completely unknown to migrants. It was summer, I handed out leaflets to foreigners and the feedback was usually good. There were a few funny moments when grateful people offered me food – kebabs, wraps and pizzas. It took just under a year until I got the opportunity to coordinate all our 4 branches and oversee collaboration with our then partners within a new project. Then in 2016 I was promoted to AMIF project manager and now I work as director.
What are your first goals in the new position?
I will have a meeting with my closest colleagues and discuss what is ahead of us now. I’d also like to present the ICP’s key priorities and my vision to the team. At the same time, I want to start an adjustment of some internal processes. I also want to meet in person with representatives of external subjects that are somehow connected to the ICP, such as members of the board of directors and the supervisory board, representatives of the municipality and the Ministry of the Interior.
Would you like to highlight any achievements the ICP has made during your 11 years here?
Absolutely. We have helped over 30,000 clients and provided them with over 183,000 services and I consider it a great success. Through our work, we have helped many people with their integration and made their everyday life in Prague easier. The ICP has always been striving to maintain a superior quality of all services (both offline and online) and that is one of the reasons for the demand for our services exceeding our capacity. With years of experience, we can see that the core services are legal and social counselling, Czech language courses, and intercultural work. The system is thought through and works perfectly. Of course, everything can be pushed further, and we are always thinking of ways to do things even better. I can see that our networking agenda is also on a high level: we are doing a great job organising consultative platforms, that is addressing the issues of integration conceptually and professionally with other parties involved. Another thing I see as a success are the people working at the ICP and their exceptional approach to work. The team is great, they are a pleasure to work with and I am extremely proud of how they manage to deal even with the most challenging of situations. Last year it was the arrival of Ukrainian refugees.
How do you see the current perception of migration and refugees in the CR?
I think that our society is getting tired, after all it has been almost a year and a half since the beginning of the Russian aggression and the first wave of refugees. Fatigue often leads to scapegoating, looking for someone to blame for our own or society’s problems. We do not think about things we could do to change our lives or the things around us, but we get more and more influenced by public opinion and trends. And this is something that is hard to change, we live in a time when a negative story is much stronger than a positive one. We may ask how politicians or the media can bring a positive influence to the wide socio-cultural discussion. They could remind us that these people are here for a reason and they cannot be blamed for our troubles. They fled bombs, grenades and torture. They fled from death in their shattered homes. But this is getting a little lost in the social discourse. The scapegoating phenomenon has been here several times, be it in relation to the Roma minority or Syrian refugees. It also needs to be said that not everything is ideal and not everyone adapts well in a new society. Nevertheless, I refuse to lump everyone together and to impose collective guilt.
What does the director’s position allow you to influence?
Some of the things I can influence are very important – for example the vision and the overall direction of the organisation. My idea is quite clear and I’m looking forward to team and personal meetings where I’ll be able to present it. At the same time, I want to set the strategic priorities together with my colleagues and the team. Based on the strategic plan, a director may for example have a say in what projects we implement or what we promote and how. The ICP’s main goal – helping foreigners and being a key player in Prague – will remain the same. However, we can perhaps focus on how to better communicate what we do or how to improve the way we present our theme to the majority. I also see the need to engage more in a dialogue about mutual respect and coexistence. As the director, I would like to present more of the ICP’s outputs and I also want to communicate openly and maintain good relations with key external stakeholders and donors.
Do you plan to make any changes to the current concept of the ICP?
I’m not going to be specific about it now, but I do have plans. I’m thinking about how to approach things differently. One of my priorities is focusing on the internal structure of the organisation. We have a new full-time HR person and I want to take advantage of it and to set up the internal processes within HR and the whole organisation. What was crucial for me during the open competition for the director was that I had support from within the team. I believe that team satisfaction, open communication and cooperation between all of us are key elements that will enable the ICP to continue in its great work. That’s why I want to pay attention to these areas. Most of all, I want to help set up the HR processes, enhance satisfaction, motivation and evaluation of our staff. I believe that this is something I can influence by my attitude.
And the last question: Who is Alen Kovačević outside his director job?
First of all, I am a dad and a husband, completely fulfilled and happy with my family. I’m also a person who wants people to treat each other with respect and dignity. And in the rare moments of free time I’m also a bit of a sportsman, although in recent years sport has been my soul’s rather than body’s passion…