Agnė Camara, the founder of International House Vilnius, is a person who discovered her passion for travelling and discovering at school, lived in Germany and the United States on various exchange programmes, and then, after enrolling in the Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree programme, studied international migration, travelled to different European countries each semester, and finally returned to Vilnius. The idea of establishing a service centre based on the single-window principle came from the experience of countries where similar centres already exist. Agnė herself tells us more about the successful implementation of the project, the success stories that have stuck deep in her memory and the planned expansion of the centre in an interview.
What was the purpose of the International House Vilnius?
The main aim of International House Vilnius is to improve the integration of foreigners. We focus on the initial phase, when a foreigner arrives in Vilnius and has no idea what to do next. In order to avoid having to visit different institutions scattered around Vilnius, we make it possible to get all the necessary services in one place. We want to make the integration of foreigners quicker, easier, smoother and of high quality. We want to make Vilnius a second home for foreigners. We create an atmosphere that makes people understand that they are welcome in Vilnius.
How would you describe the foreigners who usually address the centre?
Our mission in English sounds “Soft landings for international talents taking the big step to Vilnius”. The message is already encoded in the mission statement that we want to help global talent to get a foothold. This means that we focus more on those foreigners who bring high added value to the city of Vilnius and to Lithuania.
Citizens of which countries most often address your service centre?
Citizens of various countries come to us. More than half of them are Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian citizens. This is in line with the statistics of foreigners in Vilnius. According to the data of May, the number of foreigners who have declared their residence in Vilnius is over 53 thousand. Ukrainian citizens account for 37%, Belarusian 28% and Russian 12%. The remaining 23% are citizens of the USA, India, Poland, Germany, Latvia, Kazakhstan.
What challenges did you face in creating International House Vilnius?
Institutional staff come from different backgrounds, they are used to their own working traditions, and everything is new and different for them. So, we had to adapt to each other. I can safely say that the service centre that has been set up brings together different approaches and different working cultures.
What were the expectations? Have they been met?
We have fully delivered on our expectation to bring together different public institutions and provide a single-window principle for foreigners. We now have as many as ten institutions participating in the project. There are five institutions working in the International House Vilnius building itself. Perhaps the main one is the Migration Department, which serves foreigners in migration matters: issuing and changing residence permits, European Union citizen cards, visas, etc. Another institution located in the building is the State Tax Inspectorate, which advises foreigners on tax matters. There is also a Sodra office, where foreigners can get answers on social insurance issues: maternity, paternity, sickness benefits, etc. For job search, you can contact the Employment Service, and for advice on moving and living in Lithuania, you can contact the Choose Lithuania project. The Vilnius City Tourism and Business Development Agency Go Vilnius provides advice on tourism issues. As we are located in Vilnius City Municipality building, there is a lot of overlap between our services and those of the municipality. In addition, we work closely with Regitra, the State Patient Insurance Fund and Enterprise Lietuva.
At the beginning, we had set the expectation of serving at least a thousand clients per month. We outdid ourselves. Lately, we have been serving 2,000 clients a month. I would like to mention that it is not just quantity that is important to us, but also quality. We have a quality expectation of 4 out of 5 for satisfaction, and we are currently averaging around 4.7. This is a positive rating and encourages us to continue to actively improve the quality of our services.
What would you say is the most significant change that International House Vilnius has made this year?
Our biggest achievement is that we have been able to serve a huge number of clients, receive positive feedback and generally make International House Vilnius a success. Since November, we have already had 10,000 visits in less than a year. We do not only provide services, but we also offer them the opportunity to take part in projects and activities that we initiate. For example, we organise language courses and have a series of seminars covering topics ranging from employment opportunities to tips on how to register your child for kindergarten or school. In addition, we have a series of career-related events: how to prepare yourself psychologically for the labour market in Lithuania, how to interview for a job, how to prepare your CV, your LinkedIn profile, how to start a self-employed business, and many other topical issues.
How quickly do foreigners learn Lithuanian?
It depends on the person. Some people live for 10-15 years and don’t speak Lithuanian, while some people working in multinational companies don’t need it at all. However, we have noticed a huge demand for free Lithuanian language courses. After all, not everyone can afford to pay for a course when they arrive. We are currently organising twelve sessions of courses in the evenings and weekends. They are aimed at both English and Russian speaking foreigners. We have five groups of about twenty participants each. Although almost no one learns Lithuanian in such a short time, it is a good start to get the basics right. And even if you only know a little of the language or a few basic phrases, these courses open up a lot of possibilities. A foreigner who learns the Lithuanian language has positive emotions, is more warmly welcomed and finds it easier to integrate into the Lithuanian community.
What is the most memorable event that has happened during the lifetime of International House Vilnius?
I vividly remember a case of a Frenchman who was not doing very well from the moment he arrived in Vilnius. He had as many as four names, but in our systems it was only possible to enter a limited number of characters. Wherever he went, his name was entered differently in the systems, and his name was different from his wife’s and children’s. All this led to a number of problems: he could not be issued with a residence permit, and he was not allowed to apply for a monthly child allowance. Everything that could go wrong went gone wrong for this Frenchman. However, thanks to inter-institutional cooperation, all the problems were solved in one visit. The Frenchman was impressed and could not believe that it was possible to resolve problems that seemed to last for months in an instant by coming to International House Vilnius.
How quickly did you have to adapt to the war in Ukraine?
It was only after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine that we realised that we could not cover ourselves with a mask and continue with business as usual. It became clear that we needed to be useful to the Ukrainian people and to Ukraine as a country. We were the first of all institutions to launch a hotline for Ukrainians almost the day after the invasion of Ukraine. At that time, people were calling us with questions: how can I leave Ukraine safely and come to Lithuania, how can I bring my relatives from the war zone, what should I do if my house is bombed? These were emotionally touching and difficult questions. Now the volume of calls has decreased. The predominant questions are more related to further integration: how to find housing, work, etc.
With the outbreak of the war and the influx of refugees, we have realised how important it is to help them establish social links with locals or foreigners who have lived here before. To achieve this goal, we remembered the mentoring programme BeFriend Vilnius, which has been in place since the beginning of the service centre. Through this initiative, Ukrainians can find a Lithuanian mentor.
How does the BeFriend Vilnius mentoring programme help people fleeing the war to integrate into society?
Often, foreigners who arrive feel very lonely, have only a few acquaintances (usually Ukrainians), and have no idea how to get in touch with Lithuanians. Those who have settled in the Strong Together programme can still communicate with the people who have taken them in, but sooner or later they have to move out of their temporary flats and there is a need to establish new social contacts. The BeFriend Vilnius programme offers the opportunity to get a mentor – someone with whom the newcomer can interact. This mentoring can be understood in many different ways. It can be just a listening ear, emotional support, a walk together, a recommendation on where to start, where to look for housing, a job, a kindergarten or a school for your children, or it can be just a simple laugh together.
What are the criteria for those who want to be mentors?
Any adult who speaks foreign languages and wants to help can become a mentor. The prospective mentor must state his/her motivation for taking part in the project. We try to connect or match people who sign up. We do this based on filters such as: common interests, age, gender, languages. We currently have around 650 volunteer mentors and 360 pairs or matches. We also have some safeguards to help protect us from malicious people, should they arise.
What has been the most memorable mentor-mentee success story for you?
I remember well a story that was very challenging for us at first, but then turned into a positive one. A Ukrainian woman was very emotionally traumatised when she arrived in Vilnius. For the first month, she was just lying down and did not want to do anything. But her mentor managed to break the ice by talking her through it, getting her moving and offering her specialist help. With very small steps, the Ukrainian woman, shocked by the horrors of war, is starting to open up and cling to life. Such stories inspire future mentors too.
Do you plan to offer this mentoring programme to other foreigners?
We already have a long list of foreigners from other countries who want to take part in the programme, so we hope to open the programme to all foreigners soon. Our vision is that every person who comes to live in Vilnius will have a local mentor.
Working at International House Vilnius, what are the ideal changes you would like to see to make a foreigner feel at home in Vilnius?
I would like all people working in the public sector to speak foreign languages and to be able to serve foreigners at least in English and Russian. I would like to see websites adapted for foreigners in Lithuania, so that they don’t have to deal with Google translate, and so that they can find all the information they need in a language they understand. I would also like to see a more open and tolerant society that is more accepting of foreigners. It would be great if people realised that a multicultural society and different people help to broaden horizons, inspire and encourage creation.