Crushing it in Croatia: Hailey’s volunteering for udruga Vestigium in Zagreb

woman in front of shelves
Hailey, the superstar of this interview

PUBLISHED: 7.8.2023.

Welcome to Crushing it in Croatia, a series where we feature expats who have moved to Croatia.

In this series, we take a deeper dive into the realities of moving to Croatia, including how long it takes, what drew people here and the things they hoped to leave behind, experiences of dealing with the Croatian police, shocks and challenges, how Expat in Croatia’s resources made the transition easier, advice for the next wave and whether or not it was all worth it in the end.

Today, we speak to Hailey Scully, an American who came to volunteer at udruga Vestigium in Zagreb after living in 6 other countries. She shares her volunteering experience, difficulties with finding a long-term apartment, adventures with the police, and gives tips to everyone who once visits Croatia.

Take it away, Hailey!

Crushing it in Croatia: Hailey from Vestigium

Marija: Hey Hailey! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hailey: I am so pleased to say I became the person I wanted to be as a child and made my biggest dreams of seeing the world and speaking in different languages come true.

I have traveled to more than 30 countries and lived in several of them for 6 months or more. In late April this year, I celebrated my two years in Croatia with close friends I made here. Before Croatia, I was living outside of Paris for 1,5 years.

My work and volunteer experiences include hospitality, education, and child care.

I am very pleasant and charismatic, and that is what made my stay in Croatia a great time in my life. It was very easy to have a social life as the people here are so warm and welcoming.

Learning languages is such a big part of who I am. The more I learn, the more opportunities I have to communicate, connect, and contribute to the places I have been.

I am fluent in Spanish while studying for the highest level of Spanish certification. At the same time, I am also studying French and Arabic, and Japanese will be next.

Unfortunately, I will be in Croatia only for a few years. I decided not to learn Croatian but would like to, and yes, I know how hard it is!

Marija: Where do you live in Croatia?

Hailey: I live in Zagreb. My first apartment was on Opatovina, with the best rooftop in the center. With such a central location and beautiful view, I was able to host many gatherings. This apartment was a studio with soft colors and a spacious bathroom.

My next apartment on Frankopanska was the most beautiful I have ever stayed in. A loft with very high ceilings, modern, tasteful, and very quiet. Unfortunately, it was only available for short-term rent and quite costly.

[Read: How to find an apartment or house to rent in Croatia]

Unfortunately, out of the apartments that I have stayed at, my current apartment is at the bottom of the list. It leaves me feeling that my quality of life has gone down since I arrived in Croatia. This apartment is located at the tram stop Petrova. I believe it was previously rented as an Airbnb. There are some things that I like less, like the noise from the neighbors above and the cars on the street.

Everything in the apartment seemed to be high quality, but I was never able to make this apartment feel like my own. I found it just two days before I had to move out of my own apartment, and 25 other people were trying to see the apartment the day it got posted. It was more about taking what was available than taking something that I would really enjoy.

two women
Hailey in Zagreb with her colleague Nyamka, another Vestigium volunteer

Marija: What drew you to Croatia? How did you decide to volunteer here? Did anyone special encourage you?

Hailey: I wish I could remember the first time I heard of or thought about Croatia. I just know that I wanted to visit for a long time. After a 10-day holiday, there were people in Croatia I wanted to see again.

The difficult times that I’ve had in France have encouraged me to leave and move to Croatia. I had problems even before COVID, including thin walls and noise from neighbors. When I arrived in Croatia, I put my bags down, took a shower, and went straight to the restaurant where I had made friends. We reconnected, and it made me so glad I came.

I decided to volunteer here to have the right to stay. As I did my research, I finally decided that Vestigium was the best place to enjoy volunteering. I am really glad I had this reason to volunteer. I am so focused on studying every day that I would have missed out on a great opportunity.

[Read: 5 ways to volunteer or give back in Zagreb, including udruga Vestigium]

Marija: Is there anything about daily life and culture in Croatia you like more compared to your home country?

Hailey: Public transportation will take you anywhere in Zagreb, but when I lived in CT, a car was a necessity.

[Read: ZET – Public transportation system in Zagreb, Croatia]

Many times, I see young people at restaurants and caffe bars that seem to have a better work environment. In front of the customers, they are allowed to eat, show each other affection, and laugh together. In the US, these things are not allowed for workers in service and hospitality in front of customers.

woman in a cafe bar
Hailey hanging out with friends in a caffe bar

Croatians give the best hugs, and when I see my friends, we always hug. For a lot of people in the US, hugging a friend when you meet them is not normal.

I see far fewer people who are experiencing homelessness and drug addiction and people who don’t harass other people on the streets. Many drugs that have harmed many American neighborhoods are not available here.

[Read: Drug laws and usage in Croatia]

Marija: When you decided to volunteer in Croatia, how did you prepare? How did you find Vestigium? What did you do first to plan your move?

Hailey: I did not have much to prepare to become a good volunteer. I was able to show up to the organization and contribute in the way that I was capable of. So I didn’t need to prepare. I was welcome just for being myself, and I used my experiences as a guide to what I could do.

I was already living in Croatia when I applied as a volunteer. I found Vestigium by searching on Google.

Marija: How did you find Expat in Croatia?

Hailey: I am sure I got some useful information from Expat in Croatia. Your articles have come up several times in my search for information. I recognize and associate the website with positive things, although I don’t remember the details.

I have been fortunate enough to have friends that I consider to be resources for adjusting to life in Zagreb. The most useful resource for me has been Facebook groups. I have found so much information there… Immigration, shopping, transportation, tours, tailors, cleaning services… There are many questions about life in Zagreb that can be answered using Facebook groups.

[Read: Expat Facebook groups in Croatia]

Marija: What the process of applying for volunteer residence looked like? Was it complicated?

Hailey: For my first permit, when I arrived in Zagreb, it took nine months before a decision was made as to whether I would be granted a permit.

During this long wait, a friend with a connection at MUP offered to help. He assured me that his friend at MUP would make sure I receive a permit. They told me to simply state I want a permit because I enjoy living in Croatia.

[Read: Available visas and residence permits for Croatia]

I was told that he is a supervisor of the MUP official handling my application. In the following weeks and months, I was reassured several times that I would get a permit and that I had submitted the correct paperwork.

Eventually, I stopped trusting them and hired a lawyer, and all of a sudden, the process became incredibly easy. He spoke with the MUP official for less than 20 minutes, sent me an accurate list of documents needed right away, and the process of 9 months was resolved.

After receiving my first permit, my lawyer told the MUP official that I would stay another year using a volunteer visa, and she told him that it would not work. My lawyer knew, of course, that she was wrong, but it left me with the impression that immigration purposely makes getting a permit difficult.

Getting a volunteer residence permit afterwards was done through my lawyer. He made the process so smooth and easy I don’t remember it!

If you want to get help with your application for temporary residence in Croatia, contact us.

Marija: How were you treated by the Croatian police?

Hailey: I was treated like they don’t want me to stay here! I felt this way on 2 occasions: the one mentioned above and when I arrived at the airport.

[Read: How to get to and from Zagreb Airport in Croatia]

When I first arrived at the airport, I felt very uncomfortable with how I was being treated. I waited in a long line and watched everyone present their documents and walk by. I was kept for so long that when I left the airport, it was empty outside because everyone else on the flight was long gone.

A lady looked through my passport and asked the same questions over and over again – about my income and intentions in Croatia. Two times, she left her desk and went to an office in the back. I had to show her a copy of my bank statements and proof of my income which is enough to comfortably live anywhere in Europe, including France, where I have had two residence permits/long-stay visas.

[Read: How to show proof of financial means when applying for residence in Croatia]

Marija: Where have you lived abroad before Croatia?

Hailey: My home country is the US, and I was living in France for almost two years before I decided I would be happier in Croatia.

I have lived 6 months or longer in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Guatemala, France, and Romania. My volunteer experiences in Peru and Colombia are 1 year in total.

In Colombia, I led a tutoring and vegan breakfast program in the poorest neighborhood of Santa Marta Colombia, Barrio Oasis, for 6 months. Everyone loved the oatmeal and fresh fruit and got to try peanut butter once, which is very expensive there and generously donated.

In Lima, Peru, I volunteered at the Hogar San Francisco de Asis in Chaclacayo. This is a home for 50 patients, from newborns to young adults. I was able to work in the nursery where the youngest child I cared for was 17 days old.

Every day was an all-day experience. Bringing the children for hospital visits 90 minutes away, helping with meals, trips to the park and local events, organizing and distributing donations, playing and getting to know each other… And many, many little things like scratching the head of a patient who can’t reach their head with lice.

Marija: Once you arrived in Croatia, what were the biggest shocks or challenges you experienced compared to your home country? How did you overcome them?

Hailey: I cannot think of anything that shocks me or presents much of a challenge. Some small things are there are no screens on the windows. This can be irritating since windows in the US have screens that keep out bugs. I cannot stand having flies or mosquitos in my apartment. This is too bad because I keep the windows closed and miss out on fresh air.

Apartments are usually furnished here. In the US, most apartments are rented unfurnished so that you can customize the interior. I missed having more control over the atmosphere in my apartment, and it is too bad to turn down a nice apartment because the furnishing is not attractive. You have to accept what is there, but that makes moving in much easier. There is no need to move furniture or large appliances like a washing machine.

I don’t like a lot of products in grocery stores here, so I order food all the time. In my home country and other places I lived, like Guatemala and France, I loved cooking and eating at home.

Marija: What has your experience been like volunteering in Croatia and what do you manage in Vestigium? What did you learn here that you wouldn’t be able to learn at home?

Hailey: During my volunteering in Croatia, I felt very welcomed, and that was the best part. Being involved with Vestigium has been a valuable part of my social life. I had a lot of options to contribute at Vestigium and was able to participate in different activities.

two women in a store
Hailey and Nyamka

For more than 6 months, I gave English lessons to young students in a private school for Ukrainian children. Each month I helped plan culture nights that welcomed 15-20 people. We socialized at dinners and activities that represented countries like Mongolia, Colombia, and Sweden. At Vestigium’s Saturday market, I welcome visitors, make coffee, take photos, see friends, and get to know the community.

I have been to many countries, including my home country, where similar activities are being carried out. It is very important Vestigium plays this role in Vrbani, Zagreb, as it is important that people everywhere have access to a sense of community, sustainable options such as food grown without chemicals and pesticides, social events, and skills like sewing and producing safe and effective cleaning products at home.

Marija: Are there any opportunities for your employment in Croatia?

Hailey: I have never been interested in employment in Croatia.

Marija: What are your plans for the future? Would you like to move to Croatia long-term?

Hailey: I wanted to live in Croatia long term when I arrived, but now, after 2 years, I don’t. I am going to leave in 6 weeks and go volunteer in Bulgaria. After Bulgaria, I will move to France, where I enjoy the quality of life more.

Marija: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to volunteer or move to Croatia?

Hailey: To anyone considering volunteering or moving to Croatia, I will share a piece of information. It costs about 1.000 euros for initial health insurance and about 80 euros per month of your stay with the permit. I did not know this until more than 6 months into the process of applying for the first permit. These are the conditions for the permits I had, prepayment of rent (view a residence guide here), and volunteering (view a residence guide here).

[Read: How to get travel insurance in Croatia (putno), which you can use to apply for residence]

If you would like to volunteer, secure an opportunity before arriving. Most of the organizations I reached out to didn’t reply, so it can be challenging to find an opportunity.

Good luck receiving packages! If you regularly expect to receive things through international post, you should be prepared to pay some very high fees to receive them. I have purchased the smallest things, like a cell phone case which I bought for 20 euros and I had to pay customs 10 euros. From what I have heard, this is standard practice, to pay 50% of the value of the goods to receive them. They will also make up what they believe the value of your goods is and charge you based on this. This has had a noticeable impact on my quality of life by limiting access to products outside Croatia.

[Read: Shopping online: What are the taxes and customs fees]

The housing market around the center is very competitive. I can’t speak for other areas in Zagreb. While searching for an apartment around the center between June and September, if the apartment was worth the price, for sure, the first person who sees it would take it. I was able to manage by forming a good relationship with my agent, who had 25 other people waiting to see a place, and she showed me first. I also checked all of the sites I knew of over and over again throughout the day, hoping to be the first to respond to an ad.

two women sitting on a bench
Hailey and Nyamka hanging out near HNK in Zagreb

There are a lot of good opportunities to socialize. Zagreb is a small city, and just by posting in Facebook groups, it is easy to meet new people – for coffee, drinks, or other activities. I planned some gatherings for coffee and drinks, lunch, and team-building games in the park. Take advantage of these opportunities.

[Read: 17 things to do in Zagreb when it rains]

And please be friendly as you interact with people during daily activities like shopping, eating out, taking the tram, etc. People are friendly back, and it is easy to form pleasant relationships. I have spent time with several staff members from my favorite places to visit.

Try local Croatian products like meat, cheese, rakija, gin, hot sauces, honey, and many more.

[Read: Famous Croatian produce and where it comes from]

If you would like to be featured in this series, please contact us here.

View our other crushing-it-in-Croatia articles

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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