Expat in Croatia in Glas Hrvatske (with English transcription)

Lavender fields in Zrin, Croatia

On November 29, 2023, the radio show Glas Hrvatske (The Voice of Croatia), a popular multimedia platform dedicated to the Croatian diaspora, published a radio interview with Sara Dyson of Expat in Croatia.

On the last day of the Meeting G2 conference held in Sisak, there was an all-day excursion, including a trip to Zrin. During the walk from a lavender farm up to Zrin castle, Sara chatted with host Ivan Kujundžić about her story, about the role Croatia has played in her life, and who Expat in Croatia serves.

Listen to the episode in Croatian here or read the English transcription of the interview below.

English transcription of the interview “Guest of the Voice of Croatia – Sara Dyson”

Our guest today is Sara Dyson, an American who moved to Split eleven years ago. She is the owner of a successful company “Expat in Croatia”, through which she helps many foreigners and descendants of Croatian emigrants to integrate into Croatian society, as easily as possible.

Sara is a Texan by birth and a Dalmatian by soul. Her love for Croatia was a love at first sight, and she believes it to be a country of remarkable opportunities. Dazzled by landscapes, culture, and above all by kind and friendly people, she decided to stay, whatever it took, and to start her own business.

– “Don’t expect opportunities to come knocking on your door. You must create your own opportunities.” There are many business communities in Croatia, who will support you. Seek them out. Move forward and make your ideas happen. If you persistently do what you like, and you do it the right way – you will conquer the world. ” – says Sara.

Ivan Kujundžić: At this point in time, when more and more young Croatian people decide to go live abroad, many young people from developed Western countries decide to move to Croatia. Sara Dyson is one of them, a Texan by birth and a Dalmatian by soul.

She moved to the city beneath Marjan in 2012. Her love for Croatia was a love at first sight. Dazzled by landscapes, culture, and above all by kind and friendly people, she decided to stay, whatever it took, and start her own business. Today, 11 years later, she owns a successful business – Expat in Croatia, through which she helps foreigners and descendants of Croatian emigrants who want to live and work in Lijepa naša to successfully navigate our complicated bureaucracy.

We met in Sisak, during this year’s G2 conference which gathers emigrants and business people, but also those who, like Sara, have come to Croatia from various places around the world and have recognized the business potential it has to offer. After the conference, while walking in the virgin nature of Zrin – that’s where the organizers of the G2 Conference have brought its participants to see the beauties of central Croatia – we had an opportunity to record Sara’s story.

Sara Dyson: I don’t have any Croatian roots whatsoever. I came to Croatia by pure chance. I had no knowledge of the country. In fact, only 8 months before my coming over I discovered that Croatia is a European country. During my first six months in Croatia, I fell in love with it and did everything in my power to stay here.

Croatia is now my home. I love it dearly and want to live here for the rest of my life. I came here as a tourist in 2011 and moved permanently in 2012. I did not know if I would succeed in staying in Croatia permanently, but I thought – “If I can’t make it work, I will consider my stay a long holiday, go back to the US, and start over.” Nevertheless, I succeeded.

I now have permanent residence which allows me to live here for the rest of my life. I am currently waiting for my request for Croatian citizenship to be confirmed. Patiently!

My first memories of coming to Croatia are all about the people. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the Croatian people. It was… Oh, I am getting emotional now, just thinking about those days. It was something I never experienced while growing up in Texas.

Back in the 1980s in Texas, I was told this all the time – “Be careful, people just want to harm you or hurt you, murder you, poison you. “ – I was told this all the time. But things are different here, the community is so warm and welcoming.

You do not need to know a person well to be able to ask them for help. Every single Croatian I’ve met during the past 11 years was kind and well-intentioned, without exception, and made me feel welcome. I have felt like a part of the community from the moment I came to Croatia even though I have no heritage. It feels like Croatia is the right place for me.

The whole story commenced with my plans to visit Italy for the first time. I was doing some research on the internet and came across a blog post written by an American couple. They wrote about their experience on a kayak trip from Opatija to Dubrovnik. They compared Italy to Croatia, which they found to be more beautiful. They said people were more friendly and more polite, that everything was cheaper (at the time), and that the food was more delicious. That was the first time I ever heard of Croatia. I did not even know there was a country named Croatia.

[Read: Enrich your life in Croatia: Get to know Croatians]

Ivan Kujundžić: Sara then changes her plan and, instead of going to Italy, she comes to Croatia. She spends 10 days in Zagreb, Split, Hvar, and Dubrovnik and enjoys it immensely. Eight months later, she decided to move here without any knowledge of the country. She simply came and said to herself, “I’ll figure it out somehow.” That is exactly what happened and it started with bureaucratic hurdles.

Sara Dyson: I had to go through a number of bureaucratic processes. So, I carefully recorded them, one by one, and published them on the internet in English. I wanted to help others, who would come after me and want to move to Croatia. So, I started a free blog, Expat in Croatia, which I wrote for 5 years. Then I turned it into a company which is now operational for five years. This year is the tenth anniversary of Expat in Croatia.

It only took me five days to register my company. It was really simple. Much simpler than it would have been in the States. Today, we are a team of eight young people. Soon we will hire two more candidates which we found through a recruitment process. And yes, we are doing very well.

Croatia is very popular, and we are the only company that provides these services here. We have built a small community, a mix of foreigners and Croatians. Everything we do, we do out of love for Croatia, and the people who have helped us throughout the years. We are very grateful for everything they’ve done. If we didn’t have such strong support, we wouldn’t be here today.

The people were always rooting for us to succeed because this is very hard work. It takes a lot of effort, but none of the members of my team mind it because they love what they do. They are mostly Croatians. Marija is my first employee who started working with me in 2019. Then there’s Teri, who is an American. We hired Lucija Perić from Sinj next.

We also have Steve, who was born in Belgium, but he is a descendant of Croatian emigrants. His grandfather is from an island near Šibenik. Our team members are also Lorena from Šibenik and Mirela from Sarajevo. Our new employees are CAM, a Croatian from Canada, who lives in Jaska with her family, and the two new additions. One of them is from Split and the other one is from Zagreb. We also have a Social Media Manager; she is a Canadian married to a Croatian.

Our clients are divided into three groups. We are currently working with foreigners who don’t have any connections with Croatia. They just want to come and live here. Some want to stay long-term, and some want to come for a certain period of time. Many of them come through the digital nomad program.

The second group is the Croatian diaspora who want to apply for Croatian citizenship, so we help them with that process. Some of them want to return to Croatia, so we educate them on all the details. We advise them on how to start their own business because that’s exactly what many of them want – to be independent.

The third group are Croatians from Croatia. Most often they have a friend who is a foreigner, or they are married to a non-Croatian citizen, and they are unsure of what needs to be done in order for them to get a permanent residence or citizenship, so we help them too.

[Read: Difference between getting a visa and a residence permit in Croatia]

I would say that at least half of the people who come to us are from America, for which there are several reasons. Apart from them, there are people from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. We also help many Europeans who want to move to Croatia. We help people from Africa and Asia as well, because of the digital nomad permit.

We have a large library with more than 600 guides. We have covered most of the bureaucratic processes thoroughly, but we also have guides on culture, language, and assimilation. Whoever needs help can contact us and we will help them with advice.

We conduct consulting sessions ‘one-on-one’, we diagnose their situation and lead them through the process or we connect them with professionals dealing with their kind of issues. We have an extensive network of professionals including lawyers, real estate agencies, translators, tax advisors, and accountants… so we connect them to the person they need.

We also have on-the-ground services. If somebody needs to find an apartment or needs someone to escort them to the HZZO to obtain health insurance or to find a medical general practitioner, we are here to help them do that.

Ivan Kujundžić: Apart from her numerous clients, the value of Sara’s work is recognized by local authorities employees who often show gratitude for her contribution.

Sara Dyson: I applied for Croatian citizenship 15 months ago. In accordance with Article 12, I must prove I bring a benefit to the country, which makes me very proud. If they approve my application, that will mean that Croatia believes I am worthy of becoming a Croatian citizen, not because I’m entitled to it.

When I went to MUP in Split, I had to write a statement. The lady working on my application said, “Sara, I was the one who received your first request for temporary residence 11 years ago.” I thought, wow, this has come full circle. She added,” We are all rooting for you. Your website has made our job much easier. When foreigners come to us, they are well informed and that helps us so much.”

Also, a person from the city of Trogir once called me with a question about the rights of foreigners with digital nomad permits. One MUP station shared a link to our guide. That means a lot to me because it’s usually the other way around – we are the ones sending people to them.

This really makes me happy, because we believed for years that MUP isn’t even aware of our existence. Now we know not only they know we exist, but they support our work. I can’t tell you how much that means to us.

Ivan Kujundžić: Many Croatians believe that life in the States is perfect, but Sara reassures them it is not so. She says that the perception of the wonderful life in America is the result of the Hollywood film industry which, in film and TV, emits an image that does not reflect real life.

Sara Dyson: I have friends and family in the States that I miss, but I never miss the States. I’ve never felt at home there. When I go and visit the States, I feel more and more like a foreigner, because Croatia is my home. Every time I have to leave Croatia to go somewhere, the moment I sit on the airport bus, I feel homesick. I love living here. This is where I want to be.

In America, life has many challenges which do not suit me. I don’t like to compare myself with people born and raised in Croatia. There were difficulties they had to face growing up here with which I cannot identify. Everything I’m telling you; I say from my own experience.

I have a friend from Split who moved to Great Britain and had to return home because of a family matter. She was very frustrated to be back living in Split. Once she had an opportunity to visit the United States exactly at the time I was there.

In her first week, she visited New York. She was overjoyed and said, “Sara, this is the best experience ever. I am so happy I came.” After that, she went to Pennsylvania and called me again. She said, “Sara, this America trip is so awesome, I am so happy I did it.” But, the third week she reached out again and was a lot less enthusiastic, “It’s really cool here, but I am ready to go home to Croatia.“ The fourth week, she called me from the airport, crying, “I want to go back to Croatia, Sara. I was sure you were exaggerating when you described America as a country with many imperfections. I can now tell, you were completely right.“ After her stay in America, she appreciates Croatia much more.

In Croatia, there are many things we don’t have in America, so many Americans want to move here because there they don’t have clean air, clean water, clean food… The culture there is completely different. They don’t have such a strong community, no safety.

In Texas, I don’t feel safe walking on the street during the day, but in Split, I can walk around at 4 in the morning with headphones on and not feel worried at all. I can leave my bag at the beach and go swimming, knowing that my bag will be at the exact spot where I left it.

When you live without these things, and then, suddenly, you have it… “Oh my god, I do not want to leave this place.“ But, if you’ve always had this, you are unaware of the fact that there are countries without it.

I am sure there are many things people who grew up in Croatia yearned for that were accessible to me. I didn’t appreciate those things especially while I was in America, but I value them more now. I cannot say I was privileged there – I wasn’t, as they say it, at the top of the food chain. I was born in a middle-class family and I can’t say I haven’t had many difficulties growing up, because I have. That made me become independent at a very early age, around the age of 6 I had to grow up.

Here, in Croatia, at least in the part of Croatia I live in, you live with your family until you get married and then move into a house you are given. In the USA, that is mostly not the case. I started working when I was 15 and have been paying my bills ever since.

When I moved out of my family home, my father said, “You can never move back home.“ I was forced to become independent, and if this sounds like I struggled, you are right. But that prepared me for coming here and living in a country I knew nothing about. Today, I am at a point where I am grateful for everything that brought me to this point.

Ivan Kujundžić: Walking through the beautiful nature of Hrastovačka gora, a group of conference participants, led by Branka Čubelić, a repatriate from Australia, stopped by a stream located just next to the country road. Sara was absolutely amazed. In the spring we found Branka and Antun Krešimir Buterin, the organizer of the G2 conference.

Sara Dyson: “What are they doing there?“ – “They are drinking water.” – “Really?!” – “Yes, this is a natural freshwater spring.” – “We were just talking about that, right?” – “Branka says you can keep this water in a bottle for over a year, and it will still taste the same.“ – “This water is delicious. You cannot find something like this in America. Drink water from the spring, just by the road. Maybe somewhere far away in nature. But I doubt you would find something like this, even there. In some areas of the USA, you must buy bottled water, because the tap water is yellow.”

Ivan Kujundžić: Sara is worried about the fact that more and more young people are leaving Croatia, who, unlike her, don’t recognize opportunities being offered here.

Sara Dyson: I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up here and feel like you don’t have options, no choices, to wonder how you are going to survive on your small income. I think it is important to say this, not to skip it, especially today when so many are considering leaving Croatia.

If you really feel like you need to go and see the world, you should do it. But, as an entrepreneur, I see so many opportunities in Croatia and I am so sad I am not able to clone myself and live a hundred lives so I could use all the options offered here.

You can create so much here; you don’t even need to come up with entirely new ideas. You can take an idea from another country and apply it here. There are so many things missing here. I think it is so much better for them to be realized by Croatian people, and not by some huge faceless corporations.

I know some foreigners who did not have original ideas, so they copied concepts from abroad, brought them here, and were very successful. With the option of paušalni obrt (craft business), it is very easy and simple to start your own business, with minimum investment. There is a lot offered through tenders and incentives. There are many groups for young entrepreneurs to join for people who are considering starting a business.

[Read: How to open and close an obrt in Croatia]

There are a lot of successful entrepreneurs, including me, who are always ready to help, offer advice, reply to an e-mail or a phone call, or go get a cup of coffee with someone interested in entrepreneurship. This is a special country, and I would be very sad to see young people leave it. There is so much to do here. The future of Croatia lies in the hands of young people. But, in order to stay here, Croatia must develop new industries.

When people ask me what’s my favorite thing about Croatia, I always say it’s the people and the community. That’s the most important thing for me. Most people will say that it is the sea. Yes, nature is magnificent. So many parts of Croatia are completely untouched by human hands. Some places I visited are so quiet.

There is a place in Pag, where I’ve been completely alone. I spent five hours walking and watching Velebit. The only sounds present were the sound of rocks crunching underneath my feet and occasional sheep in the distance, maybe the noise of a lizard crawling in the bushes. I felt the silence pulsing in my ears.

There are places here where you can be completely alone, places that restore you. But you will not find them on a crowded coast during the high season. I really feel a need to add some thoughts going through my head lately. During this year, I visited many places I hadn’t been to before.

I think we all have an unnecessary habit of saying Croatia is a small, tiny country. But it is not. If you compare Croatia with some larger countries, sure, it is small… The total terrestrial area is smaller, and the number of inhabitants is less. But Croatia is so diverse when it comes to language, culture, tradition, landscapes, food, and people.

My travels through different areas of the country were absolutely transformative for me. Watching all that diversity, I said – “This is the same country, I’ve been driving for only four hours and I find myself in a completely different Croatia.“ As if I fell into a form of alternative reality dimension.

Being here, in Sisak, I’ve discovered an entirely new face of Croatia which made me appreciate it even more. I attended the G2 Conference for the first time. I have been to a number of conferences in the last couple of years, across Croatia. I have to say this one is one of my favorites, maybe even my favorite one. I am fascinated with all the speakers and the contents. It was substantial regarding discovering possibilities offered through a wide range of industries.

Ok, if you have millions of dollars, you can build a commercial port. But if you don’t have that much money, you have the opportunity to work in the computer game industry, which is going through a huge growth in Novska at the moment. That fact blew my mind.

Let me tell you more. At the conference, I met a woman who was born in Kaštel Novi. I asked her what she does for a living and where she lives. She told me she lived in Zagreb and that she was in the video games business. She attended a school for game producers in Novska and gained the necessary knowledge to develop her business to a higher level. She told me that, if that opportunity hadn’t presented itself, she would have left Croatia for sure. Now she can stay here because she has all the resources necessary for her to do what she loves. I think this is a classic example that proves that, if provided the resources, young people will stay here.

I was in a state of positive shock when I found out that Novska offers different incentives and that a campus is being built where they will conduct workshops and training. This is a whole new industry that Croatia very much needs because tourism cannot be the only industry Croatia counts on.

Almost all the speakers spoke of hundreds of ways for Croatia to transform existing industries and strengthen its economy. At this moment, it is of utmost importance that the United States ratify the double taxation agreement with Croatia as soon as possible. The fact is that the USA and Australia don’t have such an agreement with Croatia even though the majority of Croatian emigrants live in those countries. That would initiate big investments.

I will be here, no matter what happens, even though I also pay taxes in the United States on income that my company in Croatia generates. I am personally harmed by these circumstances, and I find it to be sad that Croatia still has to wait for the decision of the American Senate. I am aware of the political situation in the United States, and I understand that this agreement is not very high on their priority list. Maybe we will have to wait for ratification for the next ten years. If that happens, many entrepreneurs will suffer great losses.

Ivan Kujundžić: To make it possible for Croatia to move forward, as Sara says, it is necessary to eradicate the pessimism that is deep in the core of many Croatians. We need to work on the change of mentality and encourage young people to have the courage to open their own companies. That would create an optimistic entrepreneurial climate.

Sara Dyson: Croatia is more popular than ever. We, in our company, know this very well because we are fighting on the front line. We hear from many foreigners who want to come to Croatia. They visit our website and it is clear that there is a huge wave of interest in Croatia. It would be tragic for young people to leave the country and leave it up to foreigners.

I am a huge fan of Croatia. I want the Croatians to live in Croatia, to love it, take care of it, and invest in it. That’s what we do. However, if there won’t be anyone to work there and start businesses, that void will be filled otherwise. Foreigners are most likely to come, although the immigration system is very restrictive. It is hostile towards non-EU citizens, and I think that will harm Croatia eventually.

If foreigners are prevented from opening their own companies, and at the same instant there are no young people to continue their parents’ business tradition, everything will fall apart. But Croatia has been the center of attention for many years now, it is on the world’s radar. Croatia has so many untapped resources and unused talents, and someone will have to grab them. You should do that before someone else does.

I am a very optimistic person with big wishes. I know not everybody’s like me. I encourage everybody to grab a hold of something and try it. If they do not succeed in their endeavors, it is not a tragedy. We all make mistakes, that is inevitable. But you have to pick up and keep moving. Maybe put your efforts elsewhere, until you find the thing that works for you.

I had a lot of people tell me, “Oh, you won’t succeed, don’t even go there.” Other entrepreneurs, I know, were told the same thing. “Don’t start that business, you will fail.” You mustn’t let those pessimistic thoughts enter your mind. Move forward and make your ideas happen. If you persistently do what you like, and you do it the right way, you will conquer the world.

There is so much information available online and you don’t have to go abroad to learn something. There are also many resources in Croatia, such as Pisak. It is a business incubator started by Matt Sertić. It is a perfect example. I visited their website a few months ago and learned about many workshops they have there, and I thought, “Oh, I want to attend some of those workshops too. I want to upgrade my knowledge. I don’t know it all, I want to learn.”

Those programs are available to you too, you just have to look. Don’t expect opportunities to come knocking on your door. “Hey, here I am, I’m here for you.” You must create your own opportunities. You have to go out there and find them. There are many business communities in Croatia, who will support you. Seek them out.

View more interviews with Sara Dyson

  • Dalmacija Danas – April 2022 – read in Croatian here and English here
  • Večernji list – December 2021 – read in Croatian here and English here
  • Slobodna Dalmacija – October 2021 – read in Croatian here and English here
  • Flavor of Croatia – July 2021 – listen to the podcast here

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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