Hrishabh Sandilya: From running Prague bars to aiding refugees in Cyprus

Hrishabh Sandilya

Cyprus-based Hrishabh Sandilya helps run an NGO named Project Phoenix, which tries to boost migrants’ chances of finding success in their new countries. But prior to that Sandilya, who is from India, lived for several years in Prague, where he worked alternately in education and on the city’s vibrant night-life scene. To find out how he made that unusual journey, I spoke to him when he was in the Czech capital recently.

“I was raised in Bombay in India. I lived there till I was 20 and then moved to Europe.

“I ended up doing an internship in the region and decided to stay.”

Why this region?

“I guess I wanted something different.

“When I finished college in Bombay I was looking for an internship through an organisation called AISEC, and one of the things that came up was an internship in Poland, in Poznan, for about five months.

“I really enjoyed my time there and I was looking to stick around.

“It was hard as an Indian without a valid reason, so studying further was the only option.

“People in Prague have a well-deserved reputation for being not so welcoming and hostile. To be honest, I’ve seen them be that way to most people.”

“And I think Charles University which was the only university in the region which had programmes in English, so that’s how, by a quirk of fate, I landed up in Prague.”

What did you study here?

“I studied International Relations, or International Economic and Political Studies, for my master’s, and then I stuck around and did a PhD in politics also, at Charles.”

You were also teaching here, is that right?

“I was teaching at the Anglo-American University for a bit and also at Charles for a bit.”

Did you also run a bar? We met a few years ago, and somehow this stayed in my mind.

“Yes. I’d like to say that throughout that period in higher education I wasn’t just teaching, I was also working in administration.

“I would say more of my work was in the admin part than it was in the actual teaching part.

“And I kind of led a concurrent, sort of second life as an alter ego, where I had always been involved in the cultural scene in Prague.

“That started off with actually bartending and managing a few of the expat bars, when I first got here, in my first two years here.

Náplavka | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“I worked at Fat Boy’s and Café de Brug, which both don’t exist anymore.

“Then I ended up sort of branching into the more Czech cultural life rather than the expat one.

“That was basically getting more involved in events, music, running a couple of parties at Náplavka, by the river, before it became popular, in 2010 and 2011.

“I had a sausage stand. I was also quite involved with the house music scene here for a long time.

“We had a regular night at Akropolis and played a lot at Roxy.

“Then eventually, in 2015, I felt that I needed a break from this academic life, from this education work, and I decided to go into running a bar full-time.

“I did for two years – it was a café-bar in Malá Strana that was built into the back of the Anglo-American University building.

“I enjoyed that. It was a fun two years but it also reminded me, after those two years, why I had left it in the first place.

“And then it was time to go back into reality and go back into more professional work.”

I have to ask you – did you ever experience racism here?

“By the time I became a Czech citizen I had three Indian passport booklets stapled together, filled with visas.”

“If you asked me if I experienced direct racism, where someone came up to me and said something because of my skin colour, or acted in a certain way, I’m probably going to say no.

“Did I experience more subtle hints? Yes, of course.

“Do I necessarily put that down to my skin colour? It’s hard to say.

“I think people in Prague have a well-deserved reputation for being not so welcoming and hostile. And to be honest, I’ve seen them be that way to most people.

“But if I have to really had to make a choice and say, I’d say yes, I did experience a fair amount of subtle references to where I was from, questioning of my abilities in some ways.

“So yes, subtle xenophobia – that’s definitely around.”

What led you to become a Czech citizen?

“I’d lived here for 12 years and I spoke Czech.

“There was the fact that I truly identified with the European project.

“So for me it was not so much about becoming a Czech citizen as it was about becoming a European citizen.

“And also a very practical aspect of that was the fact that I was an Indian citizen and by the time I became a Czech citizen I had three Indian passport booklets stapled together, filled with visas.

“Travelling as an Indian citizen was getting increasingly difficult, so from a practical perspective it made much more sense to become a Czech citizen.

“And of course the belief in the fact that Europe is something you want to aspire towards – and that perhaps maybe I wanted to move within Europe, after I had become a citizen.”

What led you to go from your life in Prague running bars and working in academia and to change all of that and move to Cyprus and co-found an NGO?

“I guess it was in my early thirties when I sort of had a one-third life crisis as to what I was doing.

“In some ways I felt that I had done what I could, or what I wanted to do in the Czech Republic and Prague.

“I had come and finished my professional and academic work, I had had fun and the entertainment of having a business, and it was time to find something that I thought was more purposeful to my own being.

“It was a bit of a convoluted journey.

“I guess it was in my early thirties when I sort of had a one-third life crisis as to what I was doing.”

“I spent some time in Armenia and then went back to school in Sweden.

“I lived in the south of Sweden and did a master’s in Sustainability and Systems Change and Personal Leadership.

“At that stage I reconnected with an old friend from Prague who was in the process of setting up this NGO that worked to empower refugees and migrants.

“And Cyprus had been chosen as the place to pilot this and I decided to join him as co-founder and move there.

“It was just a spur of the moment decision, and I’m happy I made it.”

Perhaps this is a naive question, but why Cyprus? Why is Cyprus a good base for this kind of organisation?

“We’re in the midst of, I don’t want to say a European migration crisis, but I am saying we are in the midst of a very serious situation with migration in Europe.

“A lot of the focus is on Greece and Italy and Malta, which tend to be the more recognised routes of incoming migration from the Sahel and from the Middle East.

“And people forget about Cyprus. Cyprus is interesting because it has the longest, most permeable, open… I don’t even want to call it a border, I’ll say ‘border’ in quotation marks, the Green Line, with the Turkish, or the northern, side of Cyprus; the official title would be the occupied part of Cyprus.

Illustrative photo: Štěpán Macháček,  Czech Radio

“This has allowed people to cross over quite easily.

“It’s also very close to Lebanon and Syria. At its closest point you’re less than 100 kilometres from the Lebanese border, so boats can come across quite easily.

“It’s quite interesting, because there are a fair share of people who have moved there.

“A lot of people forget about Cyprus and we thought that this was the perfect space to begin this kind of work, simply because it’s not really looked at.

“And there are opportunities. There’s a lot of potential there.

“I think Cypriots are quite well-educated; there’s a lot of human potential and resources there to actually work and experiment with this kind of social innovation.”

From what I’ve been reading, Project Phoenix identifies talented and motivated migrants. Are we talking about legal or illegal migrants here?

“I prefer to not draw that black-and-white line between legal and illegal.

“Basically we work with refugees and asylum seekers.

“Most refugees and asylum seekers have entered irregularly, if that’s the question we’re asking, whether they have come by boat, or flown into Cyprus, into the north, and then crossed the border.

“I think migrants all leave because they’re stuck, and there’s either a lack of opportunity where they are, or they’re forced out.”

“Once they reach the Republic of Cyprus, which is the Greek side, they apply for asylum, under the Dublin Convention and EU law.

“Then it takes three to five years for their cases to be heard.

“In this time they are either asylum seekers or recognised refugees. We work with both.

“With the recognised refugees, they have permission, they have been granted international protection status and have legal rights that most Cypriots do and they can actually set up a business and work – there are no restrictions.

“The asylum seekers whose cases have not been heard are allowed to work in very few, restricted areas.

“These are mostly menial, low-skilled jobs, because the government doesn’t want to open up the sectors.

“With them we do more work around language skills, training and development – because we can’t help them set up businesses, that would be illegal.

“But with the refugees who are recognised we do help them set up businesses.

“We mentor them, we provide them with loans, we connect them to networks within the societies that they’re in, to basically empower them.”

How do you select the people who you work with?

“So far, because we’ve been running as a pilot, it’s been quite small.

“And most of the people we work with right now have come through references.

Illustrative photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“We have quite a strong network on the ground. One of our key partners is Charitas, which is the largest humanitarian NGO in Cyprus.

“So we work very closely with them and they’ve actually recommended quite a few of our fellows.

“And similarly the others have also come through recommendations.

“Unfortunately we have very limited funding, so we’re not able to really scale up. That’s also been one of our big struggles – the lack of funding.

“So we work with a smaller group of people.”

How do you find them as people? Are they desperate? What state are they in? Because I imagine they must be under a lot of pressure, especially those with families.

“Yes. I don’t think anyone leaves because they just want to leave.

“I think this is the misconception that we have in Europe – that everyone just wants to leave and come here.

“I think they all leave because they’re stuck, and there’s either a lack of opportunity where they are, or they’re forced out.

“So it’s a hugely pressured situation.

“We do work with different kinds.

“We’ve done a lot of work with Syrians, especially the Syrians who are in Cyprus now: They’ve been through eight or nine years of conflict, they come with a lot of PTSD.

“I think it’s incumbent on me, as a migrant, to do this for other migrants.”

“Unfortunately we don’t have the capabilities to work with people with PTSD, but we do connect them to psychologists and people who can provide support.

“The others we work with… yes, there’s a lot of stress on them.

“I find these people to be honest, I find them to be kind, I find them to be polite.

“I find them to be very inspiring in certain cases – the fact that they can pick up their lives in a new country, starting from scratch.

“I understand the enormous privilege I had coming as a migrant, with parents who were relatively well off and coming on a legal student visa.

“And seeing all that, versus them coming with nothing, being in camps when they arrive first, rebuilding their lives, rebuilding their communities – I find that inspiring.

“In some ways I feel it’s important to try and help them to get on with their lives and rebuild.

“If we don’t do that, then what kind of humans are we?”

How much do you think the work you do is informed by your experience as a migrant?

“I’d say quite a bit, in some ways.

“I think I lived experience is very key.

“I came here in 2004. There were less than 1,000 or 1,500 Indians in the entire country at that time; it’s changed so much in the last 17 years.

“I remember standing in the immigration line at the Foreign Police in 2005 or 2006, at Olšanská, and I remember the cops coming in.

“The line was getting a little crazy and you had all these fixers having people jump in [ahead of others who had queued] – and the cops came in and started beating with sticks.

“I was in this line and I’m saying, Why am I here in this country, spending my parents’ hard-earned money to get beaten in line for renewing my student visa?

“That’s how bad it was. This is an example, of course it wasn’t always that bad, but that was something that really struck me.

“So I feel like if I could have had that experience, imagine what people who don’t come legally have to go through.

“Also I feel like there’s been a lot of positives.

“I’ve had Czechs, I’ve had people in Europe, help me and support me.

“They have really help me start my life from scratch.

“So I think it’s incumbent on me, as a migrant, to do this for other migrants.

“Especially in such a highly politicised environment, where, you know, migrants are treated as the worst kind of scum.”