Learned from Volunteer Work with Croatian and Bosnian Refugees
The lessons learned are from a personal journey of one mans
effort into humanitarian relief work during and after the
conflict in the former Yugoslavia. He became involved and
volunteered his services to a Croatian founded humanitarian
organization that provides psychosocial services to refugees
and displaced people. New relationships developed from interaction
with national-international volunteers, networking with
other organizations, writing of a policy-program manual,
working in refugee camps, and follow up with refugees who
have resettled into another country or returned to their
homeland after the war. The experience is from seven years
and thirteen trips to Bosnia and Croatia. Well-meaning foreigners
often have their own agenda which may or may not be beneficial.
Clear guidelines are needed for international aid. Persons
in turmoil will need assistance and communities fragmented
by conflicts will need community building strategies. Charity
must be temporary and come ladened with kindness, dignity,
and the philosophy of empowerment for self help and independence.
I will share some
of my observations on community building in the Bosnian refugee
camps and the effects of intervention by non-governmental
agencies on the Croatian-Bosnian people. I first came to Croatia
in 1990 and I was greatly impressed with the beauty of the
country and the kindness of the people. Little did I know
that my life and theirs would become tied by the unfolding
tragedy of war. My second trip in 1992 was at the height of
the War. I traveled to Pula, went to a refugee camp there
and met with the staff of Suncokret, a grassroots organization
providing psycho-social programs for the people living in
Suncokret is a
volunteer organization founded by Croatians in response to
the social changes occurring in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina
and to the devastating effects of the war on children and
families. The first response was without long-range goals,
written plans, or financial assistance. The organization was
initially staffed by local volunteers. They provided the program
and staff to work with the refugees and displaced children
living within the centers. International volunteers were brought
in as the work grew. Eventually, international volunteers
would find themselves diligently working in 22 different camps.
The Suncokret staff provided the best professional service
they could without any structured guidelines and usually under
emergency conditions. It is a model of what committed, caring,
local people can do to make a difference in the midst of turmoil
I became very
interested with the work of Suncokret and kept in touch with
the administration. I returned a few months later to attend
another post-graduate IUC course. I had made the decision
to meet with the Suncokret staff and offer my services as
a volunteer. This decision was not well received by everyone.
One Croatian woman voiced opposition to yet another foreign
volunteer coming in to her country, putting themself at risk,
and attempting to work with a population they did
and, perhaps, had yet to learn to appreciate. I did not grasp
her reaction; I had the time, talent and experience with people,
all freely offered. I could not understand her resentment
towards my good intentions. With time, all would become clear.
me to go to Bosnia-Herzegovina to work at a camp, which was
managed by the local Red Cross in Posusje. The camp housed
450 Croatian refugees from Novi Travnik. The camp was near
the center of the city in an abandoned school which only had
plastic on the windows, no heat, and no kitchen facilities
(a field stove was used for cooking). The bathrooms were portable
and outside. The conditions were bad and help was sorely needed.
I went off to the camp with no orientation or training or
language skills. I had no idea what to expect or what to do
I was met by the
Suncokret director, a 20 year old Croatian woman, and shown
the meager supplies. I also met Josef, a young soldier who
would become my translator and friend. The conditions in the
camp were worse than I could have imagined. There was trash
and garbage everywhere, from the entrance gate to around all
the buildings. The facility was in need of cleaning but water
was rare and available sporadically, the food insubstantial
and foul tasting. Some of the children went to the school
in the local community. They were not well-received and often
the local children threw rocks at the refugee children, adding
to their already poor self-esteem and anger. The local population
thought camp children brought vermin into the school. There
was also an active war going on between the Muslims and Croatians
in Mostar, a nearby city. The Muslims from the camp had been
evacuated to Italy for safe keeping.
The children in
the camp were an undisciplined, hyperactive group of youngsters.
Most of them were in the care of their mothers as most fathers
were either dead, fighting, or POWs. The mothers wanted to
help their children, but they had also been traumatized by
the war. Without any outside help, many mothers had a difficult
time meeting the needs of their families. These were displaced
people. Everything had been taken from them, and the children
would try to replenish the void with anything they could get
their hands on. Our supplies would often vanish in a day.
It is hard to
describe how utterly dependent everyone, children and adults
alike, was on the humanitarian aid. The adults and parents
had no way of fulfilling their roles. They had nothing to
offer their children. Humanitarian agencies had assumed the
role of breadwinner and more often than not, parent. Everything,
from food, clothing and utensils to personal items, was handed
out without respect or dignity. Camp people waited in line
for every item. There never seemed to be enough to go around.
Adults and children took what they could, hoarded what they
received, and often they went to bed hungry.
It was not long
before I realized that working with just the children was
ineffective. As volunteers, there were other areas and methods
of directing our energies that would be much more productive--we
needed to help the adults/parents. They in turn would help
their children. By directing our energies and resources towards
the parents, we could help them build a community. Raising
children is a community effort; the children would be the
beneficiaries of the community.
The camp was made
up of people all from the same village. They had been relocated
together in the village of Posusje. It could be a community
within a larger community. There was very little interaction
between the local community people and the refugees; there
was an abundance of ill will. To break down some of the animosity,
we decided to remove the camp eyesore and clean up the grounds.
We organized the teenagers into a clean-up detail. We started
first at the camp entrance and we removed all the trash and
garbage. After that we continued on throughout the entire
camp. At first the kids and adults questioned, why? But it
quickly became contagious as adults came to watch, help, and
to offer support. Slowly a semblance of pride came about.
One of the older men in the camp thanked us for teaching the
young people to work. Also, the local people noticed the difference
in the camp appearance. It was a start.
The next hurdle
was integration with the town people. We had brought some
soccer balls with us and took the camp children in to play
at the town field. During the afternoon, one by one, town
children would ask to play. We encouraged them. Everyday we
went into town, and soon we had ball teams--integrated teams.
We played every day, and on Sundays we invited them to come
to the camp and play in our courtyard. The town children and
their parents were able to see the camp and came to realize
that the refugees were people--just like them. Circumstances
had forced the refugees to make unfortunate choices; it could
have been anyone, even them.
Every two days
we had camp clean-up, and soon the few men living in the camp
joined in and helped. The days were long and there was not
much to do. In the evening the men played cards, sang songs,
and told stories; sometimes money would be collected and a
bottle of loza would be bought. It gave us a moments
This was October;
winter would be coming shortly after All Souls Day.
The people in the camp were Catholics, but the local priest
had told them they were not allowed to attend Mass in his
church. He did not want them infecting his parishioners, due
to the fact that many of the refugees had chronic coughs and
colds. This was another blow to their already low self-esteem
but was made more painful because of the source of the insult.
I asked the camp administration what was usually done to observe
All Souls Day, a day of remembrance to the dead. The
custom was to light specially colored candles for the dead.
Everyone in the camp had been affected by recent deaths due
to the war, so I went to town along with some of my refugee
friends to purchase the candles, but candles could only be
bought at the church. There we were told that there were only
candles for the town people--not enough for the camp Catholics.
We then bought every scrap of white wax and white candles
we could find, plus some bees wax to melt down. We melted
crayons from the art supplies, and filled up paper cups the
camp director had found. With the help of the children, we
made our own candles . . . one red, white and blue candle
for every person in the camp. Custom and national pride still
prevailed. It was very important to the camp residents that
the candles be made in the national colors. The adults were
caught up in the enthusiasm and set up a chapel of sorts.
They made an altar and cross, complete with a paper mache
corpus. They planned the program, songs, and chose the scriptures
to be read. The camp joined together to partake in a beautiful
ceremony to honor their dead. It was all done without aid
from the church or the outside community. The community came
from within. This is just a small example of what can be done
by empowering people to take initiative for themselves. Too
many humanitarian organizations come into the camps and take
over activities and therefore create dependency.
There were many
international volunteers. Many were outstanding men and women,
some trained, some not. There were also some regrettable ones.
One of my first encounters with international volunteers came
when we received word that two men from England and a woman
from Finland would be arriving. Eagerly we went to meet them
at the bus station and walk them to camp. The men were in
their 30s; on the way to the camp they became loud and boisterous,
asking to see the war zone and creating a disturbance. It
was obvious that neither of them had any orientation whatsoever.
They saw themselves as saviors to the people and war-time
tourists. I was embarrassed and tried to make it appear that
I was not in their group by walking behind them.
The men found
fault with everyone in the camp and had great difficulty integrating
themselves with the refugees, but the Finnish woman excelled.
Together with some of the adult women she helped set up and
run a family clinic. She did an outstanding job of pooling
what limited resources there were at hand and accomplished
the improbable. She was well respected and empowered the women
to achieve success by helping refugees to manage the clinic
Early on it became
evident that the English men would need close supervision.
The camp director asked me to watch over them. This would
become crucial in the next few days. The lines of fighting
had changed and soon helicopters and soldiers filled the town
square. Instead of remaining quiet and out of sight as they
had been asked to do, the two British volunteers grabbed their
cameras and took pictures of the helicopters landing. They
were immediately arrested and jailed. It took us over 12 hours
to locate the men. In the meantime, all volunteer belongings
were searched as well as our sleeping space. Eventually the
men were released and expelled from the country. What for
them was an adventure had put everyone at the camp in harms
Because of this
incident, Suncokret decided not to place any more foreign
volunteers at this camp and all foreign volunteers had to
leave. All support was withdrawn just when we were making
some progress, and the refugees were starting to build their
community. The adults were capable; they did not need us to
run things. But, they needed our friendship, they needed to
know someone cared. It was a very sad day when we all left.
I promised to return, but most doubted my word. So many had
said that would return but never did.
When I left Bosnia-Herzegovina,
I returned to Zagrab to meet with the Directors of Suncokret
and share my experiences. I was adamant that if volunteers
were going to be used there must be an orientation session,
probationary period, clear guidelines, and training. Suncokret
needed a policy manual. I would return many times to Croatia,
visiting all the camps, meeting with staff and volunteers,
interviewing refugees. The end result was a policy manual
for Suncokret that included guidelines not only for recruiting
and training volunteers but for establishing camp programs
and community integration. The mission of Suncokret was defined
with clear goals and expectations: to
train volunteers to
help, not rescue; to empower, not foster dependency; to offer
friendship and support; to care.
There were many
international agencies operating in Bosnia and Croatia at
this time, all with money and much of it wasted. A colleague
of mine from America is an example. She was deeply moved by
what she saw during the war and wanted desperately to help.
She returned to the United States and wrote a grant for $120,000
dollars to set up a workshop on conflict resolution. She was
awarded the grant and came to Croatia with a team of ten people.
They stayed for several weeks, gave their workshop, made a
video presentation, and renovated an old building to be used
as a teen center. They never asked if this was the best use
for the building or their time and money, they never trained
local people to be trainers in conflict resolution so as to
continue the training, nor did they ever train anyone in teen
leadership to keep the teen center operating. They left nothing
lasting behind. It was all for naught, and yet their intentions
were good. Aid becomes more detrimental than beneficial and
is a complete waste of funds without criteria for administering
aid and without clear-cut identification of the needs by the
I returned to
Posusje nine months after I left. It was a bittersweet reunion.
The conflicts had not lessened nor had the conditions improved
for the refugees and displaced people in the camp. All the
same people were still there. A few of the old people had
died; they had braved one terrible winter, and were preparing
for the next. All the programs for the children and adults
had been abandoned. The elders and adults were in despair.
All they wanted to do was return to their home village--Novi
Travik. I asked to see an elderly gentleman who had befriended
me on my prior trip. I was told he had passed away. He had
often told me that his greatest desire was to return to his
homeland. The camp management wanted to bury him near the
refugee camp but the other refugees knew of his desire to
go home. The refugees had very little money, but they pooled
it together and hired a taxi to take Ante, dressed in his
best suit, to Novi Travnik for burial, in a town controlled
by the opposition--an amazing act of charity in such difficult
I had arrived
in December shortly before Christmas. There would be little
comfort this holiday season. I asked the camp director if
I could help the adults organize something for Christmas to
perhaps alleviate some of the despair. The camp management
agreed. Two Croatian volunteers and I set to work. Our goal
was to empower the adults in whatever way we could, so that
they would feel more in control of their lives. We talked
to the parents to find out what they would like to do for
the holiday. Their concern was not having something to give
to their children, so we acquired supplies for them to make
toys and decorations. Next we scraped up enough materials
for them to plan a Christmas program and build another chapel.
One of the Croatian volunteers went to the town church to
talk to the new priest; he was a much younger man, a former
POW and he joined in with enthusiasm and heart. Eventually,
some of the towns people heard about the plans and they joined
in the project. The camp had a Christmas, the parents had
worked hard in order to have something to give their children,
everyone took part in a joyous celebration of the meaning
of Christmas. The community had found its humanity. Many of
the community people attend the Mass and celebration in the
camp; they brought food, not as a handout but to share. It
was a happy time but also filled with tears. It is amazing
what a little friendship can do to encourage people to take
Soon after, the
war between the Muslims and the Croatians ended. Their formerly
Croatian town now had a Muslim mayor. One of the refugees
contacted the mayor and took a video tape of the camp and
the people to show him. After seeing the video, the mayor
went to the camp to see the conditions first hand. What he
saw touched him deeply and he said, "These are our people,
they should be allowed to return."
The Red Cross
and USAid were contacted and agreed to renovate some old apartment
buildings in Novi Travnik for the camp residents. Once the
renovations were completed the people were moved back home.
No further assistance or follow-up was given. After two and
a half years of living in the camp they were left in Novi
Travnik without food, water, or jobs and without any assistance.
The results were devastating. One woman told me, "Even
though the conditions were miserable in the camp, at least
we could feed our children." They were not asking for
hand-outs; they wanted jobs, some way of supporting their
families. Unfortunately, the only thing we could do was to
contact humanitarian aid agencies and ask them to bring in
food and medical supplies, thereby perpetuating dependency.
In 1997, the executive
director of Suncokret asked me if I would like to accompany
him on a visit to the camp in Gasinci. This camp was different
from the others. It was a former military camp and was used
as a transition camp. The maximum capacity was about 2,000
refugees. It was now holding
6,000 men, women, and children.
The majority of this group were from the town of Velika Kladusa.
Most people had lived in an illegal camp inside the Croatian
border for over a year before they were given refugee status.
Originally there were 25,000 people, before they were dispersed
throughout the refugee camps or forcibly returned to Bosnia.
Gasinci housed 4,000 of these refugees. These refugees were
caught in a trap; they could no longer return to Bosnia nor
could they legally stay in Croatia. Immigration was their
only option. Australia, Canada, and the United States were
the most sought after locations.
I met with a father,
mother, three sons, two daughters, a son-in-law, and grandchildren
who wanted to go to Australia. We talked about their expectations
and hopes for the future; they shared their coffee with me
and told stories about the past. I was very moved by what
I heard. They asked me if I would come back and teach them
English. This was a request that I would hear over and over
that day. There were no volunteers available, so I volunteered
Two days later,
I was settled into my hut and teaching English from 8:00 a.m.
until 11:00 at night. The more I taught, the more I learned.
I was concerned about the traumatic effects of immigration.
It is never easy to leave your world behind. They were doubly
vulnerable, with the added trauma of war, and I was deeply
concerned about their future. I introduced culture along with
language classes. I tried to give them an idea of what to
expect in their new country; at the same time I encouraged
them to remember their culture. Immigrants have to be strong.
I admonished them to have pride in their county, culture,
and identity; never to forget from where they came; and to
remember with pride, not shame.
My language classes
for the young people also included cultural awareness but
were geared for their age group. They would be faced with
many new opportunities and choices. The potential was great
but so were the pitfalls. We discussed the different customs
of young people in other countries and the effects of relocation
at this time of their lives. Again, I reminded them that you
can give up what you have for something new without giving
up who you are.
Of the original
25,000, there are 3,000 people left in the camp today. Many
have relocated to new countries. Over 1,500 camp residents
are living in San Francisco, California. I live near there
and am in contact with many of them. Now, we are able to offer
our support in the U.S.. The immigrants are doing well, are
diligent about finding jobs, and are hard working once employed.
They are not seeking hand-outs; financial assistance was needed
in the beginning, but that was only the beginning. Their enthusiasm
is contagious and uplifting. The families are being taken
care of, the children are in school, and they are all eagerly
meeting the new challenges and opportunities. These people
are working very hard to achieve the American dream. The thing
I am most concerned about is that there are no programs to
assist them to deal with the past traumas of separations,
torture, war, and loss.
I have traveled,
over the last seven years, to many areas of the countryside.
I have met many wonderful people successfully doing impossible
jobs, and I have spent many hours with different humanitarian
aid organizations. Some of them were doing an outstanding
job, helping people with dignity, as they themselves would
want to be treated. But, there were others who created dependency
and unfulfilled promises by giving hand-outs rather than by
offering empowerment. Some have said that Bosnia and Croatia
are employment opportunities for foreign humanitarian agencies.
After seven years,
I have realized that well-meaning foreigners with their own
agenda are not beneficial. Clear guidelines are needed for
international aid organizations going into foreign countries.
All people living in a country in turmoil will need assistance,
and communities fragmented by conflicts will need community
building strategies. But charity must be temporary and come
ladened with kindness, dignity, and the philosophy of empowerment.
for Suncokret provide a possible set of guidelines:
1. To promote
a safe and predictable environment with the highest degree
of normality as possible. In the midst of chaos, aid-giving
agencies do not need to add to the chaos.
2. To promote
learning and development of skills and abilities. To
give people the opportunity to use their existing skills
and develop new competencies so as to maintain their role
as useful adult citizens.
3. To promote
active coping strategies and self-help initiatives.
To improve the quality of life for the people by empowering
them to take as much control as possible over their lives.
4. To promote
integration between refugees and/or displaced communities
communities. Humanitarian organizations can
provide the link between the two communities by showing
the common experiences and problems faced by both groups.
5. To endeavor
to treat all people with respect and dignity, recognizing
their individual worth and respecting family networks.
Agencies should reinforce family structures and roles, not
undermine them. They can aid the parents in taking care
of their children--rather than taking the caring or authority
away from the parents.
and develop social awareness and social action to actively
contribute to the transformation to a civil society.
Agencies have a responsibility to promote rights and responsibilities
associated with active citizenship and to the non-violent
resolution of conflicts.
and train staff to respond in adequate ways to the people
in crisis. Enable individual or families access to outside
Organizations (NGOs) are much needed assets. With proper procedures
and guidelines their potential for lasting benefits will be
Many of the humanitarian
aid organizations that served Bosnia and Croatia are mandating
that operations there close down because there is no longer
active war. This leaves thousands and thousands of people
without services to assist them in rebuilding their lives.
Projects were started and money spent without long-range goals,
timelines, and mechanisms to keep the programs on-going. When
the money runs out, the staff leave and refugees are left
with empty promises from well-intentioned foreigners. Everyone
becomes frustrated and disappointed. With proper planning
and training this could have been avoided.
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