table of contents | abstracts


Lessons Learned from Volunteer Work with Croatian and Bosnian Refugees

Robert P. Conte


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 collective centers.

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 and chaos.

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


not know 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.

Suncokret asked 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 specifically.

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 moment’s warmth.

This was October; winter would be coming shortly after All Soul’s 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 Soul’s 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 bee’s 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 themselves.

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 harm’s way.

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 receiving county.

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 times.

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 initiative.

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 my services.

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.

The objectives 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 and local


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.

6. Promote 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.

7. Educate and train staff to respond in adequate ways to the people in crisis. Enable individual or families access to outside professional services.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are much needed assets. With proper procedures and guidelines their potential for lasting benefits will be immeasurable.

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.


Back to Top
Next Article

Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.

2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice