Updates from Serbia - January, 2010
By Alex Rafter
Our trip to Nis began just as our journey to Novi Sad had: a van ride through the Serbian landscape, our minds creating fantasies of the coming months as the countryside rolled by the windows. This time, however, a few things were different. We were driving south, past Belgrade for the first time, to a new part of Serbia that at times can feel worlds away from the autonomous northern province of Vojvodina which we called home for four months. The six of us (five students and Ceca, our program leader) now know our van driver, Goran, by name, and we have successfully survived four months in Serbia. The departure from Novi Sad was tough, but was made easier for all of us knowing that we were entering this new phase of our experience with people to whom we had grown so close. Ceca was our anchor, as strong as ever, conjuring up excitement for the months to come.
From the moment Goran’s van pulled into our new city, the excitement of this place struck all of us. The mountainous landscape is awe-inspiring, and the realization that we have four more months to live and absorb amazing experiences like the ones we all had in Novi Sad is both mind-boggling and invigorating. Finally, seeing the city was a reminder of what we were looking for when we first departed on this journey: challenging and exciting new experiences unlike those we had ever had.
Upon our arrival in Nis, we had an orientation reminiscent of the one we’d had in Novi Sad just four short months before; a chance for us to get our footing and experience our new home before moving in with our new families. We were immediately welcomed into the city by Suzana, our home-stay coordinator, and Tamara and Milena, her friends and colleagues. The three women each offer a different, yet fascinating perspective of Nis. They made us feel welcome and were kind enough to spend their time to take us around, cramming as much history and trivia about Nis as possible into our time together. Immediately, we had a new network -- a support system that made us feel at home. The reassuring presence of these three wonderful hosts will, happily, remain with us during our stay. They introduced the girls to a regular Pilates class, join us for the occasional coffee, and even host pizza and movie nights when we can all get together.
During the orientation, we spent most of our time traversing Nis, both on foot and with the aid of the bus system, to help us “get personal” with the city. We spent time scoping out the locations of our new home stay families, as well as our volunteer organizations, without prematurely alerting them of our arrival. In addition to our education about the city of Nis, we were also treated to an extremely helpful and necessary workshop on the traditions of Orthodox Christmas to prepare us for the somewhat daunting task of moving into our new homes on Christmas Eve, January 6th.
Following our orientation, armed with our new knowledge of Orthodox traditions, we were eager to leave the confines of the Regional Center that had served as housing, and move into the homes of our new families. On the first night, we celebrated Christmas Eve, which helped break the ice with our new families and expedite the adjustment process. We participated in the burning of the badnjak, a bundle of oak branches, as traditional prayer was recited for good fortune in the coming year. At dinner, one of the favorite activities is the breaking of the cesnica, a loaf of bread with a dinar coin baked inside. Each member of the family grabs and opens the bread simultaneously, and the fortunate bread-breaker who finds the coin is meant to enjoy good luck for the next year. Lelabari is blessed with good fortune for the coming year, as she found the coin in her family’s cesnica. Katherine experienced the tradition in her family of throwing walnuts into the four corners of the room, which serves to honor the dead and ask for their protection in the coming year. Lelabari’s family similarly attempted the custom, but their plans were foiled when their one-year-old puppy ate the walnuts. Overall, it was a fun and festive night, and a great introduction into our new families.
We all appreciated that the holiday break coincided with our first few days of our home-stays. This time proved to be a valuable opportunity to interact with our new family members and adjust to a new lifestyle before our language classes and work resumed. A new aspect of our home-stays in Nis is that we all have host-siblings between the ages of 18 and 26, which has made the transition not only smoother but also a lot of fun. Another aid in the transition process was a visit from Djordje, a native of Nis, our student leader during the orientation at Princeton prior to our departure to Serbia. It was great seeing another familiar face, and interesting to catch up after all the experiences we have had.
During this first month, our host families have helped us not only see Nis, but the surrounding area as well. Ashley’s family took her to the nearby village of Niska Banja, known for its thermal pools. They even taught her the traditional song about Niska Banja and its topla voda, or warm waters. Katherine attended a traditional Serbian wedding in Knjazevac, a village outside of the city, and I visited a nearby village and ate at a well-known Kafana that attracts diners from all around the area. A Serbian Kafana is a very social environment, equipped with traditional music and food, made for large gatherings and celebrations among family and friends. Mariam’s host-sister and her cousin also took Mariam and me to a water polo game played in Nis between Serbia and Spain, the two teams that played in the World Championship Final in August 2009. Serbia won 7-6, and the crowd had the intensity and energy you would expect at an NBA playoff game. All the fans in the packed stadium (well, pool) were on their feet the entire game. Water polo is an important part of Serbia’s athletic tradition, and Serbia holds the current record for the greatest number of European championships won in a row. As a water polo player, it was exciting to see a game I love and played for so many years being played at such a high level and with the “rock star” status we normally attribute to the big-name professional sports we see in the U.S.
Once work and classes began, the pace of life, as it had in Novi Sad, really started to pick up. From this point on, we will take language classes twice a week at the Britannica language school, although we had three classes a week for the month of January. Our new language teacher, Emilija, is moving quickly and keeps class as enjoyable as ever.
In the same way we are beginning a phase of our program in an entirely new city, our service work has a new focus in Nis. As opposed to focusing on work with youth or human rights organizations, as we did in Novi Sad, the focus here is on work with the Roma community. The Roma people are a disenfranchised minority in Nis, with a population of about 50,000 in the city. The Roma community as a whole faces a great deal of difficulty integrating effectively and fully into society. We are each working with a non-governmental organization (NGO) with some focus on the Roma community in Nis, and in some ways this work overlaps with our work in Novi Sad.
I am working with YUROM Centar, an NGO that advocates for the Roma community and works for improved Roma integration into society as well as for overall community improvement. Our current projects include a recycling center to create green jobs, the creation of an education stipend for Roma families to increase the amount of education received by Roma children, a visit by the American Ambassador to Serbia, trainings for Roma advocates around Serbia, and the creation of a Roma cultural database. We are also attending meetings at local municipalities surrounding Nis to speak to officials there, trying to garner more support for our projects and expand their reach.
Katherine is working for Osvit, The Association of Roma Women. Osvit is an organization for Roma women and children, and provides legal resources as well as an SOS line to women in difficult domestic situations, especially those regarding domestic violence. Other current projects at Osvit include applying for grants for increased funding, translating the website from Serbian to English, planning a Roma Cultural center in Nis, a local action plan for Roma children that tracks and supports them through the decade of Roma inclusion, as well as a new program that would set up SOS lines and anti-violence protocol in 5 more cities across Serbia.
Lelabari works for 018, a youth club. The club works on bringing young people together from various backgrounds, including the Roma community when possible, as well as youth from surrounding countries to cooperate on various advocacy programs. Currently, she is working on increasing the visibility of the organization through a new English and Serbian Facebook page and website. She is also using her experience at a discussion group in Novi Sad to provide an English discussion group for volunteers to prepare them for international seminars, and she is working on a research project that she will design with her mentor.
Mariam is working with Roma Televison (RTV) Nisava. The station broadcasts and covers a number of Roma issues, and employs a number of Roma people. RTV is preparing for a number of future projects. Right now, Mariam is focusing most of her energy researching and becoming more educated on Roma history and the situation in Serbia. She is also working of planning a few interviews to be televised on the station.
Ashley is working at Humanitarno Udruzenje Roma (HUR), an after-school tutoring program for mostly Roma children. She is focused on providing a number of different workshops (one of which Ashley and I are doing together on the education differences in Serbia and the U.S.), and helped out with a celebration for the recent Sveti Sava, the Saint Day for St. Sava, the first Archbishop of Serbia. Additionally, she helps tutor in the English and Serbian classes, and is forming great relationships with the kids at HUR.
A common thread among all of our service placements so far is the relationships we are forming with our co-workers. Like our placements in Novi Sad, we can already see strong new friendships beginning within our organizations, as well as the formation of entirely new networks. In Nis, our Bridge Year group is also spending time enjoying activities at one another’s organizations, and helping each other provide the best activities we can by sharing experiences and insights we’ve all gained since our time in Serbia began.
These positive experiences and successes, so to speak, do not come without challenges. We are now working with the Roma community, a group that some people believe is a “lost cause,” and not worth helping. I have been met with more than a few skeptical looks when describing our service work in Nis. We have a brand new city to grasp and navigate, and new families whose life-styles may be unlike any we have experienced before. And although we were faced with poverty that was new to us in Novi Sad, it is much more prevalent in Nis. After four months of working, struggling, experiencing a new life-style, creating memories and fighting to call Novi Sad home, we were asked to move to yet another new venue. As Ashley wrote last month, the move was challenging for many of us.
This adaptation process has begun again in Nis. Although those around us in Serbia never hesitated to tell us what Nis would be like (with full confidence) and how much or how little we would like it, the vision of Nis these prognosticators created for us simply didn’t always match up with what we ultimately found. Countless times during our first week I heard or said, simply, “we definitely aren’t in Novi Sad anymore.” The language sounds different, the streets look different, and the architecture is a different style due to 500 years of Ottoman rule. There are numerous other differences that are indescribable in this kind of report. We have had to readjust in most ways, despite spending the last four months in Serbia, only now moving to a new city, and not a new country.
While that may sound unpleasant, it is also precisely what we searched for when applying to the Bridge Year program: a way to continue to challenge ourselves, to keep from being complacent, to see more of this country we are for now calling home, and to form new relationships with the people here. And so far, the move has provided us all of these things. This process of adaptation is exciting and refreshing, and we were all quickly reminded of what we’d hoped for when we left Princeton in August. We are growing to love this new city for what it is, rather than for what we’d heard about it, or what we imagined it might be like, just as we did in Novi Sad.