Vanja Crnojević left her native town of Maglaj during the civil war in Bosnia and her family found refuge in Switzerland. The Swiss government provided them with an apartment, survival money and jobs for her parents.
Twenty years later, Crnojević is helping the thousands of Syrian and other refugees passing through Serbia on their way to Western Europe.
When she heard about the Syrians’ predicament, Crnojević invited her friends in Switzerland through her Facebook profile to help financially, as much as they can.
She is a Serb, but her Croatian, Albanian and Bosniak friends, many of them former refugees as well, answered her call for help and together they raised enough money to buy blankets, food and other necessities.
Then she went to Preševo on the Serbian border with Macedonia and became a volunteer.
[A]nyone can become a refugee at some point in his or her life. After all, Einstein was a refugee.
Crnojević has come a long way – from a little girl who escaped her ravaged country as a refugee, to someone who is able to help other refugees. And she understands what they are going through better than anyone else.
She understands that anyone can become a refugee at some point in his or her life. After all, Einstein was a refugee.
Generally, immigrants and refugees are more motivated to succeed in their host countries than the mainstream population. Case in point: one family I met at park near the Belgrade train station walked 7,000 km from Pakistan. I call that motivation.
Many refugees bring with them university degrees, new ideas, valuable experience and new cultural influences. Given the right opportunity, many families and individuals will be on their feet in a few years or so.
Treated as ‘second-class’
However, that said, many refugees hoping for a better life in Germany, Sweden or Canada face some major challenges.
First, they will be treated differently, depending on their country of origin, as those from Afghanistan, Pakistan and some other countries are finding out these days.
Non-Syrian refugees are angry for being treated as second-class refugees.
Germany had recently announced it would accept 500,000 refugees from Syria per year, because the ongoing war in their country poses immediate threat to their lives.
In the days that followed, cornfields in northern Serbia and Hungary became littered with Afghani and Pakistani passports, hastily thrown away by their owners who then went to register with the local authorities as Syrians.
In fact, the market for forged Syrian passports is on the rise – German customs authorities recently intercepted and seized a large number of packages of Syrian passports, both genuine and fake, being sent in the mail.
Non-Syrian refugees are angry for being treated as second-class refugees, since many of them are running from the same extremist groups as Syrians.
Adapting to the west
The other challenge refugees may experience is that when they finally arrive in their destination country, they will have to deal with many cultural differences, spanning from contrasting definitions of freedom, religion and fairness to having their family values and daily habits scrutinized.
Everything they know and do will be questioned and the clash of very different civilizations will inevitably ensue. On top of that, there will always be individuals and groups who will let them know they are not welcome.
Making friends in work-and-order-oriented Western countries is difficult.
It may be many years before they are able to visit their friends and family in their old country. Making friends in work-and-order-oriented Western countries is difficult as there is a lack of spontaneous human interaction.
In northern Europe, for example, the sense of alienation is a common occurrence, and often leads to depression, alcoholism and who knows what else.
The key words here are adaptability and not-too-high expectations. Refugees who are able to adapt, who are realistic, optimistic and able to communicate their needs to resettlement officers and agencies are most likely to become successful and functional members of their host society.
Of course, an ability to learn new language(s), skills and to take advantage of programs from the government and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) make all the difference. Those who make a successful transition are most likely to stay, even if conditions in their country of origin improve.
And then, one day, just like little refugee girl named Vanja Crnojević from a tiny Bosnian town, they will be able to help other people – as doctors, engineers, scientists or volunteers – in some future humanitarian disaster.
Zoran Vidić is a communications and public relations specialist, reporter, writer and editor with over 15 years of experience in Canada and Serbia. Zoran holds a BA in journalism and political science from the Belgrade University in Serbia, and a MA in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa.Vidićhas been living in Belgrade, Serbia since January 2015.