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Active citizenship: Serbian style

SCENIC: Akilah takes in the view from the top of a mountain [PHOTO CREDIT: Helen Clifton/British Council]

AT THE beginning of every New Year, I promise myself that I will attempt to do more volunteering in my community. After all, I’ve always lived in Shoreditch and cared about my east London stomping ground, long before it became famous for being the home of all things hipster and trendy.

This year, I signed up for a course run by local charity The Shoreditch Trust that promised to help me become an 'Active Citizen.’

For weeks, I woke up on a Saturday morning, made my way down the road and sat in a room with like-minded locals to discuss what we wanted to change in the area, and hashed out how it could be done.

Several ice-breakers, exercises and political debates into the course, I was asked by the facilitators to go on a British Council hosted international study visit to Serbia, alongside members of Active Citizens groups from India, Scotland and Libya.

Here, I’ll give a run-down of the most memorable moments from the trip.

ON TOP OF THE WORLD
There I was, standing on the top of a mountain in a country that I may have never visited had it not been for this project.

Taking in the stunning sights with me a were group of young people from a youth centre in Loznica, western Serbia, where myself and three other Active Citizens came to visit after we were split into small groups to embark on our community visits a few days earlier.

At that moment, I forgot about the cold that threatened to freeze my wellies to the ground and I let go of the nervous energy that often comes with being in a place so far from home.

Looking out, it was more than clear why there were so many in this town who fought to raise awareness of its beauty and potential. I understood just why their love, dedication and optimism for Loznica could not waver, despite a history of war and consequent economic turmoil.

But before a scary drive up the winding road to the top, I had an even more eye-opening experience with the same group, this time in their HQ back on safe ground. One of the users of the youth centre, Tomislav, showed us his camera before explaining that the centre had provided him and several others with photography classes.

The images taken could then be uploaded onto his very impressive online portfolio through one of many computers bought for the centre. Not forgetting the finer details, the centre even offered IT classes for their young people so nobody would be left out of using the facilities. Not a bad idea considering that the club was centred in between three schools and is often bombarded with students who need free internet access and computers to get their work done. In fact, as our tour around the grounds continued, it became obvious that catering to the needs of the centre’s users is the primary concern of the facilitators, who ensured that everything from lessons in yoga to economics were given to the youths through workshops.

DOING IT FOR THE KIDS
Back home in east London, safe havens like this are now becoming few and far between. ‘Social action’ and ‘social enterprise’ may seem like buzz words for politicians to spit out when they are forced to explain how they plan to keep youths off of the streets, but those promises fall on deaf ears when all that many of us see are closures and cuts.

With such disheartening experiences at home in London, it was a welcome change to see a youth club thriving somewhere so far away, in a place under a lot of political scrutiny.

Our meeting with the town’s deputy mayor reinforced that feeling, as he sat down with us to announce his “support” for the centre and its work.

During our time in Loznica, we also visited Sun Day Care, a centre for disabled young people, located near the town centre. Within the brightly painted walls, five days a week, three carers look after the group who suffer from various disabilities, including autism and cerebral palsy.


GROUP SHOT: During a visit to the youth centre in Loznica [PHOTO CREDIT: Helen Clifton/British Council]

After we watched the members play and even get up to have a dance with the carers, questions into the logistics of how the centre was run began to get deeper. One of the group asked if there was a waiting list for the centre and one of the nurses confirmed that they only had enough funding to employ three members of staff.

She went on to explain that many parents with disabled children wanted to use their facilities but had to wait until a space was made available. It also came as a shock to me when I learned that there was no “cut-off time” that dictated when users had to find alternative care. Instead, many had been looked after by the staff for years and could continue using the centre as long as they needed it.

Of course this laid back style of ruling benefits the few lucky members, but it also affects the waiting time for others who want to join. Although this issue appears to be easily solved with money, the centre’s problem may not be solved for some time, as governments across the EU continue to tighten their purse strings.

SHARING EXPERIENCES
When our time in the town was over, we returned to our base in the city of Zrenjanin to share all we had discovered on our journeys. Myself, Marina (Scotland), Kishor (India), Ijla (Serbia), and Joel (London), presented the key things we took from our days away, and condensed all that we had learned into PowerPoints. The others, who went to Novi Sad, Belgrade or Prijepolje, also opened up about their trips, sharing images and anecdotes.

I felt like I’d come a long way. On day one, the group broke the ice with a warm-up exercise that involved a strange game of musical chairs and lots of shouting (long story). On that day, we also wrote our hopes, skills and aspirations on colourful post-it notes, before sticking them on our ‘tree of expectations.’

In fact, during the days before our group visits, the room in the hotel where we held our sessions became our second home. After we “moved in” there were crumbs on the floor from one too many pastry sessions; plenty of stationery; and an area that displayed all of our various cultures and food. We debated, got creative, opened up, laughed, clapped, stayed silent, contemplated, planned –we even did the Migraine Skank!

THE COMMON QUESTION…
Despite being armed with a host of tales from Serbia, the most common question I get asked is: ‘how did you deal with the racism?’ Clearly, many people assumed that I would have faced prejudice, being a black woman in a predominantly white country.

The truth is, I did stand out like a sore thumb. There were some blank stares, a few bemused looks, and one or two remarks that I expect stemmed from the ignorant fear of anything that appears to be different. While some of it made me uncomfortable, most of it washed over me because I had already mentally prepared myself for the worst. As such, I was more taken aback by how welcoming the majority of people had been. The uncomfortable moments become forgettable details when looking at the bigger picture. It’s because of this that when I’m asked if I had a good time in Serbia, I’m able to say “Da,” the Serbian word for “yes.”

WHAT'S NEXT?

I can show people pictures of our time in Parliament and gloat about sitting in the President’s chair (awesome).

I can also tell folks about all of the amazing social enterprises some of the Active Citizens are already running. But even with so many wonderful experiences, I feel like there’s still so much to do.

For days after my return to UK shores, I had a good old British moan about where to begin, until it dawned on me that by simply going to Serbia, we had all already started something special and were in turn fulfilling the Active Citizens’ hope for us to become “locally connected and globally engaged”.

With that in mind, what’s next for me can be explained in a mantra one of the young people shared with me as I stood on top of that mountain: “I do not wish to see the distant scene – one step is enough for me.”

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