Interview with UUSC Partners in Syrian Refugee Crisis Response: Jelena Hrnjak, ATINA

ATINA’s Program Coordinator Jelena Hrnjak speaks to UUSC about their crucial work to support refugees in Serbia during the 2015 refugee crisis.

“Women’s solidarity can make anything happen.”

UUSC: Could you tell us about ATINA and its work?

Jelena Hrnjak: ATINA is an NGO, which for 15 years, has provided a comprehensive program for women who suffered gender-based violence or trafficking in Serbia. We set up a program that is dedicated to fulfill their needs, including safe houses, legal support, and court accompaniment. We also motivate them to go back to school or find some sort of employment or job. During the years we’ve supported hundreds of girls and women to find an exit from the situation they’re in. In this type of work, it’s often necessary to wait for a period of time, but once you get a result, it’s really fulfilling when we meet some of our beneficiaries in schools or jobs, and see how they are living their lives, without the things that happened in the past.

Could you tell us about what it was like in 2015 when the refugee crisis hit?

In modern history we haven’t had the opportunity to witness the type of thing that happened in 2015. It was very emotional but also demanding. So many were coming back in October, November 2015. There were 10,000 people coming every day. Sometimes, their eyes, and the look that they have—it haunts me.  We organized our mobile teams and went directly to the borders to monitor the whole process and of course to be a support to the refugees. In this first wave, we saw a lot of people coming, and we saw that they could somehow stand up for themselves. It was obvious by the way that they were dressed, and how they were prepared. But after the closure of the border in 2016, we saw many women and children and they wanted somehow to find a way to reconnect with the rest of the family.  We also saw that those that had some income had already passed by and on that level it was different to 2015. People had other needs. In 2015 we had maybe, one to three days with them, they were moving so fast. But then in late 2015 and the beginning of 2016, the situation drastically changed.

How has UUSC supported your work?

You came in 2016, you came at the right moment. The focus was on 2015 and the middle of 2016, and when the numbers started to decrease, people thought there was no actual need. But the need started when the policies of the various governments started to be very strict—not allowing them to cross the borders to exercise their rights. And you came in the right time, because many people supporting us had left to other places. You came to be our support, so we were able to be other people’s support.

Can you tell us about a particular story that has been impactful for you?

This is my tenth year in ATINA. A lot of girls have come and gone, many of them are my personal heroes because of the strength that they showed. In one case, there was a girl who was forcibly married when she was really young because when we met her, she already had two children. And she was severely abused by her uncle who was also her husband. And several times she tried to escape and tell us the story of her and her children.

At some point, some of our colleagues from other NGOs—this is the most beautiful thing about NGOs when we collaborate together, we helped her escape the situation. But she was a kid having her own kids, so after a while she wanted to return to the camp because all of her friends were there. This guy then tried to kill her in front of everyone. Luckily, she avoided his beating and he was arrested. He was prosecuted and is still in jail in Serbia. She got refugee status in a third country and had the chance to start her life anew. And to try to make a better life for her and her children.

Girls are still coming to Serbia, and many suffer similar issues. We realized that many women, girls, and boys—they have this tolerance of pain that is so high they cannot even recognize what is happening to them. They do not trust the mechanisms that the state provides for them.

Can you talk about what ATINA is doing in the camps to address this lack of awareness of gender-based violence?

It was a clash with government institutions because no one wanted to talk about such subjects of violence or human trafficking. Our state policy was that they are just here for a few days, we shouldn’t intervene, or get involved. But when people started to stay for a longer period, they couldn’t avoid this subject. Our job was to ensure that the prevention of violence is included in the priorities of the government. From the early stages, we went inside the camps. Because we were working as case managers, we followed cases where people reported violence. Of course, we followed the needs and the wishes of the women, girls and boys that were inside of the camps. We asked them what were the subjects that they wanted to learn about. We also opened up the issue of women’s rights, and this was one of the most beautiful and rewarding things.

What are your greatest challenges?

One of the greatest challenges is the fact that refugees are staying in Serbia for a longer period of time, and we must have a system in which they can stay. This means we must think about finding employment, including them in society and education. For now, children are going to elementary school, but many refugees are at an age to go to high school or enter university. We want to continue empowering women, provide trainings in our bagel shop social enterprise, and obtain work permits for them.

What gives you hope?

Beautiful, smart colleagues that I am working with. It is one incredible source of energy here in ATINA. The fact that I am loved and that I am in love in life, gives me hope that this life is beautiful. I’ve seen people who have lost their hope, and the new opportunities that can be brought into their lives—that also gives me hope. What I believe is that women’s solidarity can make anything happen.