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2019 Issue 2

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Discovering the joy of life

Discovering the joy of life

A group of dedicated volunteers, with help from some Queen's-based friends, is making a big difference to the lives of children with special needs in the war-torn city of Sarajevo.

[photo of children and volunteers at Joy of Life centre in Sarajevo]
Darko Krznaric

Children and volunteers at Joy of Life in Sarajevo

This story originally ran in the Queen's Alumni Review, issue 1, 2009

Late last year I travelled a long way to find the joy of life. Well, actually I wanted to find a centre called Joy of Life, a small miracle in the city of Sarajevo the capital of Bosnia, Herzegovina. 

It's an uplifting story worth telling in these difficult times. I felt connected to Sarajevo long before I went there; things often happen in threes. I had heard of Queen's humanitarian work in the city during the devastating nearly four-year siege and continuing up to this time. Then I  read Steven Galloway's 2008 book The Cellist of Sarajevo, a fictional account of the siege, which further stimulated my growing interest in Sarajevo and its people. How had they fared in rebuilding their beloved city, I wondered? Finally, I learned of the gifts of lsabel and Alfred Bader, which were a major support to a small organization called the Joy of Life. It was a happy coincidence that I could be in Sarajevo at the moment the centre was poised to enter a wonderful new phase. So I went.

The centre's story revolves around two amazing young women, both Sarajevo natives. The staff of the Queen's-based International Centre for the Advancement of Community Based Rehabilitation (ICACBR) team, headed by Dr. Malcolm Peat, knew of and admired the women's work. For that reason, when University officials asked the ICACBR staff to find the right place for the Baders' gift, they suggested it go to Hasena Brko and Azra Softic.

Each with a disabled child of her own, Hasena and Azra were working as unpaid volunteers to combat the terrible isolation experienced by so many disabled children and their mothers, women who were often the family's sole means of support. The civil war had ended, and the economy of the country was in poor shape. There were no places for a mother to bring a child with a severe disability to be cared for while she looked for a job or even ran an errand. There were no places for companionship for either mother or child outside the four walls of their apartment.

It was 1997, two years after the end of the siege. Radost života – Joy of Life – was in its infancy. Picture Hasena's and Azra's response when they learned of the Baders' gift: at first disbelief and then the shock of joy. This support came at a critical moment and was vital for the growth of Joy of Life, a daycare centre for children with disabilities. The centre is organized and run by volunteers: mothers, retired teachers, and others from the community.

And then in 2007 came a second Bader gift to Joy of Life. The timing again was perfect. "We couldn't sleep last night, thinking what this will mean:' Hasena and Azra told Malcom Peat and his staff at the time. They knew how they would use the new funds: They could move forward with a plan to integrate Joy of Life children into their neighbourhood schools. Inclusive education, widely known to be a life-altering success, needs money to pay the salaries for special-needs teachers who go into the schools to assist regular classroom teachers. Now, Joy of Life could hire such teachers and a pilot project could begin. The funds provided a number of small, but important things, too, such as bus fares and lunches for the children, both of which often are stumbling blocks for a family trying to send a special-needs child to any sort of centre. The Bader gift was a miracle because no large funding agency could or would undertake what seemed to be a small, insignificant project, but which in reality was so vital.

The Bader gift was a miracle because no large funding agency could or would undertake what seemed to be a small, insignificant project, but which in reality was so vital.

This is where I entered the story, eager to meet these two young women, the founders and guiding lights of Joy of Life. I think they wanted to meet me, too, a friend of the Baders and of Queen's. Djenana Jalovcic(MPA'99, MSc'08), Darko Krznaric, and Malcolm Peat from Queen's ICACBR team took me to a lovely restaurant beside the Miljacka River. As I stood by the table, Hasena and Azra walked toward me, we looked at each other, and then together looked out at the garden where a few late roses were catching the warm October sun. It seemed a good omen.

Hasena is dark-haired and vivacious, Azra, fair and quieter with a ready smile. I soon realized that both were women of vision and determination.

My five companions knew each other well from their years of having worked with vulnerable people, whereas I was experiencing the realities of life in a city such as Sarajevo for the first time. As we talked, Djenana and Darko interpreted. How I wished I could understand and speak their language. Women want and need to communicate! I listened to their stories.

The plans for me were extensive. I would see the Joy of Life centre in action, visit one of the schools that several of the children attended, meet the program's three special-education teachers: Adela Rucic, Izeta Nurkanovic, and Hana Mehovic, and on my last day in Sarajevo I would attend a public forum on the future of inclusive education in the city.

What were the highlights for me? What will I remember always? Well, the centre itself, of course. It's so small, only two rooms and a tiny office space, yet so big in its impact and in its warmth of human kindness. I'll remember a morning with the children sitting around the big table that almost filled the room. They were doing homework with the help of Silva Kebat, a retired special-education teacher who volunteers her time each day. Later, there was music and singing together with a volunteer named Sladjena Drakovac. We sang "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands," and I joined in, in English. We all clapped in the same language! The love among the children and the wonderful women who spend so many hours with them was so strong, the joy contagious.

I'll always remember the Third Primary School. I was welcomed there as an observer from Queen's, and I learned again what the name of this university means in Sarajevo. The work done by Queen's people to help the vulnerable through the siege and into the present is well-known, and so my welcome was assured.

I was impressed and warmed by the dedication of the teachers and the Direktor, or principal, of the school. Inclusion means extra work, yet the staff radiated an enthusiasm that I could see and feel and which helped Darko's translated words come to life. I met Adela, one of the special-education teachers., a young woman whose empathy for her students was very evident. And, I met Lejla, 10 years old and using to a wheelchair. A few years ago, she couldn't open her hands, but at Joy of Life, a physiotherapist enabled her transformation, and now in grade five she is an ''A'' student, whose workbook could go on display.

Lejla told us about her school, and she read us a poem about how much she loves it. Inclusion, the teachers told us, works well at this school, and we would never want to turn back the clock. Lejla is a poster child for the program's success, but so, too, are some of the mentally disabled children whose disabilities have been greatly mitigated by their attendance in regular school classrooms. I found it interesting to find out that the word "inclusion" has been taken into the Bosnian language, a better fit than other words to describe this sort of integration.

Finally, I'll remember "the event," a symposium that was held at Sarajevo City Hall. Again, I was introduced as a special observer from Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. I sat in the audience with Darko translating for me as a panel that included Djenana Jalovicic and Malcolm Peat discussed education for special needs children. With me in the audience were many parents,teachers, school principals, special-education professionals, and others interested in education and disability. And a TV camera arrived! This was a sure sign that special education advocates are gaining some attention in the eyes of the world.

This was a coming-of-age gathering to mark a new phase for Joy of Life. Their pilot project is working, and they are ready to show it off and to ask for support from their government and so move beyond the need for private funding.There were two moving moments for me that afternoon. The first was seeing the three special-education teachers sitting together in front of us and speaking with passion about their work with Joy of Life children. These three young women, I thought, were truly "the Bader Angels." I felt a shiver of excitement about the future here in Sarajevo.

Then, at the end of the afternoon, a woman at the back of the auditorium stood up to speak. "I came here from the Department of Education to observe," she said. "I had not intended to speak, but I feel I must. I want you to know that I have listened to your voices, and I believe in what you are saying. I will speak about all this in my department, and I want to hear more from you."

For the second time that afternoon, I shivered with excitement about the future of inclusive education in Sarajevo.

Those who are involved with Joy of Life know they still have work to do to secure a government source of funding, but from what I saw, I believe their goal is within reach. They will point the way for similar projects in their city and in other parts of their country. This is surely the zenith for seed money; the seeds will grow to bear the fruit of systemic support. Hasena and Azra have built well. They had a dream, and with the help of good friends, they are making it come true. Amen! So be it!


Postscript: In the 1990s, the Baders established the Isabel and Alfred Bader Children's Project, which supported the activities of the ICACBR in Bosnia-Herzegovina to assist persons with disabilities, their families, and their communities. With the initial support of the Bader Children's Project and ICACBR, Radost života was able to grow and later attain government funding for its operations. 

[cover image of Queen's Alumni Review issue 1, 2019, showing a photo of Alfred Bader]