The 20 women and children of the fifth group came via the "Romany women´s organisation for a better future" from Zagreb. All women and children lived in Zagreb and surroundings. But three women, two teenage girls and two children came originally from Serbia and Kosovo, one of these women was Albanian, the others were Romany. They had left Serbia or Kosovo before the beginning of the war and the NATO bombings. One woman and two girls had been in Germany as refugees for some time, but had been deported to Croatia. One teenage girl came alone with her 8-year-old sister to SEKA-House, a 13-year-old came with an aunt who brought her 3-year-old granddaughter.
It had not been easy for the organizer to assemble the group, as changes were made all the time. At least the women had decided only to bring one child each to give as many women as possible the chance to participate in the recreational stay. The men were told to take care of the other children at home. (Getting the men to let their wives go in the first place and additionally take care of the children had already been the "first project", as the coordinator of " Bolja buducnost" told us laughing.)
Nevertheless, the assemblance of the group had changed again as they arrived at SEKA house, and we had to rearrange the accomodation again. The group now consisted in 10 women (20- 42 years old), three teenage girls (13, 14 and 17 years old), and seven children (2 months- 10 years old).
Sudden changes contrary to previous agreement remained a problem during the first few days, until we got to know each other better and until the women and children got used to SEKA house rules. But this group challenged our flexibility and our willingness to see things from a total different point of view. At the same time, we had a lot of fun together and laughed a lot.
Communication (in Serbo-Croatian) was generally not a problem, although most women spoke Rom with each other and some Kosovo-Albanian women spoke Albanian; everybody understood Serbo-Croatian well enough to communicate. Communication difficulties were rather caused by different habits, attitudes, and experiences.
The first few days, we talked a lot about our feelings towards the group in the team: We felt that the group enjoyed their stay very much and that they liked to take our offers, but that there was no real contact between us. Although the women told us a lot about themselves, we rarely had bilateral communication. We missed some empathy from the group. On the other hand, we got the impression that there was no social spirit in the group either; every woman mainly looked after her own interests.There were no obliging ways among them nor towards us.
Thinking about the Romany women´s living conditions, we could understand their behaviour better:
Belonging to the Romany minority, women and children lived in quite an isolated community with own norms and very strict rules for women. These women took violence (slaps round the face, beatings and other maltreatment) as normal. (" A box on the ears is as common as saying ´good morning´", one woman told us.) Most women had never or barely attended school. They were taken out of school by their fathers because they were "needed in the house". Most women could barely write or made a lot of spelling mistakes. All got married when they were about 14 years old. Strictly speaking, there were "sold" to their husbands. The bride´s father put up the price; who was ready to pay got the bride. If the young woman did not get pregnant soon, she could be sent back to her parents in disgrace, and her father had to give the money back. A woman´s value and position are determined by the number of children or rather by the number of sons she gives birth to. One woman who already had 6 children by the age of 22, didn´t want to have anymore children, but she told us that if her husband wanted more children, she had to oblige. The man has all the rights, the woman has all the duties. On one hand, this woman was treated like a mentally immature child, on the other hand, the whole family and some of her husband´s relatives lived off the money she earned tirelessly working in the small trade on the local fair.
Generally, the women worked very hard and contributed a lot to the family´s income or even made all the profits. They were proud of that as well as of their strength and ability to endure this way of life.
At the same time, all women and children lived to see from their early days, that they as Romany were rejected, discriminated, despised or even persecuted by the society they lived in. Dissociating themselves from that, they thought of this society as " the others" who leaded a total different way of life, and followed other laws which they as Romanies were not able to understand anyway. We SEKA-workers naturally belonged to "the others" as well. Therefore they took what we had to offer them and their children with pleasure, they even expressed special wishes, but during the first few days we felt that they saw us in our function only, not us as persons, as women just like them.
It was important to us as a team to make this last point clear, because we needed to be seen as persons with wishes and feelings to make them understand how we wanted our contact to be, to explain them what we felt and what was important to us.
The intensive contact with the group, our care and concern, but as well our feedback on how we felt, what hurt us and what was important to us, our dealings with women and children and with each team member, had caused a significant change in the women´s and children´s behaviour since the third day:
We really started to interact and develop relationships. Women and children began to be really aware of us and got interested in us as persons; they developed increasing social spirit and empathy with the group and us. They liked us going to the beach with them and expressed their regret if one of us did not come. Women as well as children started to follow the rules and agreements and to respect boundaries. At the same time we noticed that we had changed as well. We did not take everything so seriously anymore, we could see our own position from another point of view, and suddenly there was so much to laugh about everyday as there were so many funny situations we experienced together.
Against the background of mutual approach, the women began to look at our opinions and views differently. They did not see our way of life as something that had nothing to do with them, but took our opinions as a stimulus. The conversations became more concret- the women started to confide in us.
The sea was very important to this group as well. Almost all of them saw the seaside for the fist time. Especially some of the women were very afraid of the sea at the beginning - no matter how much they wished to enjoy it. With a lot of encouragement and with the the help of our well-established relaxation exercises and confidence-building games, they all could finally move in chest-high water without any help. Some of them even learnt how to swim properly. The older children quickly lost all their fear and learnt swimming and diving.
The swimming pool in one of the hotels in Supetar was a big attraction, too. We went there in small groups, not taking the risk of being thrown out. The children rollicked about the water, jumped in, dived and played, whereas the women loved to take photos of themselves next to the edge of the pool or lying on the loungers. Actually, taking photos was one of the most important things to this group! They wanted to document every minute of their stay to remember everthing later on and to show the people in Zagreb what they had seen and done.
With this group, child psychologist Vahida Bijedic and Gordana Ivancevic worked with the children, Zeljana Buntic-Pejakovic and myself worked with the children and the women. Mirjana Bilan and Gordana Ivancevic supported us when necessary, and Marija and Fani Misetic, our cook and our home economic, provided the lovingly prepared and varied meals.
On the evenings, we organized group talks on the terrace which were rather informative. The topics we talked about were: violence in families, child education, human rights- valid for women and children as well, the importance of school education for the children and especially for the girls, health, contraception. The better we got to know each other, the more the women told us about their personal experience in connection with these issues.
Because some women had complained about hurting backs while we were on the beach, we offered Yoga exercise in the therapy room, starting on the third evening. Most women regularly took the offer enthusiastically. They favoured relaxation exercises and one special exercise called "lioness", in which everybody roars like a lioness. In the course of the time we added movement exercises to the accompaniment of music, funny active games, exercises on body awareness and self-massage, and a imaginative exercise regarding " my strength and self-security". I always related the exercises to one of the topics we had talked about in my explanations ( for example "love of self", "anger", "room and time for myself" "boundaries", "attentiveness").
The more the women opened up, the more they longed for confidential talks to approach us about delicate topics they didn´t want to speak about in the group sessions.
Such topics were: marital row, being totally controlled by the husband (almost all the women´s husbands called every night to make sure their wives were there!), marital violence or violence by the parents-in-law, a possible divorce; ways of secret contraception, the cot death of the one-year-old baby, the problem not to get pregnant anymore (which could lead to repudiation), illiteracy, health problems...
One Croatian woman was repudiated by her parents, because she had married a Romany. She had lost her parents, and was not accepted by the Romany community either.
We permanently tried to convince one woman not to wrap up her two-months-old baby girl (at first, she used to tie her up like a parcel- a medieval technique which is still quite common among the Romanies.) Finally, we achieved that she stopped wrapping her up, but she still clothed the baby much too warmly. At least the baby could freely move now.
In the first days, we were busy to build a good relationship between us and make communication work. Again and again, we had to talk about rules and limits and remind them that they weren´t allowed to run away and disappear from the group just because they had seen something interesting. We had to remind them to take care of their things and not just leave them anywhere, not to drop the ice cream waste on the ground, but put it in the next rubbish bin, and so on.
As we devoted all our time to the children and were there for them all day, they were ready to make an effort to come up to our requirements that were probably quite demanding for them.
From the third day, we already noticed a big change: The children had understood the rules of our teamwork and were quite comfortable with it. As if it went without saying, they threw their waste in the rubbish bin, took care of their swimming belts and the ball they´d taken to the beach; they payed attention to what we were saying, they told us what they needed... communication really began to work.
The children enjoyed playing at the beach or in the swimming pool as much as playing in the children´s house in the evenings.
Every night after dinner, two SEKA workers worked with the children in the therapy house for about two hours. Just as all the other groups did, the children first tried out all the toys and games there. The children of this group loved to paint, and some were really good at it. The two little boys loved to play with toy cars or to play role playing games.
The girls (8-17 years old) prefered role plays in which they could overcome their everyday life. Main topics were love, marriage or "being forced to marry". It startled us that even the 8-year-old already worried about this topic.
As always, we taught the group to photograph and organized an exhibition of the taken photos, and we carried out the T-Shirt-painting. The shirts came out so highly imaginative and were just wonderful; after they´d seen them, the women wanted to paint their own shirts as well.
As almost all the girls had problems with reading and writing- some were complete illiterates-, we talked a lot about literacy and education. (Due to their flight and stay abroad, they had scarcely attended school, and their fathers did not permit school attendance anymore, because they could meet up with boys in school.) We explained how important education was especially for girls, because it´ll help to get independence and make money. We told them about ourselves, what reading meant to us, and I showed the older girls what I was working on the computer.
After we had played at happy families cards at the beach, the girls wanted to practice their reading and writing in the evening. We therefore practiced through playing.
Certainly it was impossible to teach them reading and writing in such a short time.What we wanted to achieve was to encourage and motivate them. Some of the girls still attended school but not with much success. Maybe we revived their interest in school.
I asked the two 13 and 14- year-old girls who had very few knowledge of spelling and would not get the chance to attend school anymore, whether they were interested in practicing on the computer. They agreed enthusiastically.
The girls used the time we spent together practicing their writing on the computer (only one girl at a time), to talk to me about their problems. For both, the fear to be forced to marry soon was essential. Both had secret boyfriends about who their fathers should not find out. Especially the 14-year-old was really afraid that her father would walk up to her with a wedding dress soon and order her to put it on, because he would have promised her to a man. He would then take her to that man´s family, and the wedding would take place immediately. Her father would ask for 25.000 DM as fee for the bride, and her boyfriend´s family won´t be able to pay that much. Her boyfriend had suggested to run off with him, but she was too afraid of her father. We discussed possible ways of changing her father´s mind, we talked about her mother´s position and who she could ask for help.
Both girls finally wrote a letter to their boyfriends on the computer and proudly posted it. Fascinated by the computer, they mentioned that they wanted to keep on learning how to write and later on attend a computer class in Zagreb.
(I got into conversation with the coordinator of "Bolja buducnost" about an organized programme against illiteracy among girls and women in this organization. Unfortunately, money is again the problem. But I think it should be possible to get hold of the money and find a teacher! It would be such a shame if the girls´ interest wasn´t fostered.)
Finally, the women and children were really impressed by the birthday party we organized for our colleague Vahida: We surprised her with lovingly wrapped presents, a birthday serenade, a speech, a cake, and flowers. Then we danced until late. Afterwards, the women and girls told me that they loved our way of celebrating birthdays. They had never experienced so much attentiveness!
The exhibition of the best photos and paintings was another highlight, especially for the children. We took turns in giving an adress to every child which the children reverently received. We applauded every single child.
As we were saying good-bye the next day, we realized how much we got on close terms with each other in spite of all initial difficulties. Especially the girls gave us many hugs in tears. They would have loved to stay, and all of them wanted to come back in any case. The women assured us as well that they´ll never forget this holiday. They invited us to visit them in Zagreb as well.