Thanks to the support of the foundation „Sternstunden” of the Bayerische Rundfunk and numerous private donations, we were able to organise another therapeutic recreation for 20 traumatised women and children of the duration of 12 days in the summer of 2013. We are very happy about that! In 16 years of our SEKA project work, this was the 48th group we could realize this mental and physical recreational stay at the seaside for.
We are very grateful to all the people that made this wonderful project possible by donating and subsidizing it throughout all these years.. On behalf of almost thousand children and mothers who were able to relief from their painful experiences and current problems, we want to thank you! Thanks to our project, they were able to get new confidence and courage to face life. We are especially grateful to the staff members and the persons in the board of the foundation „Sternstunden” for their long-standing great support!
In the following report, our colleague Amina Sarajlic describes the meaning these ‚days of joy’ had for the children and mothers by giving the example of the work with the 12-year-old Elina and her mother Safija.
Elina is twelve years old and lives in a village far off track, 13 kilometres away from Gorazde. She lives together with her mother Safija, her stepfather and three stepbrothers. Elina and Safija are Roma, a fact that they were trying to hide from the group at the beginning - due to their anxiety. They were afraid of being rejected by the other women and children. In their village, they have to deal with insults daily; even at school, Elina has to cope with rejection and humiliations.
The life of Safija and Elina consists of a chain of violent experiences: in Safija's original family, in the first (forced) marriage, into which Elina was born and from which Safija fled into the next relationship with her second husband. Sadly Safija and Elina had to deal with physical and psychological violence too. The stepfather is heavily traumatised from war, mentally ill and trying to flee his problems consuming alcohol. Over and over they have to cope with his violence outbreaks, in which even the police has to intervene occasionally.
The stepfather considers Elina as an appendage to his wife and not as his daughter. Obviously Elina has to work, in order to 'deserve her place in the family'. Although she is only twelve years old, she takes care of a big part of the household chores, supervises her little brothers and helps her family with the agricultural work from which the family earns their modest income. Elina has to walk 4 kilometres in order to reach her school. Her homework has to wait until she finds time, normally very late in the evening, after she has completed all of her duties and thus usually is tired to death.
Elina seems much older than twelve years, which is due to the fact that she obviously had to grow up way too early.
She and her mother are very close, but Elina is rather something like a confidant and a friend to her mother. The problems of her mother are an additional burden for the twelve-year-old girl and overcharge her. Occasionally it seems to us as if mother and daughter had switched their roles.
For Elina, the journey to Neum, located at the Adriatic Sea, was something unbelievable: for the first time, she had real holidays, for the first time she experienced the sea!
Although, she was very shy in the beginning, she managed to approach the other kids of the group during the long bus journey. She built ties especially with the two girls Ema and Zerina who were both of the same age. She was very happy when she got the news that Zerina and her mother would share the room with her and her mother.
It was very obvious that Elina enjoyed every single moment she spent in Neum. In the morning, she could not wait for us to finally start the group work; each exercise filled her with pleasure, she found every single topic very interesting. Like a sponge, she absorbed every experience and was one of the most active members during the group work. One could feel that she was really enjoying this easy-going time.
It was very important to her that commonly with all children we established the group rules and that the rules had to be followed by everyone. For incidence the rule that "we would not use any bad words, hurt or insult anybody; neither laugh at anyone, nor hit, shove or provoke anybody. We would listen to each other and no one should be interrupted so that each child gets the possibility to speak up".
Elina always stuck to the rules and reminded others of them, in case they did not follow them. It was very obvious how much security those rules gave her: in this group she did not have to be afraid of being hurt, humiliated or excluded! We had the impression that in the beginning Elina could not believe that such a place could exist, in which everyone was treated as an equal human being did even exist.
At the beginning we noticed that Elina dressed up very remarkably - not in a way a 12-year-old girl would dress up but like a teenager - she wore very short dresses or skirts, shirts showing off her belly, shoes with high heels and for dinner or walks in the evening, she put on a lot of make-up. During a walk, I (Amina S.) had the opportunity to talk to Elina in private. I asked her why she applied make-up, as she was a natural beauty and did not need all of that. She looked at me in surprise and told me that her mother taught her, a woman could only reach something in life, if she was beautiful. I explained to her that a lot of girls would envy her for her clear and soft skin and her beautiful eyes and lashes and that the chemicals that make-up contains could harm and even destroy her beautiful skin, which is still developing. Elina was obviously moved by the words I said to her. We also talked about other topics, such as Elina's life at home; about what she likes and dislikes. She told me that she did barely have time for herself at home, because she has a lot of duties and sometimes does not even have the time to do her homework. That is the reason she does not have good grades at school. She said that her biggest worry was that she did not have any friends. At school, the other kids would reject her because she was different. One of the few things she liked was dancing. Her mother taught her belly dance. When her stepfather was not at home, Elina loved to apply make-up and dance sometimes in order to dream herself into another world. After this conversation, I noticed that Elina started to apply rather discreet make-up - only mascara and a little lipstick.
After this conversation, Elina wanted to talk to me more often. Once we talked about colours. Elina said that black colour meant sorrow; and then she stressed that she loved black: "I love black, because I am black." Her favourite soft toy in the group room was a black panther - for Elina it was "a black cat" - and she again emphasised that she loved this "cat" because of the black colour.
In moments like this I felt Elina's deep sorrow . How much pain and loneliness had she gone through with her young age of only 12-years?!
Due to the fact that the kids had talked about violent situations they had experienced at school or at home, we decided to choose a day, on which we would work together in the group and talk about this topic. After a short educative introduction into the topic, we divided the group into two subgroups: the older kids received the task to think about 3 different types of violence (psychological and physical violence, as well as violence executed with the help of mobile phones or the Internet) and then act those scenes out in front of the younger kids who would be the audience watching the scenes. The children visualized the three forms of violence very successfully - with examples from their daily life. Afterwards we evaluated each scene together, taking into account: "How did each child feel in its role? What could be helpful for the victim of violence? What could observers do?"
We noticed that in all three scenes, Elina was playing the victim - the role of a mute, humble victim that did not defend herself.
After the role-plays, all kids uttered that they all liked the role-plays and that they learned a lot about violence, in particular, how important it was to interact as an observer and not just watch passively. Even Elina said she was enthusiastic, but her body language told us something different.
We asked the children how the roles were being distributed. They said that each child chose the role he or she wanted to act out. Nobody wanted to play the victim therefore Elina took that role. It was like that with each scene.
The children now became aware of the fact that it would have been fairer if they changed the person playing the uncomfortable role - but they did not think about that, as Elina volunteered willingly. Elina said she could deal with that.
We ended the group work of that day and I asked Elina to stay a little longer. Then I told her that I got the impression that it was way too much for her acting out all the 3 scenes being in the role of the victim. It would have been too much for any other child too - but for her it was a repetition of what she experienced at school in her daily life.
Elina uttered quietly, yes, it was not easy to be in that role, but she wanted to gain the other kids' recognition by volunteering for the uncomfortable role, nobody wanted to play. She added that it was so important to her that the group liked her. "I am so happy that I am accepted here! I do not want to lose that!"
I replied that I could understand her very well, but that she was a wonderful girl and that everyone should be happy and grateful to have her as a friend. Tears welled up in Elina's eyes. She hugged me and said: "It is so lovely here, better than any place I have ever been to before, but I am sometimes scared that it is just a dream and then I wake up and everything is just as it was before!"
We then talked about the fact that every child had the right to utter her or his opinion, to stand up for her or his needs and to say clearly what he or she wanted. I also told her that she could always count on our support. Elina smiled at me and said that she would tell us the next time something bothered her.
In further conversations, we talked about Elina's strengths, her abilities and positive qualities and also about Elina's situation at home and at school. We thought about whether she could maybe win a friend or in which way she could stand up from her "victim-role". We agreed that Elina could also continue coming to the SEKA house in Gorazde. I promised to talk about that with her mother.
During the 12 days of holiday, we never noticed that the children could have reacted negatively to Elina or behave in a rejecting or insulting way. On the contrary, they liked being with her just the way she enjoyed being with them. Particularly Ema and Zerina started a close friendship with Elina. That way Elina's biggest wish came true…
Elina seized each moment in Neum: She loved the group hours and enjoyed the sea - she even learnt swimming; she collected interesting stones that would remind her of the time in Neum; during the group boat trip on the second last day, she became the "captain" of the boat and was allowed to guide the little excursion boat for a while; she enjoyed being with the other kids the most - just being a part of them. Of course, Elina still needs our support, especially in reinforcing her self-confidence and self-respect.
But it is sure that as soon as the doors of the coach opened in Neum, a window opened up for Elina - to a world of equality and joy.
As usual, we parallely worked in groups with mothers and children. Elina's mother, Safija, participated in the group work of the women.
However, she was very closed at the beginning. She confided to our colleague Amela D. that she could neither read nor write but she did not want the other women to know about that. The colleagues then changed the exercises. From now the women communicated verbally or used symbols or sketches to communicate.
Such as Elina, her mother was also afraid of rejection and exclusion. Only after a few days she started easing up and began to be more open towards the others. She talked about the violent experiences that accompanied her almost throughout her entire life, the violence she experienced in the family and the insults she had to deal with in her village. For her it was obviously the first time anyone listened to her attentively and sympathetically. In the last round of the group session, she uttered, obviously moved: "I feel wonderful here. I have never experienced that, the fact that others actually listen to me and understand!"
After Safija finally started to trust the others, she used the time during walks or the time at the beach to talk to the colleagues Nurka B. or Amela D. privately. Mostly it was about difficulties in her marriage, possibilities to find help for herself but also for her husband, the communication within the family, the possibilities she has to protect herself and her children and things like that. Safija was afraid of a separation because she is illiterate and has never learnt a profession.
I (Amina S.), myself talked to Safija numerous times, especially about her relationship to Elina. She told me that she was also the confidant of her mother during her childhood, who was abused by her father regularly. She noticed that she was overcharged with that in the past too - such as Elina is now.
During the last group session in a psychodrama-exercise, when the women had the opportunity to reflect what the group work during their stay in Neum meant to them, Safija chose 3 symbols and explained them: " This doll, this is me now. I feel much lighter, much stronger and happier!... and this nice colourful cloth, that is my daughter: she is so beautiful and kind-hearted, full of lust of life, but also so sensitive … she blossomed out here, happy… if only that could stay that way!... And this here … (she breathes out heavily) this pen, this is my decision to learn how to read and write!... I thank you for everything … everything, these days here were the most beautiful days in my life... Here I noticed for the first time that I am a precious person too - just the way I am. Thank you!