YOUTH WORKERS IN BiH

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The May issue of the youth worker series from Bosnia and Herzegovina takes us to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, to talk to Amar Toplić, a youth worker who started his formal education at the University of Banja Luka, studying social work. While at university, Amar went on student exchanges to Montenegro, Slovenia and in Sarajevo. He fondly remembers his road from Čelinac and Banja Luka to Ljubljana, and his first foray into youth work.

“My road was different from most youth workers, in that it was mostly “unwanted” in a way. In elementary school, I preferred to solve conflicts with my fists rather than words. These proclivities landed me in a non-violent communication training run by the Social Work Center in Čelinac, where I went to school. It was this training that introduced me to the world of youth work. For the first few months, I was an unwilling participant, but then I started volunteering in the local center for children, and got involved in the work of the local youth center where I worked as a project assistant and managed some daily activities. In time, this became a calling that chose me, instead of the other way around. Today I’m proud to say I am a child of youth work. Without youth work, I honestly don’t know where I would be today, I don’t even want to think about it. Our social worker at the time was a little more strict than the average youth worker today, but to me she was more of a youth worker than a social worker, and she has my gratitude”, says Amar, starting his story.

He is one of the young people who decided to leave BiH, and he moved to Slovenia for two reasons.

“The first reason is that my faculty in Banja Luka did not recognize the exams I took during my semester abroad. I was forced to repeat that year, which made me lose the scholarship that made education possible for me. That really hurt me and made me angry. Ljubljana had a study program focusing on social work with youth, so I decided to move there. The second reason is street youth work - a type of youth work that’s practiced in Slovenia but not in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, says Amar.

Amar spent nearly a decade doing youth work in BiH and before he continued doing the same in Slovenia, so we asked him to compare the youth sectors in these two countries.

Amar 01”It’s strange to compare, since the contexts are completely different, but I’d like to start with similarities. I think Slovenia and BiH face similar problems in the youth sector, one of them being that competent ministries are not always willing to listen. But, Slovenia has the advantage here, because it’s easier to reach an agreement and the youth sector is an important part of the society. If you want to reach an agreement with decision makers, you don’t have to talk to 14-15 government, each with their own set of demands. I’d say that the centralization is better in Slovenia, things are better coordinated. Also, youth work entails more than it does in BiH, and I particularly like that people know what you mean when you tell them you’re a youth worker. There are three biggest differences, and the first one is that inter-sectoral cooperation is much better in Slovenia. People often consult us as youth workers. The second biggest difference is the Erasmus+ program, and I have to emphasize this. There’s a huge difference between program and partner countries in the Erasmus+ program. Slovenia is a program country with its own national agency and without an intermediary, which means easier access to more programs. For example, last year my organization had 13 international partnerships for youth work exchange programs. That means that almost every month some of my colleagues visit other countries to learn about their youth work practice. The third difference is transparency, and I think Slovenia does a better job with this. Still, there are things that BiH does better. For example, there’s the network of organizations and youth workers called the Alumni network of expert youth work associates coordinated by KULT”, says Amar.

While in formal education, he gave equal attention to non-formal education as well. In 2018, he took part in a training for expert youth work associates organized and implemented by the Institute for Youth Development KULT with the support of the Olof Palme International Centre. Amar has fond memories of the training and other participants.

“One of the reasons the training was helpful to me was the people, all the individual experiences I got to hear. Between modules, we all conducted different activities in our communities, and during the modules we shared our experience and got feedback from other participants. The second important thing is the content of the training modules. I already knew a lot of the things we learned since I was already engaged in youth work before the training, but the training helped me fill some gaps and shape my knowledge into a cohesive structure. Sometimes I got weird looks from people in Ljubljana when I tell them I know how to make communication plans for organizations, or something along those lines. The third advantage is, of course, direct contact with KULT. For me, KULT is a pillar of youth work, and I know I can rely on them for information or a referral to someone who has the information I need, and that means a lot to me. Which brings us back to people from this training. Trainers Katarina and Mirela, and other participants, were the wind in my sails on my way to live my dream and do street youth work. There was about fifteen of us, but we represent the entire country. It’s a network of people that I still work with today”, says Amar when asked about his experience with the training.

After completing the training, Amar was awarded an expert youth worker certificate. He says he’s proud of this certificate that let to many opportunities for him, even in Slovenia. The certificate formalized what he’s been doing for years.

“Even though you read about it, and other people call you a youth worker, you don’t understand what that means until you actually feel it. I felt it for the first time when I realized that I’m one of those people who help young people live up to their potential and make their ideas come true.”

Amar is now a youth worker in Ljubljana, and works for the European Solidarity Corps. He spends half his time in the youth center and the other half in the streets, parks, playgrounds, cafes, and wherever there are young people. He gets there on foot, bike or takes a bus. Amar does street youth work with young people. The organization he works for combines several approached: outreach, street youth work and detached youth work. Amar says street youth work is full of surprises, and no two days are alike. He dreams of someday seeing youth workers in BiH using this approach in their work with BiH youth.

Given the current situation with COVID-19, Amar isn’t sure what the future will bring. Although he now lives in Slovenia, it seems like he never really left BiH.

“Every time I leave BiH, I always plan to come back. Even when I was leaving bitter, because I was forced to, I still wanted to come back. I honestly don’t know if this situation will change, but I do know that the things I saw here I want to see in BiH as well. It doesn’t really matter that much where I am, but it’s important to me that my youth work somehow connects me with BiH”, says Amar.

Amar ends his story with a message to young people, inviting them to shake a leg and get into something new.

“You never know what you can learn, find out and see if you just leave your comfort zone a little bit, and take one step away from what you’re used to. Dare to try something new, even if it means just going to your local youth center and asking: “What’s up? What do you have going on today?” And never underestimate the power of youth work, because youth work is powerful like a river - it can flow through rocks”, says Amar.

YOUTH WORKERS IN BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

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The youth sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina is full of professionals working tirelessly to improve the position of young people. One such dedicated youth worked is Branislav Ristić from Prnjavor. Branislav is in his final year of studies at the Department of Ecology and Environmental Protection of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. He’s now doing what he loves most - youth work at the local and international level, at the center “Zdravo da ste”, where he works as the Project Manager and coordinates youth activities.

The idea to become a youth worker came spontaneously through a series of events. Getting involved in the NGO sector gave him a clear sense of direction in terms of personal development, his status and the status of young people in the community. His dedication to non-formal education in his own personal development led him to contribute to promoting and developing this type of education in his community.

“Becoming a youth worker in BiH is very easy. All you need to do is stay in BiH, be willing to work with youth, be understanding of their level of maturity, identify their needs and your needs, what they want and what you want, be aware of your environment, spend time with young people, create opportunities with them and for them, stay informed and involve young people in various experiential learning and decision-making processes. After using this approach for a while, I found myself at a crossroads that very clearly mapped out the directions I could take and provided me with guidelines for personal and professional development. But what’s interesting to me, is that even though I have very clear guidelines I still encounter unexpected obstacles that give me the energy to grow and develop. I think other professions that entail working with people face similar challenges, but when you’re working with young people, it’s both easier and harder in a way.

Branislav understands the importance of lifelong learning, which is why he attended the Training for Expert Youth Work Associates organized and implemented by the Institute for Youth Development KULT with the support of the Olof Palme International Center.

Branislav 03“Going through a training structured like this helped me in more than one way. First, I met new colleagues who do (or try to at least) similar things to what I’m trying in my community. Opportunities to share experiences are always welcome for every youth worker. Also, networking with people who do the same or similar things, cooperating with them, and recognizing the needs of young people who work with other young people and getting an overview of the current state of the youth work sector in BiH was all very useful and helpful for youth workers, and gave us the motivation to go to new heights in youth work. This training definitely left a positive impression on me, although I think I needed something like this a long time ago. I can’t say it was life-changing, but it was a new and positive experience. It’s the type of training that asks you to pour your soul into it and let the process lead you so the results you get are real and better. That way we let ourselves leave our comfort zone and take on various challenges at different levels. New acquaintances, new community and a new opportunity to start over. Ultimately, even if you don’t learn anything new (which is unlikely) you can say that you were a part of something where you left your own unique trace.”

Some of the most important benefits of the training for Branislav were new acquaintances, contacts, words and sentences, images, the message that people care about youth workers, which he says isn’t appreciated enough in our country.

Branislav sums up the current situation in the youth sector in BiH “BiH never had fewer young people, and the youth sector never had more work to do.”

“Those who persist are still here and want things to get back on course. Institutions are under the control of political parties, so youth clubs have the most support, and by that I mean youth branches of political parties. But in my opinion, this doesn’t have to do with youth work, as much as it is recruiting voters in between elections. Youth limited by one political party’s program lose a lot and gain very little.”

In a couple of years, he says, he expects to still be in BiH, and urges young people to observe, reflect and be active, whether staying or leaving.

“I’m happy when I meet a young person eager to improve and grow, I’m happy when young people are doing the best for themselves and their future, even if that means leaving BiH. In that case, my job is very easy and the rest is up to individual choices and the state.”

Branislav Ristić is another perfect example of a professional dedicated to building a better future through youth work, both for himself and other young people choosing to stay in BiH.

YOUTH WORKERS OF BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

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The series of texts about the superheroes we call youth workers continues with the story of Jasmina Banjalučkić from Ključ. Jasmina has an MA in Sociology and is currently the Secretary of the Youth Council of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, although she’ll usually introduce herself as youth worker who loves youth policy,

She became a youth worker spontaneously.

“Honestly, I wasn’t planning on becoming a youth worker. It grew spontaneously and naturally, from all the youth work I’ve been doing since I was sixteen. I started by working with children. I was a member of an informal youth group, and we organized workshops for children with the help of a Spanish charity. We had workshops all year round, and camps during the summer. Of course, I learned a lot during the three years I was involved in that project.

Her interest in what’s happening around her then led her to become a volunteer at the youth center Kosmos in Stolac, before taking on the role of a youth worker.

“That’s when I realized that everything I do with young people - individual conversations, group work, organizing local actions, camps, social events, international exchanges and training - is what the world would call youth work. This realization was preceded by several years or learning and growing with the team in Kosmos. For a long time I was unaware that I may actually be a youth worker.”

The role of youth workers, as expert youth work associates, is to support the professional, personal and educational development of young people they’re working with. This is why staying up to date with developments in the youth sector and constantly investing in education is paramount for youth workers. As someone who believes in the importance of lifelong learning, in 2018, Jasmina took part in a training for youth workers organized by the Institute for Youth Development KULT with the support of the Olof Palme International Center. The training was a perfect opportunity for Jasmina to consolidate her knowledge and experience. She’s particularly appreciative of the opportunity to meet many youth workers whose work and dedication motivated her.

“Unfortunately, youth workers rarely get a chance to sit together and bounce ideas off each other. After listening to fellow youth workers, I was left with a lasting impression that we’ve done so much for young people that it’s time someone supports us too, since we’re the ones young people can reach out to day and night, we support them through injustices and try to make it right, we share in their joy and try to offer positivity, act responsibility and encourage change.”

The most important thing the training taught her is that she has to be very loud when advocating for the rights of youth workers. She also noted that there are no associations or policies focused on youth workers and their rights, and she herself accepts some of the responsibility for it.

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Jasmina thinks that the youth sector is going through an unprecedented crisis.

“A lot of young people, including my coworkers, left the country or moved to different communities and now lead different lives. This happened without an adequate transition, and we didn’t prepare the field for some new youth workers, volunteers and activists. It’s clear that the number of active youth organizations is dwindling. We invested so much in youth organizing, but right now it’s not strong enough to support youth through the challenges they’re facing, especially in local communities. Being neglected by institutions eroded people’s enthusiasm. At the end of the day, they did have a personal sense of satisfaction, which is, of course, important, but we weren’t recognized by the system and they didn’t invest enough in us.”

Jasmina now works at the Youth Council of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where she continues her youth work in a slightly different way - she’s promoting youth rights and the government’s obligations towards young people.

“I work on youth policies and I try to promote youth organizing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I really want to stay in BiH, and keep working on youth policies because I think a good system that’s responsive to youth needs is the foundation of a good society. I know that young people want change, but I want from them is to have them be a part of that change.”

She advises young people to organize, get involved in youth associations, informal groups, and youth councils.

“Only if we join our voices, we’ll be loud enough for decision makers to hear. It’s particularly important that young people enjoy this process, this change they’re bringing,” says Jasmina, one of the positive forces in the BiH society that build it up it from within, day after day.

YOUTH WORKERS IN BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

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We continue our series about youth workers in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a story about Dejan Rađen from Brčko. Dejan is a 25-year-old with a degree in Architecture. His coworkers say he’s ambitious and amicable, and see him as an example of how youth work shapes people from an early age. Dejan agrees with them - he really was shaped by youth work.

Dejan is happy to talk about his beginnings in youth work, which is now his profession. 

– When you ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up, they don’t usually say youth worker. Many don’t know what that means, and many never find out. The first activities I took part in were in high school and they were organized by the PRONI Center, when I now work. I looked up to the trainers and youth workers and dreamed of doing the same. It began only as a childhood dream that in time turned into decisions that made the dream come true.

Big changes take time, and wishes don’t come true overnight, so Dejan will always emphasize that hard work and giving his all to his job is what led him where he is now. He thinks the road to success isn’t a straight line; to him it looks more like a pyramid.  

- I think that in this sector we all go through a pyramid-shaped learning process. You start off as a participant, in time you grow into an activist, then a volunteer. Then you learn and improve until you get a chance to take part in trainings for trainers where you get a chance to put to use everything you’ve learned so far.  Learning and improving is what took the longest for me in this process. I spent around two years taking part in trainings and learning on my own. That’s when I realized that I want to do this professionally.

Being someone who values lifelong education and invests in his development, Dejan took part in the 2015 Training for Expert Youth Work Associates conducted by the Institute for Youth Development KULT with the support of the Olof Palme International Center.

– This training was a way for me to hone my skills in youth work. I think that just one training or one university program is not enough to teach someone how to be a youth worker - it takes more than that, it takes combining experiences. This training was very important for me, because once I completed it I was officially an Expert Youth Work Associate, which the Agency for Statistics included in the classification of professions in FBiH. I was finally able to explain to my parents what it is that I do exactly.

From September 2017, Dejan has been working at the PRONI Center for Youth Development and is currently their Youth Work Manager. For the past year, he has been coordinating the work of the PRONI Youth Club in Banja Luka. Every week in his organization he works with young people from BiH and the region but is happy to respond to invitations by other organizations to work as a trainer/youth worker/coordinator. For him, the best part of the job is seeing the positive impact you have on a young person’s life.

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When it comes to the youth sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he is an optimist:

– We’ve seen a positive change over the last few years, with a growing number of young people and organizations getting involved in youth work. International organizations took on too much work, without investing enough in building the capacities of local organizations. Cooperation among organizations in BiH also has room for improvement, since they tend to treat each other more as competition than partners.

Dejan Rađen is another young man who is planning to build his future in Bosnia and Herzegovina, although he admits that he came close to deciding to leave several times before. He says he stayed because of this sector and the chances that he was brave enough to take, and that helped him transition into adulthood.  His advice to young people he works with and all those who choose to stay is to invest in themselves, improve, avoid complaining and blaming others and take responsibility for making the best of every day.

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