Sunday, April 5, 2009

Serbia -- November 2008

In the midst of an uprising in February 2008, a young man climbed through a window of the American Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia and started a fire. The attack, and street riots that ensued, were in protest to the United State’s support of Kosovo independence. Though the young man was the only person killed in the fire, the riots created a series of actions by the U.S. government and the LDS Church. Americans were not considered safe in Serbia, so the American Embassy closed and all missionaries were evacuated—including our humanitarian couple, Elder & Sister Morton.

It was a scary two weeks for the missionaries as two-by-two they were escorted by train and bus across the border into Croatia and Slovenia by a young Nikola Novic, the local Branch President. Some of the missionaries were assaulted as they tried to evacuate, and one, a young Canadian, had his passport torn to pieces in protest a week earlier. Though the missionaries were removed, most Church members managed to stay together. They prayed for peace in their country and the return of the missionaries and church leaders. Finally, on September 8th, eight of the ten young Elders who were evacuated, returned to Serbia—reestablishing the Mission. When we learned that the missionaries would be returning to Belgrade, we contacted President Hill, the Mission President, and asked if he was ready to have a humanitarian couple return. He asked for a month to evaluate the situation and the treatment of the young Elders by Serbian citizens. In October, we were encouraged to visit Belgrade with Elder & Sister Morton to evaluate for ourselves the attitude of Serbians toward Americans. We were impressed by the reception of the people and the general acceptance towards us as Americans and as members of the church.

Church entrance one block from Embassy

Just 2 blocks from the Embassy and the Church--still stands a reminders of NATO attacks in 1999—a successful attempt to halt Serbian attacks neighboring countries. It’s fascinating to see that this building could be so precisely hit by off-shore missiles, and yet the buildings connected to it, and the one across the street remained unharmed.

One of our favorite pictures of Belgrade was this charming couple, sitting quietly together in the center of town square. When we asked them if we could take their picture, she smiled. In broken English she said. “Oh. No. I’m not pretty.” We think they’re beautiful! And, full of charm.

For Elder & Sister Morton, our visit to Serbia was an opportunity to reminisce and recount their experiences in Belgrade. But, best of all, it was an opportunity to renew friendships. While in Serbia, they took us to visit their choice friends and NGOs.

One of their favorite people and organizations is Tasa, a Gypsy and the “mayor” of the local Gypsy (Roma) community. Tasa’s story is especially interesting . As a young man in his twenties, he was introduced to the LDS Church while living in Germany. He joined the church, went on a mission and decided to return to Belgrade to help his people. Though he is a counselor in the Branch Presidency, he never married, and has dedicated his life to help lead his people away from old traditions and convince the government that Gypsies are people who deserve rights like any other Serbian. There is an overwhelming dislike for Romas (Gypsies) throughout Eastern Europe. They are considered the lowest class of all races and cultures in many Eastern countries, including Serbia. Belgrade’s Roma story is a particularly heartbreaking story. This Roma community inhabits land that was donated by a closing convent nearly 200 years ago. They were overrun by the Nazis during WWII. Then overrun by the Communist government after the war. During the 1980s new Serbian government wanted the land away. Romas were not allowed to build any new buildings. So, weakened houses and makeshift shacks became the normal existence for most Roma. Tasa wouldn’t stand for the government’s treatment of his people. He created a committee of men to fight for Roma rights. Though the government planned to move Romas off their land and into barracks, away from society, Tasa fought for them to keep their land. During the last 18 years, he has convinced the city to not only allow them to stay, but to build a fenced soccer field and playground in the community.

Recently, Tasa also convinced the government to hire 25 Roma men to clean and maintain the ditches and streets of their own community.

Tasa has turned the downstairs of his home into a kindergarten for Roma children. This is another unique story. Children are not allowed to enter public school in Serbia without first going to kindergarten. But, Roma children are not accepted into public kindergartens until they can read and write Serbian. So the vicious cycle of illiteracy remains high in Roma communities. Tasa is working to get the government to legitimize his kindergarten. It’s a hard sale, since few certified Serbian teachers wants to teach these children, and no Roma is educated and certified. But Tasa refuses to give up. He is working to convince the city that he and his assistant can prepare these small children for public school. Tasa sees his little school as a place for “his” children to receive an education. Tasa had two requests from the Church’s humanitarian service. Winter clothes for his people and a project that would educate the young men of his community in woodworking skills. On our return to our Frankfurt office, we ordered a container of clothes, and hygiene and school kits for the Roma community. We are in the preliminary stages of a woodworking-carving project that will include training and equipment for a workshop. Tasa’s home will become the Roma community workshop/school for young boys to learn a new trade and hopefully, a new future.

A 13th Century Fort……overlooks the intersection of the Sava and Danube Rivers—making it an excellent defense position and an accessible location for invasions—and beautiful.
Serbia has experienced a lengthy history of warfare and hostility. Its earlier saga involves invasions from other countries: Roman, Turkish and eventually Nazi, and Communism. After the fall of Yugoslavia, Serbia fought to remain the central government, as one by one, countries declared their independence.

Serbia is ready for a new generation, a new century and modernization--as old Belgrade becomes New Belgrade. We enjoyed our visit and in this beautiful country. Though there are many issues left to overcome, we felt at peace. It is a country filled with beauty and charm, and very proud people--people who are learning to work and set goals for their own future.
We were excited to help approved a 250 wheelchair project for the Right for Work organization —an organization for disabled persons who need chairs to work. This project was in the developing stage, then cancelled after Elder and Sister Morton were evacuated February 2008.

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