Outreach workers help families cope with crisis
The flood water made the simple wooden shack in which they used to live uninhabitable.
In natural disasters, the most vulnerable members of society usually come off worst.
So UNICEF has been working with the Centre for Protection of Infants, Children and Youth and the City of Belgrade's Centre for Social Work to set up a network of Family Outreach Workers - who can provide timely, tailor-made assistance at times of crisis.
The system is already in action in Obrenovac - a town of more than 20 thousand people around 30 kilometres from Belgrade city centre.
In May 2014, the worst floods in living memory made boat the only viable means of transport around Obrenovac.
Many of its residents were forced to evacuate – some to hastily-organised refugee centres in hotels, sports halls and exhibition centres, others for extended stays with relatives in other, drier parts of Serbia.
Those who suffered the greatest were already living precariously – Roma people in substandard housing that provided little resistance to the inundation. UNICEF was on the ground quickly, providing support to social services and the most vulnerable families.
But longer-term assistance is just as important.
One year on, it is bone dry and roasting hot as Lilo Kostic returns from the shops with a bag full of bread for his seven children.
The eldest is 12, the youngest, Andrijana, just a year old. At ten in the morning, the sweat is already pouring off their father as he remembers the events of the previous year.
“I had a job on the day of the flood,” says Lilo.
“When I heard what was happening, I rushed home to pick up the children. First we were evacuated to a school, then a hotel and then Sajam [Belgrade's biggest exhibition centre].”
Now Lilo and the rest of the family are back in their own home.
The flood water made the simple wooden shack in which they used to live uninhabitable. Instead they have moved into a larger property next door – but it needs considerable repairs and renovation.
Lilo indicates where he has put in fresh plaster and electrical connections and talks about his plans for further reconstruction.
Emergencies hit families living in poverty the hardest. Life is already difficult enough for them.
If the family is Roma this may add to their vulnerability – due to the discrimination they often face.
They already endure a dearth of employment options and substandard housing – so a natural disaster can have a severe impact.
It is not uncommon for families to split up due to the added pressure caused by having to leave their homes.
The extended family and social networks they usually take for granted might not be available - and the same goes for job opportunities through these connections.
In Obrenovac, UNICEF worked to minimise the chances of that happening. Lilo notes that his family was able to stay together throughout their evacuation, thanks to the support they received.
The work did not end when the flood waters receded. More than ever, vulnerable families needed help to rebuild their lives and provide their children with a more hopeful future.
UNICEF supported the Centre for Protection of Infants, Children and Youth as it set up its Family Outreach Workers programme.
These specialists are not office-bound – and they do not wait for clients to come to them.
Instead they are proactive and work closely with Belgrade Municipality’s Centre for Social Work, which refers families in the greatest need.
The key is connecting to people who often feel invisible in their own community and helping them to build on their strengths. Then they can take the responsibility to make changes for the better.
Once contact has been made, the aim is to provide help which matches each client's requirements. They might need access to health and social services - or parenting advice and financial support. It is the family outreach worker’s job to find out.
“We go to the families and build a relationship of trust – it is comfortable for them to accept us and believe in us,” says Marina Jursa, a family outreach worker who has been helping Lilo and his family.
Prevention Not Cure
UNICEF reinforces the philosophy behind the approach – encouraging prevention and early intervention to reduce the risk of families separating. The family outreach workers are building a system that should help the most vulnerable people more quickly in any future emergencies.
“We feel secure when we work with a family that we have the support of UNICEF behind us,” says Marina.
Lilo’s eyes fill with tears as he expresses his gratitude to Marina for the help she and her colleagues have offered.
The family outreach workers helped him navigate the local bureaucracy which can often seem impenetrable or untrustworthy to Roma families.
Now his wife and youngest daughter have official identity documents which allow them access to the health and social services to which they are entitled.
Thanks to Marina’s help and advocacy efforts with local services, Lilo has also been able to enrol three of his children into pre-school. He also managed to obtain advice on the rebuilding of the family home, as well as get a wood-burning stove to put in it.
There are still many challenges for vulnerable families in Obrenovac.
Neither Lilo nor his wife have regular employment – and their home is still very much a work in progress. But thanks to their family outreach worker, things are far better than they might have been.
The relationship between the local services and UNICEF is also proving fruitful.
From now on, the local social services should be much better equipped to deal with emergencies – ensuring that vulnerable children receive the best care, especially in a time of crisis.