Serbia’s young people learn to help themselves

Serbia is not the easiest place to be young in 2014. Unemployment is high and wages for those who can find a job are low.

Guy De Launey
Zainepa Jašarević, an 18 year old volunteer, volunteers in the library where she reads stories and socialises with children with disabilities as well as young Roma children
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl

24 September 2014

Serbia is not the easiest place to be young in 2014. Unemployment is high and wages for those who can find a job are low. 

Across the country, around one in four people are out of work.

That would be bad enough – but the nationwide youth unemployment rate is double that and in some parts of the country it is even worse.

Vranje is a case in point. To say this small city in southern Serbia has seen better days would be a polite understatement. 

It may be in a strategic position, close to the borders with both Macedonia and Bulgaria, but one economic crisis after another has left Vranje reeling.

Major employers like the Kostana shoe factory closed down, and thousands of jobs went with them. 

The city’s young people have been among the worst affected. There is a dearth of quality employment and education opportunities – and a dire lack of leisure-time options.

With little to do and few reasons for optimism, it would be easy to fall into despair – or, for those with the means to do so, simply get out of Vranje. 

“If young people move away to university, they don’t return,” says Nemanja Dejanovic. 

He is one of the people trying to change the situation for the better, as the vice coordinator of Vranje Youth Office. 

“The aim is to make Vranje attractive to young people and animate those who remain here. We help them through various programmes and activities, providing information and peer-to-peer advice.”

The services and programmes on offer focus on getting young people to help themselves – and each other.

The philosophy is that through volunteering, teenagers and young adults can develop while making life better for people facing challenges of their own. 

The services and programmes offered by the Vranje Youth Office focus on getting young people to help themselves – and each other. This group of volunteers is preparing for a workshop about the dangers of drug abuse that they have organised.
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl
The services and programmes offered by the Vranje Youth Office focus on getting young people to help themselves – and each other. This group of volunteers is preparing for a workshop about the dangers of drug abuse that they have organised.

It should be a virtuous circle. Through volunteering, young people develop self-esteem, skills and knowledge which might open up new paths for them. At the same time, they help others – usually members of minority or vulnerable groups. This promotes a more inclusive society.

“Volunteering provides a qualitative way of spending free time,” says Nemanja.

“We offer a source of information which helps them to get involved and find a role.”

The Youth Office organises some volunteer programmes by itself and others with a number of local institutions. One of the options on offer is organising reading and creative workshops at the city’s library with children of vulnerable and minority groups. 

18 year old Zainepa Jašarević comes from a Roma family and has been volunteering at the library and day care centre for three years, where she reads stories and socialises with children with disabilities as well as young Roma children.

She says that volunteering built up her confidence and meant that her school teachers viewed her in a different light. 

“In this town, there’s nothing for Roma people to do,” she says.

“Volunteering was a way out for me and a way to help other Roma children.”

It also helped Zainepa to see a possible future path, as a schoolteacher. So far she has been unable to turn that idea into reality – as the costs of taking the exam to enter a teacher-training course, as well as the potential costs of the course itself, have proved prohibitive for her family.

But Zainepa is hopeful that with continued support from the Youth Office and her fellow volunteers, she will find the right path.

16 year old Emin Demirović is also from a Roma family, and has been volunteering at an information centre set up to help Vranje’s young people find out more about the various options available to them as they move into adulthood.

A confident young man with a musical talent, he says that volunteering has made a huge difference for him. 
 

“The youth office is first of all, for me, something like my second home. That’s where I met many new friends – good friends – and that is my second family.”

This is the volunteer ideal in action – rallying young people from vulnerable or socially-excluded groups and helping them to become part of a positive force for change. 

“All the work with the youth volunteers is actually emphasising non-discrimination and equality,” says Jelena Zajeganovic, the Youth and Adolescents Development Specialist at UNICEF Serbia. 

“Through this cooperation they’ll understand each other and move towards inclusion and an inclusive society.”

Other options on offer to the young volunteers in Vranje include organising workshops to help children with homework and school projects, assisting with counselling on health and emotional issues and working on programmes to improve the environment in the city.

There is also peer-to-peer career advice available, along with the information centre which aims to pull together in one place all the resources relevant to the city’s youth. 

All this should help young people to develop their skills and knowledge beyond education, and to gain what Nemanja calls “social intelligence – ways of communicating and interacting with others in society.”

Serbia’s Government gives its support to programmes similar to those in Vranje. The Youth and Sports Ministry backs volunteer services and youth clubs across the country. Meanwhile UNICEF coordinates with local authorities on funding and implementation.

The situation in Vranje is still far from easy. But now at least the youth volunteers are providing each other and their communities with something which has long been in short supply: hope.