Articles From the July 1995 Unification News


RYS Serves Refugees in Croatia

by John Gehring-NYC

Zagreb, Croatia: On April 7-17, in a region torn by bitter and often violent racial and religious strife, fifty staff and participants from twenty-two nations joined a Religious Youth Service (RYS) in an effort to serve families of refugees and displaced persons. Croatia became the seventeenth nation to host an RYS project, this latest project was the forty-third since its inauguration in 1985.

The RYS has proven to be an effective way to model religious cooperation by extracting a commitment from youth of all faiths and cultures to give unconditional service to those in need. RYS has visibly demonstrated its model of building, "World peace through religious service", and in so doing is a great force for goodness and transformation.

The prolonged conflict, ethnic cleansing and eruptive instability that resulted after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia has resulted in nine percent of the people in Croatia becoming either refugees or displaced people. This situation has placed heavy burdens on both the national government and on international relief organizations that are serving the population.

While being aware of this region's political instability and its potential for violence, RYS participants arrived in the Croatia capital of Zagreb at a time when the nation was on the brink of a renewal of the war. The participants came with the hopes that they would rather take the responsibility to offer what they could rather then wait at home and lament.

Personal Reflections on the Croatia Project

Participants who flew into the airport at Zagreb were quickly exposed to the effects of the regions on-going conflict as fleets of United Nations trucks stood lined up and waiting for their release to depart. These goodwill deliveries were often delayed, while drivers patiently wait for favorable negotiations, negotiations that would increase the likelihood of a safe delivery of critically needed supplies to Sarajevo and other conflict zones.

Waiting to be picked up at the rather small but clean international airport, I traced back the chain of events that led to the RYS going to Croatia. This particular RYS emerged largely out of the efforts of RYS alumni who got to know of the war through the eyes of one of its victims, Mirta Spear and the support she received from a key advisor, Dr. Vera Mehta.

Accustomed to wars images of pain and suffering being flashed into our living room through the passive medium of television many of us harbor an unfulfilled desire to do something for its innocent victims. The images and faces of war, all have their stories; yet for the stories to move us to action they need to be grounded in a reality to which we can relate. Summer, 1994 during the RYS project in Turkey we learned first hand the story of one of the war's victims, a fellow participant and friend, Mirta Spear.

Mirta's story was shared during the closing days of our work together in Turkey. She lost her home, her livelihood, suffered physically and saw many close to her die or become damaged by the wanton violence of exploding mines. Many of the participants decided that RYS should respond to the needs of those refugees in Croatia and soon after began to make concrete plans on how to make a successful RYS project.

Part of the key to the chain of events that led to the reality of a RYS in Croatia is the personal initiative and responsibility taken by people who had a vision of what could be done and their ability to cooperate and compromise with other like-minded people. This spirit of strong cooperation existed between the International Relief and Friendship Foundation, (IRFF) and the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace (IRFWP) and the RYS alumni of Northern London University.

The people in these organizations were able to solicit and secure the support and cooperation of key officials in the government of Croatia and active leaders in United Nations relief efforts.

The IRFF had in the past five years laid a foundation for the work of the Croatia RYS project through the efforts of its chapters in Austria and Italy. Mr. Eckhart Riehl of Austria and Mr. Massimo Trombin of Italy had over the years been bringing goods to Croatia and earned the respect of those receiving aid and key officials. When the RYS requested to work with refugees in Croatia the IRFF already had been active in supplying a refugee camp in the city of Varazdin with fish powder and other material goods. The IRFF had also been serving a local hospital in Varazdin which received over the years nearly a $ 1,000,000 in equipment and supplies.

From England, IRFWP representative, Mr. Marshall D'Souza and Rev. B. Ananda Mangala, a Buddhist monk and student union vice president shared responsibilities with the highly motivated RYS alumni from North London University creating a RYS Croatia project planning team. These students and recent graduates raised funds, goods, and interest for the project through a series of fundraising activities. Their efforts were rewarded by the Vice Chancellor of the university whose good office donated one thousand pounds and also lent the RYS a university owned, seventeen passenger bus to drive to the project.

RYS Education Program

How do you prepare young idealistic people to enter the lives of refugees who have gone through experiences with evils that are often beyond imagination? The human dimension of the refugees situation and possible responses was an educational element added to this RYS program. Because of this factor, RYS invited a wide variety of speakers who were deeply involved with working with displaced people and refugees, including staff from the camp in which we would do service.

Guests from several Non-government organizations (NGO's) shared the realistic situation of both refugees and volunteer workers. Possible ways to build a relationship between those we were to work with was discussed in lectures and in teams while pointers of things to avoid were also outlined.

Also as part of the two and a half day orientation, UN representatives shared what their role has been in Croatia with a special focus on the efforts they have been making with displaced persons and refugees. From these presentations also came much practical advice concerning some of the typical situations that we could expect to encounter at the camp.

A key figure in the government of Croatia, Dr. Adalbert Rebic, Minister of Refugees and Displaced Person's gave us the view of the government of Croatia on the contemporary situation for refugees in the country. National television and radio covered this and other later developments of our stay in Croatia on the evening news. Dr. Rebic's participation was especially valuable for as a Roman Catholic priest he could take part in the public IRFWP forum in Zagreb and share personal and religious perspectives.

As part of the participants introduction to religious issues they were invited to take part in an IRFWP panel presentation at a Jewish community center in Zagreb. During this meeting representatives of several faiths shared what they felt was the best aspect which their faith offered to creating a peaceful world.

Religious awareness was also enhanced through the daily morning prayer and meditation services given by participants of each faith. An education session on the issue: " What is my spiritual motivation for service", provided an opportunity for participants to reflect on their inner motives for giving service.

Education programs were enriched by the active role that the advisors played. Seasoned veterans of many international programs, their character and experience was able to create a wide range of programs capable of enriching participants in multiple ways. Dr. Vera Mehta, who has worked with the UN in Sarajevo, helped organize programs that dealt with the refugees. Dr. Sherry Hartman-Burr of the University of Southern Mississippi, led four sessions which were focused on leadership training while Dr. Frank Kaufmann, IRFWP Director, moderated the IRFWP panels in Zagreb and later in Varazdin and Dr. Darrol Bryant, IRFWP Secretary-General led the RYS in a `Pilgrimage of Life" during the programs closing days.

As part of the schedule, participants were given a short time during the orientation to sightsee in Zagreb where they toured cultural and religious places of interest.

Reflections on Working at the Varazdin Camp

After the Orientation concluded on April 10, the RYS traveled one hour through the spring green countryside to reach the strikingly historic city of Varazdin. Housing at Varazdin was donated by a school who offered us its clean, bright and newly refurbished facility. The school, which serves learning disabled children was far better kept than most schools in the United States. This was where we were to stay for the upcoming week's work while the children were on Easter vacation.

After unpacking, we left the school by bus in order to attend a welcoming program at the camp which we were to work. This camp of 750 was just one of many in the city. Our bus on entering the camp was spotted and tracked by anxious children, racing on foot or on bicycle, following and leading the bus at what seemed to be dangerously close distance, all out of exploding curiosity and youthful interest in being part of what was about to happen.

To enter the auditorium we needed to pass through a thickly smoke filled hall that was filled mostly with men who had become too familiar with waiting. Our eyes would meet the faces of the men whose enthusiasm was a distant memory and whose hopes were often shrunk to receiving an extra portion of cigarettes. Yet, we could sense that we were a relief to them, representing a newness to what had become the stale routine of a monotony called, daily existence.

The auditorium filled with men and women of all ages but few men were present who were the age that makes for good soldiers. The little children dressed simply and were embraced warmly by the momma's, older children, spirited, with a more than average streak of independence, noisily waited. The program began with the normal fair of speakers from the camp joined by speakers from the RYS.

The atmosphere in the auditorium changed when RYS representatives were asked to stand. Twenty-two nations were called one by one. As words such as India, Nigeria, Mongolia, Kenya, France, Malta ..... came out of the speaker's mouth it became more and more clear to those in the auditorium that many corner's of the world were sending their young people to be with them. For the young, there was a new intensity in the excitement while the older people could more deeply feel that they were not yet forgotten.

Entertainment happily followed the speeches. RYS participants contributed various acts, but the highlight performance came with the team of Cathy from Austria and Bil from Mongolia. They performed an up tempo dance drama in three acts that had everyone clapping. The Croatia entertainment came from an incredible professional dance troupe that, in thirty minutes, conveyed a sense of the richness of the history and culture of the area as well as its involvement with the contemporary. The musicians played Elvis Presley, as well as they did traditional courting songs. A good time was surely had by all.

The following damp, chilly morning participants were divided into four work teams and began the physical labor for which we had been preparing. One team scrapped, plastered and painted the halls and inside apartments of a large building. Each apartment had one very large room that was used to house three or four families. A second team worked along side, painting these apartments, but also fixed the public laundry rooms and toilets. A third team painted rooms that were to be used as a children's nursery and repaired toilet fixtures while the fourth team scrapped and painted the large dining room where camp residents took their common meals.

The work in the Varazdin camp with its population largely composed of Bosnian Muslim's provided an opportunity for us to transcend daily routines and enter into a realm of profound sharing. Each of us has a personal memory of the faces and the stories of the children with fathers and brothers on the front, the widows and grieving mother's, the infants. The silent sullen atmosphere prevalent in the camp when we arrived.

As newcomers, we could sense the weight of despair which was often left unspoken. The reality of war: destroyed homes, shattered communities, divided families, bitter questions. The unsettling realization that there is no home to go back to nor a vision of the future for which to strive. We all asked ourselves the question, " What could we possibly do to help? "

RYS is an experience full of images. Often this image is drawn from the mouth of the innocent. In Croatia, one story is of an older women who has been waiting for three years to be reunited with her husband and two son's on the front. She befriended us and took some in as if they were her own children. She shared with us some simple words describing reality more profoundly then the pen of great philosophers. " While you from the RYS are here I can for the first time, forget about the war."

This temporary respite that the RYS offered was similar to the respite that the country was receiving for soon after we left Croatia, Zagreb was struck by a rocket attack and fighting was once again raging.

Closing Days

On finishing our work portion of the project the RYS concludes with a more reflected time. The organizers discovered a fishing resort area called Trakoscan which was in many ways an idyllic location for our closing days. On approaching the hotel participants were greeted to the sight of a large castle on a wooded hill and a lively stream that cut through both the fields and the woods.

During the free time given for reflection if one ventured on foot into the woods they could notice the swaying of the multicolor patches of fresh flowers while being serenaded by various melodies given by a wide variety of singing birds. Nature seemed to reflect a happiness over the fresh breath of Spring and the fact that it was a most holy and special Easter.

Programming during the closing days is less frequent and more informal, it is designed to give participants a chance to focus on reviewing some of the things they had learned during this project, plan what they wished to do on returning home and make written commitments.

One of the highlights of this period was a long walk made by all the participants through the countryside. Under the guidance of Dr. Darrol Bryant we paused at various stations and were given spiritual themes to reflect on. This "Pilgrimage of Life" helped participants to examine their lives and sharpen their vertical commitment to become the kind of person they hope to become.

Our closing dinner was a time to award graduation certificates to participants and staff and a handful of officials who had played an important role in making the RYS feel so welcomed in Croatia. The atmosphere of extended family filed the air. Soon after we need to say our good-byes yet their was an air of unreality when we said our farewells because for many of us it seemed more like the `till we meet again' you say to a favorite cousin.

Some have said that the RYS is like a prayer answered. Our prayers today are that the spirit this project brings, a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, can take root in the hearts and minds of the people. We hope that by planting the RYS model into the soil of this land the many good people that live there can choose it as a guide rather then repeat the failed habits of the past. It is becoming ever clearer that world peace can only come into fullness when the religions of the world commit themselves to the service of others.

Those who have worked on an RYS project have tasted the beauty of selfless service. They are also keenly aware of the power and potential for goodness that religious cooperation holds out to the world. RYS models the mindset and behavior that are required for true peace to become a living reality. Those that take part in this experiment are truly pioneering the way to a hopeful future.


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