“Children are the ones who will be capable of bringing us out of these crises in the next few years” - Ljiljana Vasic

Member Spotlight: Interview with Ljiljana Vasic, Director of Pomoc Deci, Serbia and Treasurer of Eurochild Management Board (elected May 2016)

Ljiljana Vasic

A journalist turned humanitarian aid worker, Ljiljana saw the situation of children living in poverty, refugees and others, and was eager to continue this work when the large international organisations left. She set up “Pomoc Deci” (Children and Youth Support Organisation) 12 years ago. She speaks about her work in Serbia, including a unique initiative on peacebuilding education, and the need to come together at European and international fora to speak the same message – to invest in children and realise their rights. 

1. Can you explain briefly what role Pomoc Deci plays in Serbia? How do you fundraise for it?

Pomoc Deci is now entering into teenage years as it completes 12 years of existence. A group of us started it to support children. In Serbia, children are often left out of education because of legal documents. We offer legal assistance to ensure children who are deported and return to Serbia have a name and identity and can verify their educational qualifications and return to school. We also have pre-school educational programmes and psycho-social support for children. We reach these children and young people through local partnerships and through the national coalition for children’s organisations. So, our team consists of lawyers, journalists, paediatricians and educational experts to help us deliver these projects across Serbia. And we are funded by a number of different project grants, including from the European Commission, foundations and by individuals through a few crowdfunding initiatives. The government has limited funds on offer for children.

2. What is the achievement of your organisation that you are most proud of? 

We are proud to be recognised – by children and youth who receive our services; by governmental institutions who invite us to join working groups; and by international organisations in Europe and globally. 

We have an innovative programme on peacebuilding education with young children. We work with pre-school teachers and train them and parents of young children. This is a programme run together with 6 Balkan countries using the early years development programmes approach tested in other countries. The pilot phase lasted 4 years. The evaluation shows that this approach to diversity and starting early has raised awareness among teachers and parents of the way young children notice and follow the behaviour of adults. The training has been accredited and is being streamlined into national curriculum. The next step should be introducing it into teacher training. 

3. What are the key issues affecting children in Serbia?

Poverty is a major challenge in Serbian society. We have the lowest average salary in Serbia; there is also pervasive discrimination that creates exclusion; the early dropout rates are high as well as the unemployment rate. Unfortunately, children are not seen as a priority by the Serbian government, just as in some other European countries. All of this impacts children. We are tackling this by showing how education and early years development can prepare children for the future. The lack of statistical data is another challenge in our advocacy work. 

4. How has the refugee crisis affected Serbia and your work in particular? How are you supporting children arriving in Serbia?

Serbia received a lot of media attention as it became a transit country last June for the refugees arriving from Syria and traveling onwards. Now the Balkan route is officially closed, but there are still a number of refugee children, especially unaccompanied children and we are supporting them as we see the need to inform them. While basic food and accommodation is offered by the government, this is not enough. We offer psycho-social support, information to help them find relatives. We are also working on a joint humanitarian programme with Turkey, Greece and Macedonia to share information. We are now also initiating discussions with the Serbian government to prepare the ground for unaccompanied children to access education which will become compulsory starting September 2016. 

5. According to you, what role can the European institutions (EU, Council of Europe) play in the area of child protection and children’s rights? And how do you see the role of Eurochild network in relation to this? 

These European institutions, in a direct way, can fund programmes. Our regional programme on peacebuilding is funded by the European Commission, but it is the only regional networks related programme financed by them that targets children directly. 

Unfortunately, children are not first group on priority list of the EU, which reflects at the local governments’ level. Children of today are adults of tomorrow. If we don’t take care of them now, it is not going to be a good future. Policy recommendations and actual funding from the EU can help bring a change at local level. When I speak to local, national government policy makers, each official said the government from the top needs to send a clear message that it is important to invest in children, then everyone else will follow. This is the domino effect we need. Saying this from the top makes a difference.

No doubt, Europe is facing many crisis. Children are the ones who will be capable of bringing us out of these crises in the next few years. So, we do need Eurochild. Together, we can strongly advocate and try to convince EU policy to focus on realising children’s rights. Networks like Eurochild can make a difference at EU level; otherwise individual organisations don’t have the same strength. Eurochild has the strength in voice because it represents so many other organisations. And when we compare and develop the data across Europe, that’s a much stronger argument. 

Serbia pulled out of PISA in the 2015 cycle and OSCE is also not getting data from Serbia. So, data from other countries are important to convince the Serbian government that they have to be part of the whole picture. Thanks to these arguments, advocacy and data, Serbia has decided to participate in the next cycle of 2018.

6. Congratulations on being elected as Treasurer for Eurochild Management Board! How do you see this responsibility? What are your goals and hopes for Eurochild network? 

I would like to bring ideas to the table about how Eurochild can become sustainable. How it can become a long term strong voice for children’s rights. Also, Eurochild is not a body on its own; it depends on its members. So, the idea would be to improve engagement of members and national partner networks. This will help improve the sustainability of the network. 

Being outside the European Union, and yet having strong global linkages, I hope that I can bring perspective from outside the EU, while still being part of Europe. We can bring the information and standpoint from that part of the world too!

7. You are attending the Eurochild conference; what do you expect to get out of it?

It is important to spread the word about investing in children. The more voices we can get, the more people can come and share their experiences and arguments, the stronger our voices become towards our governments, EU and national ones. The combination of the field experience, policies, and sharing of data and info from various parts of Europe would help us develop stronger arguments to invest in children when we go back to our work.