An irresistible call

"Humanitarian work is a passionate profession," says Jovana Savić, "one that has taken me to various parts of the world, exposing me to different cultures, experiences, joys and sorrows and all the wonderful people I've met along the way."

Jovana Savic
Jovana Savić
Photo: Matt Hackworth

See also "Why I'm a humanitarian worker"

By Jovana Savić/CWS

I am a humanitarian worker. I am stating the obvious, but in my case the obvious needs to be stated. It took me awhile to stand up for my profession. Let me tell you how I became what I am.

Honestly? When I was a kid, I dreamed of working all sorts of jobs – a ballerina, then a doctor – and for a while I just wanted to be famous for being me (it was a novel idea at a time!). So, you see, I never planned on being a humanitarian worker. I didn’t grow up with this altruistic image of work; work was meant to bring you money, and the more valued and respected the profession, the greater the paycheck. Our society was not devoid of altruism but choosing to devote your life to a cause was almost unheard of. The culture of giving and helping was common among individuals, but it was not woven in our society’s collective fiber nor held, collectively, in high esteem.

Thus, considering the climate, when the time came for me to select the college and accordingly my profession, I was left with reliable choices. I still to this day remember a conversation with a friend of mine; we were 16, and discussing our dream jobs. We were sitting in a park, across from Belgrade’s Faculty of Law, and I recall saying that although I still don’t know what I would like to do, at least I can cross one thing off my list, the law. I laughed, loudly, two years later, evoking this conversation once again as I entered the big, noisy hall of the Faculty of Law to attend my first lecture. Like so many young people then, I decided to compromise; I gave in and settled, taking the profession because others valued it. I knew from the very start that me in the law should be, well, against the law. I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer. During the first real trial I was assigned as a defending attorney, I cried while I was hearing the indictment. I was actually crying for the other guy. Not really lawyerly, do you think? I organized a couple of sit-ins and was always the first to strike against our corroding, corrupt academic system. It was 1998, and I was now living in a post-war Serbia that was plagued by poverty, with yet another conflict looming over our heads, Serbia stained with unlawfulness, and I was frankly fed up with law. This was a time when students, way ahead of politicians, filled the streets of Belgrade daily protesting the system, demanding a healthier society. These collective gatherings of young people from all over Serbia were so powerful; for the first time we experienced the potential of many voices speaking as one, gathered around the same social issues, calling for change. It was a mind-altering experience and I became aware that I didn't wish to work for the system and for profit, but I still didn’t have a clear vision of what it was I wanted to do. One thing I knew: I wanted to quit my studies for some time.

And then - a happenstance! A chance event, a whim! I meet this young woman during the protest. She starts talking about humanitarian organizations – she happens to work in one – and I’m nodding, too shy to admit I don’t have a clue what she is talking about. She gives me her card, says that in a couple of weeks they will be hiring, and she invites me to apply. What do I need? A résumé, she says, in English. I am confused but excited. I wasn’t actually planning to get a job, but now that the opportunity came just like that, so easy, I was curious. It was as if I couldn’t resist the call. I talked to my family and friends; the organization had "Catholic" in their name, a fact that seemed to confuse everyone around me. Do I need to be a Catholic to work for them? Maybe it’s a cult, be very careful, God knows what they are all about... just some of the questions and observations shared. To put this in proper context, you need to be aware that Serbia at that time was a wounded, isolated society with citizens deprived of basic rights, with young people unable to connect with their peers around the world; no internet, no travels, no outside links, no interaction. I was determined to change something; I applied for a job, because for me, after all these comments, it was an act of deliberately violating my own expectations, prejudices, deep-rooted schemes, methods, systems and beliefs. Just the very act of applying was enough for me to feel I was doing something different, something uncharacteristic. But my journey was just about to begin, because I was hired. I was soon to learn that doing a job and feeling, owning a job are two different things. The year of 1998 was extremely tense; Serbia was about to enter yet another conflict, and the political climate was chaotic. People were either scared or eager to fight; the mainstream media fueled the latter. Foreigners were leaving, humanitarian workers were being proclaimed as spies and arrested. And this was the climate surrounding the first few months of my first job. I wanted to quit, many times. I just wanted to give it up because the stigma surrounding this profession was so colossal that I wasn’t able to speak openly about my job. So my usual response was: I am a student. The police visits to our office were a weekly happening; they were questioning us or just checking the premises for satellite phones or any other prohibited means of communication at the time. While they searched, we travelled delivering much needed assistance to destitute and poor people all over Serbia. These visits kept me sane. Although it was hard seeing and experiencing the living settings of most of the people we visited, it was precisely those people who gave me the purpose, who helped me feel to the core what being a humanitarian really is. Although I was renouncing my profession daily in mainstream settings because of the fear of judgment, it was here, in the field, with people that I truly felt at home. I felt complete. I felt that this is where I need to be.

Although the year 2000 brought social, cultural, and political changes, it took me a while before I started saying, loudly and proudly, what is it that I do. I remember one instance when I was submitting some official documents and there was a column to fill in the profession. I wrote: a humanitarian worker. The lady behind a counter returned the paper to me saying that this is not a profession. I was taken aback. This was, after all, a new Serbia, Serbia with numerous non-governmental, humanitarian, non-profit organizations, Serbia that understands and accepts us. She said that I need to state my education. More confusion, but I did it. I stated the title written on my college diploma. I never returned to law, and in the meantime I finished the Faculty for Media and Communications degree. So, there it was, a communicologist. I was sure she would be confused, because frankly, it should have been more confusing for her. Nothing. She accepted the paper without a word. This is the precise moment when I decided that this was the last time I renounced my profession. I am a communicologist by technical education. But I am a humanitarian worker by vocation. After all these years, I am so proud to say that I belong to the wonderful community of people, that I am one of them. This profession of ours is still viewed by some unfavorably, sometimes even with hostility. Sure, within our community, some made poor decisions, and as it happens often because of the few, the many aren’t given the respect they deserve. Many of us paid the ultimate price, giving their lives, many of us are kidnapped, many wounded. This is a passionate profession, the one that does more for the soul and for society than most of the professions known to me. I have this profession to thank for taking me to various parts of the world, exposing me to different cultures, experiences, joys and sorrows and all the wonderful people I've met along the way. I have this profession to thank for expanding my mind, for making me become conscious of the many voices and many shapes and many colours around us, for being open to perceive them, acknowledge them, appreciate and understand them. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you ended up being a humanitarian through unplanned, serendipitous chain of events like I did, or you always wanted to be who you are today. My strong belief is that we didn’t choose it, it chose us. Some of us just heard the call sooner.

Happy World Humanitarian Day!

Jovana Savić is a communication officer with Church World Service. She is based in Belgrade, Serbia.  

 

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