By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2011
Catholic Relief Services Country Representative Jacob Hershman recently spoke to a group of local Catholics about his experiences and the programs the international humanitarian agency is implementing in a struggling area of Eastern Europe.
Hershman, the country representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, came back to the United States for a few weeks to visit his extended family and get some well-deserved rest and relaxation. Cullen Larson, CRS Southeast regional director, invited Hershman to speak at St. Andrew Church, Roswell, on Tuesday, July 19, to share his story and invite people to get involved.
Hershman has lived in Eastern Europe for nearly three years with his wife and two young boys and had much to say about the continuing efforts to bring peace and cooperation among the many groups that inhabit the area.
CRS first arrived in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992 to 1996. The war was a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia and was fought in the newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina between Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, also known as Bosnian Muslims. Initially CRS provided food and clothing to those in desperate need, but now their efforts have expanded in hopes of bringing together the still-divided population.
Working with local organizations from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, CRS is helping to restore some quality of life for many families and survivors of the war.
“We’re trying to help our community partners to see through their vision and have their plans flourish there, and to restore dignity that was taken away from people,” Hershman said.
The horrible memories of the war still plague the people, said Hershman, which makes the healing process difficult. CRS currently focuses in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia on rebuilding communities and fighting the growing problem of human trafficking.
Since the war left 2 million people displaced, nearly half of the region’s population, CRS now focuses on bringing families and communities back together in their homelands, working to once again open the discussion between ethnic and religious groups. Some 125,000 people are still displaced 16 years after the war officially ended, inspiring Hershman and CRS to take charge and work toward peace and reintegration. The task has not been easy, Hershman said, but progress is being made.
Recognizing the dignity of human life is an essential theological starting point for this kind of progress to be made, Hershman said. The lasting effects of the trauma caused by the war have been a huge obstacle in bringing people together, as the bias and intolerance has been passed on to the next generation.
“These memories alone are impediments,” Hershman said, adding that the current situation could lead to a resurgence of violence.
One of the programs works to bring families and communities together by providing housing and living spaces on the land many of the population used to inhabit before the war.
“The program is focused on returning refugees” and it works “to provide housing and livelihood opportunities for displaced people,” Hershman said.
In the community of Fojnica, CRS has acquired land from the government and turned it into a multi-use property with residences and businesses. Hershman said people need more than just a place to live; they need a place where they can thrive and become part of a community once again.
“They don’t just need a house, they need many other things,” Hershman said.
Fojnica opened in 2009 and offers low-rent residences and space for businesses. There are also psychosocial and medical resources available to residents who have been scarred by the years of conflict. Hershman said many people were too afraid to go back to the region because of the memories of what happened there during the early ‘90s.
“We built this complex here in partnership with a local mental health facility,” Hershman said, adding that eventually ownership was handed over to the mental health facility under the agreement that they would maintain it.
Another of these settlements that opened in 2009 is located in Potočari, Srebrenica, a place where one of the worst massacres took place during the war. However, CRS and other local entities have turned the community almost completely around. Currently more than 30 families live on-site in two housing facilities with seven businesses operating in the area as well. These businesses include a bakery, an Internet café and a salon.
The hope is to show the local government what is possible as far as rebuilding communities. Thus far, there has been support of these programs, which continue to grow and spread across the region.
CRS has devoted more than $30 million since 1996 toward resettlement and reconstruction programs, helping people to return to more than 3,150 prewar homes. These social housing programs are supported financially by the U.S. government and need local people to continue to speak with local legislators to make sure these programs continue to receive the necessary funds.
Hershman encouraged local Catholics to contact their legislators to voice support for CRS’ work in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Larsen and Hershman visited with the staffs of Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isaacson during Hershman’s visit to Georgia. Voicing support can go a long way in keeping these programs alive, Hershman said.
A crucial part of these community resettlement and rebuilding programs takes place on a more personal level. A program entitled “Choosing Peace Together” was designed to support war survivors to talk publically about their experiences. By helping people talk about and share their experiences during the war, they can better relate to one another, allowing more room for healing and reintegration to take place.
Through this program, CRS works with local organizations to arrange social events where people from different groups can share their stories. There are some 65 events of this kind planned this year, according to Hershman. There is a special interest in bringing together the younger generation for these events since they are an important piece of the healing process, said Hershman.
Another focus of CRS’ work in this area of Eastern Europe is human trafficking, which continues to plague the local population. While trafficking across borders has lessened in recent years, trafficking between local communities is on the rise, said Hershman. CRS works in various capacities with local organizations such as Bosnia-Herzegovina Women’s Initiative Foundation and Caritas of the Bishops’ Conference of Bosnia-Herzegovina to raise awareness of the issue and implement programs to prevent trafficking.
“Catholic Relief Services in Bosnia-Herzegovina combats human trafficking through programs focused on prevention, reintegration and public awareness,” the CRS website states. “We provide women and girls from rural areas with work opportunities within their own country, and promote awareness of the risks of trafficking for those seeking employment locally and abroad.”
Hershman, who has come to love the countries and people with whom he works, asked for spiritual support for CRS through prayer and physical support through advocacy with local government officials. The goals of the programs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia have been set high, but the progress made over the last few years has been inspiring.
“Pray for our projects,” Hershman requested of the crowd gathered at St. Andrew Church. “The people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who have suffered things that we can’t even begin to fathom … deserve to have that support and that prayer.”
Larsen, in a later interview, said CRS and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops feel strongly about the urgency of the work being done in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“The Catholic Church in the United States, through the bishops, believes and is advocating that federal programs affecting poor and vulnerable people, both here and abroad, must as a moral matter be given priority,” Larsen wrote by email.
Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton, Calif., and Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives in mid-July, in which they called for continued support of CRS programs abroad.
“Catholic Relief Services receives critical support from the donations of U.S. Catholics, from private foundations, and from the public sector (such as the US government, the UN World Food Program, and others). These critical funds are leveraged and stretched to serve more people in need around the world,” the letter states. “The humanitarian, development, and peace-building programs of CRS work in Bosnia-Herzegovina that Jacob Hershman described so well are funded in part through the U.S. Agency for International Development and by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.”
Larsen encourages local Catholics to join “Catholics Confront Global Poverty,” an online action alert system that informs residents of ways they can support the global cause of CRS on a local platform.
“The bishops and CRS are urging Catholics to join ‘Catholics Confront Global Poverty’ today to receive the latest advocacy news and action alerts,” Larsen wrote. “We are urging people right now to call on Congress to make the moral choice and to remind them that the poor and vulnerable have a special moral claim to limited funding.”
For more information on CRS’ work in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, visit crs.org/bosnia-herzegovina and crs.org/serbia. To find out more about acting locally, sign up for Catholics Confront Global Poverty at crs.org/ccgp or contact the Southeast regional CRS office at (404) 681-4600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.