Community is a core strength of Women for Women International. Adapted from her speech at the Kolo Conference, Solidarity Network Community Leader Djenita Svinjar’s journey shows the power of connection between women to overcome obstacles.
My name is Djenita, and I grew up in Mostar, Bosnia, during the Bosnian War.
Though I was young, some memories have remained with me after all this time. I remember taking refuge in the basement of our apartment building, falling asleep to snipers and bombs on the streets outside of our home where I played with my friends during the day. I wondered if it would ever end.
My father and my uncle were soldiers in the Bosnian Army. They defended their people against the Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb armies, trying to protect their loved ones during the wartime. During this time, my parents often talked about fleeing Bosnia.
Sadly, this dream never came to fruition.
On June 19, 1993, my dad was shot and killed on Bulevar Hrvatskih Branitlja, a street right around the corner from my childhood home.
Over the course of the war, my mother’s father and brother were held captive at Dretelj concentration camp and beaten to such an extent that they were unrecognizable when they left: My grandfather’s heart was experimented on, later causing him three heart attacks; and my uncle lost fifty pounds and had three ribs broken by Bosnian Croat soldiers.
Later, through the assistance of humanitarian organizations, my uncle was relocated to Rochester, New York. There, he saw another life for my mother and myself. A strong-willed woman and dedicated nurse, my mother couldn’t imagine leaving her home. To persuade her to leave the war behind and move to the United States, my uncle said the words that would change her mentality and our lives:
“Think of your daughter. Think of the future you want for her.”
We arrived in the U.S. in December of 1994. The transition to Rochester was anything but easy. We lived on welfare and food stamps for a year and a half, but thanks to local organizations, our Bosnian friends, and local immigration attorneys, we assimilated as best we could.
In college I found a passion for women’s rights and wrote a thesis inspired by two influential women in my life: my mother and my cousin Elvira, a doctor in three countries. But I still craved more of a connection to my roots, to do more for women’s rights.
I became involved with the Bosnian-American Genocide Institute and Education Center (BAGI), educating others about genocide and other crimes against humanity to combat indifference and hatred worldwide. My research with them led me to Women for Women International.
Since its beginning, Women for Women International has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and micro-credit loans and helped hundreds of thousands of women worldwide. In Bosnia alone, it has helped nearly 40,000 women.
Last year, I became a community leader to assist with programs and represent Women for Women International in war-torn countries. Since then, I have participated in numerous women’s rights programs, assisted with fundraising efforts, and met many incredible women who share my passions for assisting women in need.
I now sponsor a young woman in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through Women for Women International. My small sum monthly goes directly to a sister for training programs that allow incredible women to overcome hardships they endured and provide for themselves and their families.
Women learn crucial skills and their rights, receive monthly stipends for food, and gain a supportive and encouraging environment that cheers them on.
Throughout my personal experience and the assistance efforts I am lucky to participate in, I carry my mother’s experience and lessons with me. She loves helping others as much as she can and will do anything to put a smile on someone’s face. She uses the war as a learning experience and reminds me of her compassion for others that she carries within her, despite everything that has happened to her.
I have another special woman I am grateful for: Seida Saric, the director of Žene za Žene in Sarajevo, who has nearly 20 years of humanitarian aid experience.
Throughout my life, I’ve been lucky to have wonderful female mentors who pass their strength and values down to me. These women go out of their way to make this world a better place and deserve all the recognition and respect in the world.
Never stop learning and appreciating the ways experiences and people can impact your lives. We restore justice individually every day by becoming better versions of ourselves for tomorrow and forever.