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The Rotary Club of Ojai is sponsoring  - as International Partner - a Global Grant for Economic Development for Women in Rural Bosnia and Herzegovina. The project needs commitments of funds by other supporting Rotary clubs to move the project forward. In this program, RC Ojai member Kay Bliss explains how the project developed and what it aims to do. In addition to being an economic development project, it is a project with a strong peace-building component.  In an area where ethnic and religious resentments and the after effects of a bitter war (1992-1995) still linger, this project brings people together across their social divides and builds bridges of shared purpose and friendship.  The Host Partner will be Rotary Club of Mostar (D-1910).
 
The following is Kay's presentation adapted from the PowerPoint she has presented to other Rotary clubs:
 
This summer I went to Croatia and Bosnia for a vacation.  I was unexpectedly blown away by the complexity and need that still lingers in Bosnia after the 1992-1995 war.  I was able  a tour a great NGO in the city of Stolac, talk with its director and staff, and meet some inspiring women.  I’d like to tell you more about my time in Bosnia, and the exciting Rotary project it has led to.
 
  
I had no firm idea where Bosnia was before this trip – I did remember hearing very confusing horrible news stories about a terrible civil war and ethnic cleansing, but at the time I could never figure out what exactly was going on and who were the bad guys, so I just sort of gave up trying to make sense of it.  
 
A brief orientation and history:

Bosnia was formerly part of  the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and when that republic disbanded there was terrible civil war.  Our project is in city of Stolac in the southern area of Bosnia.  The club we are partnering with is in the city of Mostar, 40 minutes to the north of the project area.
 
 
You can’t understand Bosnia without knowing something about it’s history – which has everything to do with where it is located. – between Turkey (formerly the Ottoman Empire) and Eastern Europe (formerly the Austrian-Hungary Empire ruled by the Hapsburgs).  This whole area  was the buffer zone between Europe and the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, both sides taking young men to use as cannon fodder and young women to use as breeders for more population.  People raided both ways, and life was cheap. During this time three main groups settled in the area – Muslims from the Ottoman Empire, Serbs who were Eastern Orthodox, and Croats from the Dalmatian coast just across from Italy who were Roman Catholic.  They lived together, many intermarried, but there was always fierce loyalty to their own group.
 
 
 
Mostar and the Rotary Club of Mostar
 
We started our Bosnian travels in Mostar, an amazingly fascinating mix of Turkish and European influence.  It was decimated by the civil war, with Serbs and Bosnians in siege for two years, with anyone venturing out of their homes during the day risking being killed by snipers.  We could see evidence of the war everywhere, but especially touching were the city parks crammed with tombstones that had dates of death between 1993-1995.  The parks were used to bury the dead because it wasn’t safe to try to bury them in the graveyards on the edge of town.
 
 

The Rotary Club of Mostar (D1910) was chartered in 2002.  According to the club website, its goal was to overcome the highly complex situation in Mostar and heal the still present painful war wounds of its residents. Rotary is seen as a way for its members of all ethnic and religious groups to cooperate on civic projects and interact as true friends the way they did in pre-war days. That was a revolutionary concept in 2002 at the end of the Bosnian War, and exemplified the Rotary attitude in an extremely courageous way most of us can hardly imagine.
 
Stolac
Proceeding from Mostar we made our way to Stolac, our guide Sanel’s hometown which is located in a beautiful area, with serene mountains and rivers abut 40 minutes away from Mostar. From a distance it looked idyllic, but when we started walking around town we began to see first hand what Sanel had told us about the war. The brutal Bosnian war (1992-1995) pitted Bosnians of different ethnic/religious groups against each other, and included ethnic cleansing and systematic rape. Men from Stolac were taken to concentration camps or killed, and women and children were interned in refugee camps for the duration of the war.  After an uneasy peace, they trickled home to find their town decimated, with formerly prosperous businesses shut down, and their homes destroyed or occupied by the people that forced them to flee.  Today ethnic/religious tensions persist, and people are still trying to heal emotional wounds and recover economically. 
 
 
    
Many people didn’t have money for repairs, and others emigrated and were not able to be found, and land laws prevented homes from being renovated without permission of the owners.  Some homes were occupied by Croats who were fleeing from ethnic violence to the north, and there were land disputes when the original owners returned from refugee camps.  Things are still being sorted out.
 
The Municipality of Stolac has approximately 11,000 citizens The town is divided into two ethnic groups, Croats and Bosniaks, with a small number of others (Serbs and Roma people).  The ethnic divisions are central to how things run in Stolac.  A swimming pool that was a communal meeting place for years before the war remains in disrepair (even though a grant was obtained to repair it) because the town government didn’t want to provide a place that would serve all kids together.  Even the school is divided into two parts. Catholic and Muslim students share the same building, but their classrooms are on different floors, and they have different teachers and recesses, and different textbooks that are written from different points of view. As with the school, other places of business are divided too: coffee bars, restaurants, hairdressers, etc. This affects hiring and job availability.     
 
 
 
It’s a real struggle for the local women to get employed since they are discriminated against due to the Labor Law statement of maternity, that states that an employed woman has the right to absence from work due to pregnancy and childbirth ('Maternity Leave'), and absence from work for child care, for a total of 365 days.
 
 
 
 
Agriculture in Herzegovina
 
The area of Herzegovina has a very favorable climate for agriculture. A lot of the women have small plots of land and grow things for their own use and to sell.  A large part of agricultural products deteriorate because there is no adequate collection center for products, and farmers sell them on the black market, or at the only one large market in a nearby town. Due to the large amount of goods flooding the market at the same time, they are compelled to sell their products at very low prices. Much of the produce is thrown away due to rotting and other unhygienic conditions in which those perishable goods are stored. In addition, another problem is the lack of awareness among local farmers who are used to the traditional way of farming and they fear the introduction of new cultures as well as new ways of production and processing of products.
 
 
Orhideja

In Stolec, Sanel took us to the NGO he volunteers at for the six months he is not leading tour groups –Udruzenje Orhideja Stolac  (Association Orchid Stolac).  It is a grass-roots NGO founded in 2004 in the area of Herzegovina by 160 women participants, most of whom belong to the war returnee population and are single mothers. We were able to tour their headquarters and enjoy delicious refreshments and I had the opportunity to talk with Udruzenje Orhideja Stolac Executive Director Minva Hasić about her program and the project concept began to take shape.
 
 
Association Orhideja Stolac organizes community development in Stolac and surrounding rural villages, promoting goals to strengthen a civil society, primarily by empowering women of all ethnic and religious groups with emotional, social and civic competencies through skill development in sewing, agriculture, marketing, environmental workshops, and providing seminars on gender equality and women’s rights. 
 

The NGO is always looking for ways women who have not had the chance to receive formal training can use their skills to make a living.  They recently received a grant to renovate a building and turn it into a hostel and catering business.  Since tourists and trekkers are beginning to return to the area since the war, this provides more accommodations where there are currently very few.
 
 
Co-op Products

Most of the things the NGO sells through their co-op are agriculture-related and are produced for local use, such as essential oils and medicinal herbs.

In 2014 the Association with several women grew, dried, and sold 4 tons of tomatoes, and discovered a high demand for their product that they currently are unable to provide in sufficient quantities.  Women expressed a desire to expand on this previous success.
 
 
The women of Association Orhideja have envisioned a project that will introduce new and more lucrative farming techniques into the area, and provide increased economic opportunity and better environment for women in the Herzegovina canton. I discussed with Minva the possibility of doing a grant together, but that we could only do it if we could find a club in Bosnia who would be the host club.  Minva had worked on a project with a Rotarian in Mostar when he worked with US Aid.  He is fluent in English, and – miraculously! – the Rotary Club of Mostar is already doing a global grant with the Denver Rotary Club with Roma and rural women for literacy, and was eager to continue empowering rural women in this area.  When I called the primary contact in Denver she said Mostar was great to work with, so a partnership was born.  Then in August eight Ojai Rotarians participated in a Skype call with Minva and Sanel, and were as impressed with them as I had been. Our club decided to go for it! 
 
The Global Grant Proposal
 
The global grant we have proposed will: 
  • Provide training for 30 unemployed women in the production, drying, processing, and preserving of consumption tomatoes for the needs of the domestic market, with at least 30 more women added the following year. 
  • Teach 10 women how to do the drying, processing, and preserving of the tomatoes.  The training will be done by faculty from the Agromediterranean Faculty at University of Mostar, with ten college interns assisting during the summer.
  • Provide a refrigerated delivery truck, equipment and training to increase sales capacity of cooperative marketing through Association Orhideja Stolac.
  • Provide pro bono business and farming co-op consultations via Skype (as we have done successfully for the Ghana Street Girls laundry project.
 
In total, the project budget is $62,000.  We are working to raise the $19,000 commitment by October 30, 2015, which would allow us to have the grant funded by March, in time for next year’s tomato season.  
 
For more information or if your Rotary club would like to contribute to this project, please contact Kay Bliss at kblissojai@gmail.com.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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