From refugee to Red Cross volunteer

Published: 11 September 2015 15:13 CET

By Tommaso Della Longa – IFRC

She was only 11 years old when she became a refugee. It was 1991 and war had erupted in Croatia in the former Yugoslavia. Her parents made the decision to flee to Serbia in search of a safe place to raise a family.

“When we were travelling from my hometown to Belgrade, we changed buses several times,” recalls Sanja Drezgic Ostojic, now 35. “I remember barricades everywhere with sand bags, and my aunt telling me and my sister to be quiet. It was something really scaring and unpleasant.

“When we arrived in Belgrade, I remember long queues of people, including my family, receiving food and other supplies from the Red Cross. They had a very positive attitude with refugees.”  

It is the memories of those first few days as a refugee that prompted Ostojic to join the Red Cross of Serbia when she was older, first as a volunteer, and later, as an employee.

“When I was in school, I met the Red Cross volunteers. I didn't have any doubts about joining them.” Ostojic became a first aider. In 1999, she was part of a first aid team at the local branch in Zvezdara, one of 17 local branches of the Red Cross of Serbia in Belgrade.

“I volunteered for the night shift with my team. We grew up together, we knew each other very well, and we were trained and prepared to face any dangerous situation,” she explains. “Solidarity was really strong among all Serbians. I cannot forget the local community members who were bringing food to us, the Red Cross volunteers.”

She recalls the moment the NATO bombing started in 1999 in Belgrade:  “We knew to stay far away from the windows, and then we just waited, hoping that the bombs would not hit our building. Meanwhile, normal life was going on; people found new coping mechanisms during those terrible 73 days.”

In university, Ostojic began writing projects on children with disabilities, projects which led to her current work as a Red Cross employee, implementing social inclusion programmes for Roma children and disabled children.

Ostojic is not alone in her desire to give back. Many volunteers at the Red Cross of Serbia were themselves refugees. With the current massive influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, they know very well what it means to be a refugee. “Behind any decision to flee their home country there are big troubles and incredible suffering,” says Ostojic. “When I saw migrants coming into Serbia, I understood them very well. I know the meaning of escaping to find a safe place, without bombs, snipers and death. We cannot blame people who only want to have peace and a country where kids can grow up without any threats.”

Since late August, an estimated 3,000 migrants are entering Serbia on daily basis, each with a dream of reaching the central and northern European Union countries. The Red Cross of Serbia, Ostojic, and her fellow volunteers are there to greet them, distributing food and hygiene items on a daily basis. To date, they are reaching daily 1,800 of the most vulnerable migrants, regardless of where they come from, or their political or religious affiliations.

“We are embodying our Fundamental Principles every day, being impartial, and helping anyone in need.”