Hodovo is a Refugee Settlement in Bosnia Herzegovina that suffered greatly during the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990's. During the school half-term, Mark Purcell, Martin Callagher and Eileen Cywinski travelled to Bosnia as part of our support for the community there.
The purpose of the visit was to meet Maria, the newly appointed headteacher of Hodovo School and gain further knowledge of the structure of the elementary and secondary schools.
- To listen, discuss and prioritise the needs of the schools.
- To establish clear contact details and guidelines regarding the transfer and use of any money that would be sent from St. Clare’s Parish/School Project.
- To gain assurance that the money would be used to benefit the children and not for other purposes.
- To visit the settlement in Hodovo and assess the amount of money that would be needed to provide wood/fuel for the winter months.
- On behalf of St. Clare’s Parish Council, to invite a group from Hodovo to join in the Guild Celebration in September 2012.
Early on Friday 21st October the group travelled from Medjugorje to Crnici School to meet the new headteacher, Maria, and the translator, Kristina. Through the translator, Maria described the school system and her responsibility as headteacher of three elementary schools.
The central school of Crnici is an elementary school which educates children from 6-14 years; it has 385 pupils. Hodovo School, which is 10 minutes away by car, has 43 children aged 6-10. Before the war there were many more children in this school between the ages of 6-14. The third school, Prenj has only 18 pupils.
During the last visit in May 2011 Father Loughran presented 1000 Euros to the previous headteacher for the school in Hodovo. We asked what had happened to the money. We were told that it was in a bank account and it was going to be used to buy a stove and fuel for Hodovo. Any remaining money would be used to purchase items for the school. Details and photographs would be sent to us when the money was used.
Maria told us that she was not allowed to receive money directly and would need permission from the Board of Education. We asked Maria if she had identified any needs and if she would be able to choose which school would need help. We also asked if the Board of Education could disagree with Maria’s identified needs and use the money for something else.
Maria told us that an account was important. Regarding the needs of the school, Maria felt that a little bit of everything would be beneficial and it would be best to get things ‘step by step’. Her priority was a library. At present the central school, Crnici has a small library and Hodovo and Prenj borrow from it. Maria assured us she would inform the Board of any needs that we would be willing to raise funds for.
In their library, 20 children share 5 books! When asked about a ‘Kindle’ the staff were bemused and referred to it as the ‘Space Shuttle’!
This comment reinforced the status of the present education system in the Bosnian schools. Children and staff have not even had sufficient books to hold, to own, to read, and the notion of being able to access many books on a hand held technological device was way beyond their experience. It would certainly seem that the request for a library was an essential for this school community.
Following our initial discussion we were given a tour of this central school. Sparse is an understatement in every respect. The corridors were bare and jail-like with neutral and bland faded walls. The atmosphere was tense and cold. The ICT room was locked and had a metal door to protect the three (1970s) computers. The gym, which was just a classroom, sported three cardboard boxes with very little equipment. There were 2 table tennis bats but no balls or table tennis table.
The library was a store cupboard that was also locked for security. There were few books in this large store.
Following this visit to Crnici, Central School, we travelled to the now familiar site of Hodovo School where the children, staff, parents and Parish priest, Father Damian were waiting to celebrate their ‘Festival of Bread’. This was similar to our Harvest Festival and the children proudly and confidently recited poems and sang songs. They were so welcoming and many of them remembered us from our last visit. We shared their food and offerings of homemade drinks. This was an emotional and humbling experience as it was impossible to not compare our own Harvest Festival and the differences and similarities we share as communities. When the children gathered around the ‘Bread Table’ it really served as instant confirmation that Jesus was at the heart of our involvement with this community.
We left the hum and warmth of the assembly and made our way over the muddy and stony track towards the classrooms of Hodovo School. The classrooms were empty as the children were all in the hall; it was apparent as before that the children were very much in need. Basic needs that we take for granted and which would be available to us at the flick of a switch were practically non-existant. There were no radiators or electric heaters but only unlit iron wood stoves; the air was cold and chilled. The walls were white and bare punctuated only by patches of mould and damp. The bookshelves were empty and there was no practical equipment that would be essential for infant learning. The headteacher showed us and infant/Reception classroom that housed one of the familiar cylindrical stoves. This stove needed to be replaced nearer the area where the children would sit with their teacher. The money raised by the communities of St. Clare’s Parish would make a small but important area of change in the lives of these children. The 1000 Euros which Father Loughran presented in May 2011 would be used to fund this change and also buy winter fuel for the school. Following the tour of the school The Parish Priest, Father Damian, invited us to his home for refreshments; he made us most welcome.
We left Hodovo and drove to the town of Stolac to meet the Mayor and the President of the School Board. Also present was the headteacher of Stolac secondary School where some of the children of Hodovo attend. Maria, the head teacher of Hodovo, Crnici and Prenj was present as was Kristina our translator.
The Mayor told us that he was pleased and happy for our involvement to continue with the Hodovo Project. The head teacher from the district school of Stolac wanted us to visit her school and stated that she has 40 music students and only one piano that is very old and needs replacing. Maria, the head of the three schools including Hodovo told the meeting that she would very much like a library resource which all the children in the schools could benefit from. The chair of the Board supported Maria’s request for a library as a priority. He reassured us that money received would be used appropriately to benefit the children in the schools.
We thanked the group for their co-operation and told them that we could not make any immediate decisions as we would have to meet with Father Chris, who started the Project and inform him of the findings and priorities. Following our meeting with Father Chris, contact would be made with Maria, at Crnici School. Kristina would act as translator for Maria.
On behalf of the Parish Council we invited the Mayor and a group from Hodovo to join our Parish in the Guild Celebration. The Mayor said he would be pleased to lead such a group.
On our guided tour of Stolac School we saw that it had a newly built gym, but with no equipment and recently installed computers with the covers still on. The head teacher showed us the school piano which was old and needed replacing. Following our tour we returned to Hodovo and made our way towards the settlement to meet a local man Vjeko who would provide us with information about the cost of fuel for the people in the settlement for the harsh winter months.
In the October rain and cold the settlement houses were as before, unfinished and stark. There were no paths or fences for definition around each of the detached, unrendered structures. The upstairs floors of the houses were windowless and uninhabitable. People lived on the ground floor. Outside each of the homes piles of chopped wood was stacked and protectively placed under the concrete steps that led to the unused top floors. This wood would be the only source of heat in the freezing winter months. Needless to say these small piles would be insufficient for the coming winter. Vjeko told us that one cubic metre of this wood costs 35Euros. If it was agreed that the Hodovo Fund would help the settlement he would liaise with Father Chris and the Project to ensure the families were provided with fuel. An account would be opened for this purpose. We took bank details and contact names.
After saying our goodbyes we returned to Medjugorje to reflect and evaluate the eventful day in and around Hodovo School. There was so much that needed to be repaired, on every level. As well as the fabric and structure of their school and homes the children needed basic things that we take for granted. They needed fuel and even a stove to provide heat in the elementary school. They lacked equipment in the classrooms. Pens, pencils, paper and art materials were greatly needed. The children were still using pencil cases that were brought over in April 2010. The main priority for Hodovo was funding to create a library for the children in Hodovo. The library would be a shared resource between the three schools of Hodovo, Crnici and Prenj. These children and staff are in an education system that is so different to ours and although we would have liked to provide computers and reading opportunities like the ‘Kindle’ they are clearly not at this stage of development. These young children have probably never had the opportunity to hold their favourite book and share in the colour and magic that the world of reading and writing brings.
The greatest and strongest image I take away from this trip is the ‘Festival of Bread’ where we sat and shared bread together in the small hall at Hodovo School. As the children gathered round the table of food, that which nourishes us it truly looked and felt that we were ‘One Body’ and that God is always with us. It was one of those moments when love for our being takes over and you forget the pain and the cold, the suffering and the disadvantaged. We were for this meeting gathered together round the altar of Jesus. The children, parents, parishioners, teachers and priest like our own community of St. Clare’s guided and united in togetherness, in hope and in God’s love. As a group we were further inspired and committed to supporting the Project for Hodovo.
- Fuel for the settlement (35 Euros per cubic metre of wood approx. 30 homes)
- Fuel and stove for the school
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