Interview with ERMA Alumna Sabiha Kapetanović

Sabiha was born and raised in Sarajevo, with family who originates from Montenegro, area known as Sandzak. She moved to Turkey after receiving a scholarship and completed her BA in International Relations from Ege University in Izmir. She won the Schuman fellowship at the European Parliament and finished ERMA in 2018, defending her MA thesis on topic of Unaccompanied Children on the Move. Sabiha has worked with various organizations promoting human rights through social equality and mobility. She has extensive experience working with people on the move and can provide valuable insights in this area.

  1. How has your background and upbringing influenced your work in international humanitarian actions?

I believe that each and every human has a valuable story to tell, a story that shaped our very core and lead us later through the life and of what we became. We are in a constant becoming and it is us, who decide which road next. There are many different, intersectional challenges that lead me to international humanitarian actions. Growing during and after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but not really, being a girl and later on growing into a woman, growing up in not wealthy nor healthy society; interlinking that with part of your religious identity, are just some parts of identity that influenced me and shaped me. All these moments very often for us, humans are the moments that will make us or break us and it is us who decide what it will be.

  • How do you approach working with individuals from different cultures and backgrounds?

I just love working with and learning from different cultures and backgrounds. Only then you get to really learn about yourself and about everything that surrounds you. You get to understand that there is a way more similarities than differences between cultures. More than we could imagine. Whether you talk about language, culture, tradition, social norms. Interacting with different cultures and backgrounds, you meet heterogeneity in the most beautiful ways and you get to understand that excluding it is what makes us poor and limited, what keeps us away from breathing in the life to its fullest. Though, for us who come from Balkans, this should not be something new or strange. Sadly, I feel that still big part of our societies fear to admit this and as long as we are being led by fear and shame, we will be passing through our lives, without really living them.

  • Can you tell us about your experience working with people on the move?

Working with people on the move and especially with children and unaccompanied children on the move has been my most valuable life experience. They gave me a chance to learn from them, they inspired me. They can show you how real struggle for life looks like, what it means to seek your freedom and defeat all the artificial borders, made by humans out of fear for imagined power. Those are people whose homes got destroyed, whose family members got killed, whose daughters ended up in child marriages and whose sons, while still children, had to provide for their families. However, they are people who are breaking all the chains that have been put on them, they walk bare foot for miles, they do not eat for days, they sleep in forests, swim across the seas, being beaten whether by defense forces or by criminals who can be smugglers or traffickers, and still they do not give up on their dreams. Game is not over until they decide it is over and that is why they play the Game over and over again, until they succeed. Once the Game is over, another Game is about to start. For many of them, even when they reach European soil, fight for their freedoms and acceptance continues. Here, the similar story of Balkans occurs over again, and that is fear from different, that could actually, if people would allow it, provide us to see different colours, sense different tastes, learn different languages, listen to different music and enrich our minds and souls.

  • What challenges have you faced while working with different international organizations?

One of first challenges that you have to “swallow” when you start working in humanitarian sector is that you are not there to save the world and every and each individual who is part of it, you are there just to do as much you and your organization can. Sometimes you will face walls that do not allow you to go further, sometimes it will be will of your beneficiary, they do not want to receive your support and no matter how you feel and what you think that should be done in that case, your hands are tied up.

When you have a child 9 years old and it is said that there is no bad to accommodate him or when you receive people who have been stripped and beaten or when you go to visit people who have just been evacuated from place that has been shelled, families being separated not knowing for each other, being woken up almost every night by an air raid alarm and many other horrific events, you cannot really close eyes to these situations. But that is why it is from crucial importance that you as an individual and organization for which you work are always hold accountable based on humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, independence and impartiality – these principles show you the way in difficult times and tell you what you should do or when you should stop. That brings us to another challenge and that is humanitarian aid worker’s own well-being. Once you start to work, it feels almost impossible for you to stop, there is always something more that can be done and you end up working 24/7. Finally, this leads you to one of the most common coping mechanisms and that is “normalization” – you tend to accept, naturalize and normalize all the above horrific events, as part of your every day, “normal” life. That is why this work is not really a job, but “call” to which you commit, knowing your possible losses at the other side.

  • In your opinion, what is the current situation regarding migration camps and migrants in overall? Especially now when you are on cite in Ukraine, what is your experience?

If I will talk from my experience, I cannot say what is current situation in migration centers across Balkans, because I have not been present there for a while now. Though, I believe it still remains challenging and there are many factors that influence that, such as state systems, different mandates of different organizations and their funding and added to that constant movement of people on the move, for who, if they do not want to stay at Balkans, you cannot really work on durable solutions. Regardless, that there is always more that we as individuals or society can do and we can start from acceptance and appreciation of their identities and their life stories.

On the other hand, if we talk about current war in Ukraine, no war can have any positive sides and there is nothing that could compensate innocent lives that have been taken and could never be returned. Even when the war is over, we know the best, the new struggle begins, bringing up many traumas.

Currently, the country, with a high support from different countries and organizations is still managing to respond to the needs of Ukrainians, weather they are internally displaced, returnees or conflict affected areas. This is not to say that there is no need for improvement, but considered that country is in the war, system is functioning, people can get accommodation, covering basic needs and offering additional support such as legal, psycho-social, educational, socio-economic etc. Regardless of that, many families have been separated, people are losing their homes and loved ones on daily basis and still some of them do not want to be evacuated from open conflict areas, believing that the war will finish any day. Internally displaced people believe in the same, they believe that any day soon they will go back to their homes and so they end up in vicious circle that does not allow them to move on with their lives in the areas where they have been displaced.

The context is very complex, the needs are high and there is still lots of work that has to be done.

But I have to say that my experience so far with people of Ukraine has been nothing, but heartwarming, it reminds me of home.

Finally, regardless of type of migration or displacement and the cause behind it, regardless of identity and background of affected people, we come down to dividing our fight for human rights to different human rights. I met many people from different communities, who feel ashamed of their identities. That is something that is not acceptable. None of us should ever be ashamed of what we carry within our identities. Every and each of those identities should be accepted and celebrated. Only then we have a chance for a better world. Fighting for our Human rights, we should be fighting for everyone’s and all human rights. Only then our fight will make sense, only then we will be able to say that we are actually fighting for human rights, because human rights know for no division.