Nobody can take what you have learned away

Asmir Husić is no stranger to discrimination and hostility and knows only too well the resignation felt by many young Roma people who don’t ever expect much from life. His maxim ‘Get up and be active’ and his lucky encounter with the Vermont nongovernmental organisation not only gave the young man a more positive outlook but have also turned him into a role model for many other young Roma men.

Asmir Husić still lives with his parents and his younger brother in a house in the small town of Gornji Rahić, not far from Brčko, in the young state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Asmir could afford to move out, maybe even into a house of his own. For now, however, he prefers to continue living with his parents. After all, he still has work to do.

Asmir wants to give something back to the Vermont NGO, which gave him so much support and this is what ties him to Brčko. This assistance turned him, a jobless and hopeless young Roma man, into an aspiring law student. This summer, Asmir will turn 24. When he attended primary school at the end of the 1990s, he was the only child from a Roma family. ‘Discrimination was rife,’ Asmir recalls. However, his goal was clear. When he not only took the decision to finish secondary school, and then go to university, his parents immediately backed his decision. They did this despite the fact that they would certainly have benefited from the extra money if Asmir had started working. His father had spent half his life working as a car bodywork specialist before diabetes forced him into early retirement. Now the family struggles to get by on his pension.

The typical life of a young Roma – socially marginalised and out of work

There was no money to allow him to study. The family could barely afford to pay the bus fare to Brčko, which is 16 kilometres away. Paying for Asmir to study was out of the question. Asmir’s dream fell apart. He did not want the typical life that awaits young Roma people in Bosnia and Herzegovina – bad jobs, terrible working conditions or unemployment. Asmir found a job and tried to earn a living, but when his employer decided not to pay him one day, this nearly broke him. He lost all hope and became depressed.

‘Something had to change,’ he recalls. ‘I was constantly telling myself to do something. And that’s what I did.’ In 2015, in the Brčko youth centre, Asmir stumbled across Vermont, an organisation that has been working with internally displaced persons, returnees and, in particular, Roma people since the end of the Bosnian war. ‘I immediately knew they were the people I needed to meet.’ They offered Asmir guidance and it didn’t take long before he himself was offering advice. He now mans the organisation’s mobile info help desk, making sure Roma know their rights.

The idea to set up mobile info desks came from Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups, the GIZ regional project, which works to empower socially marginalised groups in the Western Balkans and improve their living conditions. The project also provides support to the Vermont NGO, by offering advice, organising workshops and training sessions and, through coming up with ideas such as the mobile info desk, helping to develop new initiatives.

Asmir’s message

Asmir now sits at one of these desks and encourages people from the neighbourhood to become active and work as mediators for their community. Many of them are young Roma people and, in particular, returnees. Asmir also goes where the authorities, except for the police, effectively do not go, for example to Prutače, a settlement in his hometown, where most residents are Roma. He tries to convince the parents there to send their children to school. The project is gradually bearing fruit. In Asmir’s old primary school, where he had once been the only Roma child, there are now twelve children from Roma families.

‘We Roma, each and every one of us, can achieve a lot,’ Asmir says. ‘But to do that, we first need to try.’ He explains that many Roma do not believe in themselves or their opportunities. ‘From my own experience, I know how hard it is to stand up against external and internal discrimination. But I also know that we can succeed if we really set our minds to it.’ Asmir’s goals are now more ambitious. He wants to complete a master’s degree in law. Even if this means enrolling in a distance-learning course, he is confident that he will receive a scholarship to study as a regular student at the University of Tuzla. At the moment, he is still working for Vermont, manning the info desk for the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups, but his path is laid out before him. ‘Nobody can take what you have learned away,’ Asmir says. ‘That’s my message to all young Roma people!’