News Archive 2020

Help Team: Nedeljka Sindik, Project Coordinator, multi-decade activist


I have first met Neda Sindik at a roundtable about twenty years ago when I attended a war crime rally, specifically about a case known as Deportation. It concerned the deportation of 150 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 1992, mostly Bosniaks from Montenegro, under the knife of convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Most of the BH civilians ended up in the mass graves around Visegrad and Foča. At that time,   people who came here in order to survive were forced to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina (its torn part of Republika Srpska), which was a violation of the norms of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention. It was not until the 2000s that pressure was put on the Montenegrin authorities to bring those responsible for this to justice, and to ensure the victims’ families get a fair compensation. The gathering we attended at that time was part of that pressure, and Neda was among the familiar faces who spoke of the necessity of dealing with this crime and the shame on our collective conscience, and I still remember her fiery speech as a young activist. Neda was a student from Sarajevo, and in her speech I felt anger, resentment and powerlessness over the enormous injustice and crime committed towards the BH and her people.

This was the beginning of Neda’s engagement as a public activist,  role  in which she has remained to this day.    She was active either as an NGO activist or expert of international organisations, continuosly striving for protection of human rights and its basic norms – the same rights and opportunities for all, about which she always spoke without reserves.

Today, as the coordinator of Help’s project for employment of the Roma and Egyptian population in the North of Montenegro, she has first told us the beginnings of her cooperation with Help as a part of the interview:

Sindik: My cooperation with Help started during the period of my work in the Commissariat for Displaced Persons. At that time I was the Head of the Technical Accommodation Unit;  we had five coordinators and our job was to visit refugees and displaced persons in need of housing, to make assessments of their needs and decide where and how we can accommodate these people and help them. There were various types of assistance back then, but as part of that job, I had the opportunity to meet people from Help who were providing humanitarian assistance at the time. Help organised then delivery of supplies, clothes, shoes and other things, but also dealt with the problem of housing.

Our first cooperation was related to the construction on Balabanda in Berane, after that we cooperated in the construction of the German House in Podgorica, and after that I stopped working at the Commissariat. Then I started working in a local NGO, on a minority rights program. For the past 20 years, I have dealt with minority rights in various ways: public representation in international forums, work on laws and strategies, action plans and development programs. And so while working on a Roma related  program in 2012 at the OSCE, I got in touch with Help because they were preparing a major project for Konik at the time, and through that conversation, cooperation and preparation of the project as well as sharing information and ideas, I kind of got involved with my experience in the community and working in the field.

That’s how I joined. All those policies which I pushed through NGO activism and government work, I could now put into practice and implement them. For us, the biggest problem with all the policies, especially social ones, is that somehow we always find a way for these policies to be well written and devised but never be put into practice. It was also a great opportunity for me to just get out of the shoes of a person from government agencies, institutions and an international organisation and get into the shoes of beneficiaries and work with them every day. I liked it because it was an invaluable experience, and since I took a break from fieldwork for many years, it gave me new motivation and new ideas when I came back, and that’s why I love this job.

Everything that has been done on policies can be put into practice here, and on the other hand, experience gained from practice can be transferred to new policies. And this is the one circle that closes nicely, because we put in some ideas and give inputs to the institutions. Help has, as have I, worked in that program and later participated in the development of the Roma Strategy in the next program.

In fact, our inputs on Associates for Social Inclusion were included in the strategy. Practically the whole program came from Help. That’s our program, we brought it in and the state accepted it, so in a way we did it together with the state. But it is also proof that any NGO, if it wants to work seriously and if it wants to cooperate seriously with state bodies and local institutions or the state, can create a good program that the state will accept and later fund as an institutional program. Actually, the program then becomes no longer our property – except as an idea. Now it is the property of the state of Montenegro, part of the policies of Montenegro, part of the institutional capacity of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, and this is something that gives me the will to do this work: when I see how the things and lives of people change.

During that period we have sent two children on eye surgery, which were both successfully completed, and these children no longer have the health problems they once had. We have helped many families in choosing their family doctor, selected gynecologist, and especially important for the children was the selected dentist and we have also helped with other similar important issues for them. So we just changed the way the community looks upon going to the doctors. This is something that we accomplished with the health mediators and in the end, they were recruited through the public call at the Health Center at the Old Airport disctirct of Podgorica.

Help in the mission of employing and connecting the RE community, local authorities and employers

Help: As you know the history of Help very well because of your earlier collaboration, as well as working within the organisation, you just told us about the path that Help took from being a charity organisation that provided basic assistance to people in need, to becoming a development organization now, where we work on development projects that help the community with long-term solutions. As this process of changing the type of assistance has moved and evolved, that is how you are now working on a project for employment of the RE community and people in social need in Montenegro.

Sindik: Yes. And right now, I am running this programme in Bijelo Polje and Berane, and what I like about the programmes we do at Help, is that the programme does not only have a basic component of connecting employers and employees, which is part of the job of the Employment Service, but it also has one other component, which is to link all employment institutions, then work with the community and gather information from both the community and employers. This is the information which is needed to evaluate how the structure of the unemployed should be altered and reshaped so that they can get a job in terms of knowledge and qualifications.

Among other things, we also have these trends of emigration from the North of Montenegro; everything we have in plan to do now – the research and inter-municipal cooperation in the preparation of local initiatives that need to change, will in fact again lean on one big strategy from the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare which is currently in preparation, and we will give them all the relevant information and recommendations that are needed in relation to this vulnerable group (the Roma and Egyptians), as well as support through training programmes and the support needed to change the strategic approach. And on the other hand, we get valuable experience from involving people from the economic sectors in a different way through that big project that the state is preparing. They do market analysis in terms of the economic aspect as well as financial analysis – which is something that Help has not done so far and has not dealt with in that way.

We were working with socially disadvantaged people and solving their problems and their place in the labour market, but we did not analyse how effective it was in terms of pay, spending, how much we were investing and how much we got. These are some of the analyses that we will get from this second project, so it is very useful that we are already cooperating with the state on some level, not only through our engagement in field projects but through partner projects as well: because our project in Bijelo Polje is a partnership project since the Municipality of Bijelo Polje is a partner to us. On the other hand, this new policy and strategy  will be based on valid data through cooperation with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, based on the analysis of the labor market, and from the viewpoint of need and demand as well as the financial cost, in order to make the changes that are planned to be set up in a different way.

This document will be able to show at any given moment, exactly how these problems can be addressed, and in this way we participate in a general cooperation between countries and foreign consultants from the European Union who come to help us to get closer to the EU with our policies. In doing so, we share our experience from the field and at the same time we learn from those people who already live in EU countries and who have been implementing such policies for 10 or 20 years, which is important to us.

Help: Are municipalities and ministries open and eager to cooperate with Help? Obviously, the initiatives that Help pursued at the ministry level have had some effect, and some, as you say, have become an integral part of their strategies. Is the experience similar at the local level, especially because employment is a very important topic, and we know the current dominant practice with employment in Montenegro?

Sindik: The municipalities have always supported us because they have not been financially involved in these programmes so far, and so it was easy to cooperate. Employment offices have always been cautious because they have always been interested in how much this fits into their policies or how much it contributes to employment. Now we are in a different situation, the burden of decision making for the local level is no longer on the local bureaus, it has become a centralized system. But the system will change, the system will become decentralized following the model of other European countries, and it will be the municipality that will assume responsibility for local development programmes, employment, investment initiatives and job creation – thus all of this will be moving to the economic domain of work in the municipality.

This is where new opportunities for cooperation with municipalities arise. For now, these were programmes where the municipality became involved with us, promoting those programmes and giving us support in cooperation with employers, attracting employers who are already cooperating with the municipality to work with us. This will become a part of the policies that will be set up locally and implemented as such, because it will become the responsibility of the municipality, as a part of the work programme of the municipality.

Help: Apart from the municipality, cooperation with employers is very important in these employment projects, as not all employers come from municipal and state structure, but from private structure also. What are your experiences in this area?

Sindik: We have a good experience with private employers so far. We have excellent cooperation with those who have already participated in our program. The employers who once participated in Help’s on-the-job training programme and went through one programme with us, always applied again for the next one too. It is almost always the case that we have at least one company that has been in one of the previous projects to contact us again. Of course we have employers who think lucratively. They think they will get a trainee to work for them and that it should end there, they don’t need another employee.

However, we focus on those private entrepreneurs and those businesses that want to provide extra incentives to the persons who participate in the on-the-job trainings. So either they will be hired afterwards for a fixed period of time or they will be given some additional financial incentives beyond what is provided by Help. So we are always looking for those employers who are good willing and offer something other than training – and somehow we find employers like that.

It is quite difficult to do so in the north of the country, because it is not even a matter of the will of the employers, but a matter of the general situation and the payment power of the citizens who live there: the salaries are lower, the payment power is lower, and all economic entities earn less than their counterparts in Podgorica for example. Their prices are lower than in other cities and they take great care of how many people they can employ, how they can plan everything. However, big companies always come to inform themselves in our workshops, just as was the case in our last had two workshops, one in Berane and one in Bijelo Polje.

Previously, we had mostly smaller companies that would take one to two people for training and keep one at the end, but now big companies are emerging, which is a good thing. It also implies that we are recognized as a serious organization in the sense that what we do yields results. And companies that have previously participated in the programme are always coming back as partners for new employment programmes.

Normatively, all rights are already here but it takes time to adopt them in a civilizational sence

Help: Neda, according to your twenty years of activism in the institutions dealing with the rights and protection of minorities and vulnerable categories in the civil sector, how do you assess the human rights situation now, especially compared to when you started?

Sindik: It was a terrifying time for me when we started, a time when most citizens were absolutely unaware of how much the 1990s had distorted human rights in Montenegro, nor were they aware that we needed to have laws that would be a framework that should protect citizens from things like „Deportation.“ For example, today in the Constitution we have an article saying that it is forbidden to deport and return persons whose lives are endangered to their country of origin, which is an article of the UN Charter on the Rights of Refugees. So we flagrantly violated international law, forcing back persons who came to seek salvation in our country.

Nowadays, we cannot force anyone to take a rifle and go to war or even serve military service, so we simply live in a completely different country in that sense. There is a legal protection now.  During these twenty years we have changed the legal system in order to protect human rights and it was a pioneering job, because we literally started from those basic rights and passed further laws, but we are in need of a tradition or practice the enforcement of these rights in our society.

We still have to learn many civilizational values, to understand that power is not everything. We are not a nation in a civilizational sense, and what I mean by nation is – citizens as a whole who have the capacity to serve. This is evident in our government officials who often just want to demonstrate that they have the power, but they do not realize that they are a service to the citizens. I know this because I worked in the government with people who felt that citizens should wait for them.

So we simply need to make the civilizational transition from position of power to the position of service and we have to understand that we are nothing but service: whether we are Help, or some local organization from Montenegro or the ministry, municipality – all of us are a service to those who pay the tax. We (Help) spend tax money from EU citizens or Germany, while state authorities and local governments spend tax money from citizens of Montenegro. So from the point of view of human rights, the moment our administration accepts that it is a service and not a power entity, our human rights will be at the level where they should be, until then there is a long way ahead of us for full implementation of the law.

You can see from the report of the Ombudsman institution that a number of state bodies are completely unresponsive to the Ombudsman’s inquiries, which tells us of an administrative arrogance that is simply not acceptable, but I believe that this can only change with practice because you cannot immediately create a civilization practice which was not already present.

Help: How do we progress from a situation where we have a normative basis for respect for human rights, but we still do not have full implementation? Specifically, what do you encounter when working on employment programmes for the Roma-Egyptian community. Is it clear to people in state institutions that members of other communities have the same rights to employment, education and the rest?

Sindik: Yes, as far as state institutions are concerned, there is no fear that something that sounds like prejudice or stereotype will be said at any meeting or public address today.

Help: Will they rather hire someone from the majority population or other community?

Sindik: No, it’s not that. In our case this does not apply to the majority population, we have another kind of culture that is …

Help: Party?

Sindik: Partially party culture, but this culture also originates from our basic culture in Montenegro – friendly, cousin, godfather and homeland culture. It is like this: first I will employ my cousin, if not a cousin I can hire a godfather, and if I cannot find any I will employ a friend from my part of the homeland. After all of this, I can also hire someone from the party or someone I personally like better – even though they may have less qualifications. In our country, nepotism has no national preference.

Help: Is there a systemic discrimination?

Sindik: Traditionally, this has always been the case with us. Ever since, when, for example if you were not a communist you could not engage in politics, then if you were not in a majority party in power, you could not get anything in the state administration. Then, discrimination in the 1990s on ethnic grounds was indisputable, and for Roma it is constant and it seems to be more racial than ethnic discrimination. When the ball started to roll down afterwards, it was the turn for the disabled, the LGBTQ community and others. It seems that we must have a target group for abuse.

Just look at the law about same-sex partnership, for me this is a great example: everyone is „in favour“ of it and everyone decided they would vote „in favour“, but then when it comes to the Parliament it turns out that not all of us really are in favour. Those people in the Parliament who have not been in favour and who I know personally from my long experience, have told me that they don’t care -„let the law be passed“ – but when I asked why they were against it,  the answer was ‘well that was the deal’. So in our country everything is still based on agreements and deals. This represents a civilization problem for us.

We have probably geneticaly inhedited this sort of self-pride, which was present in our people in previous centuries, which is now stopping us from evolving into better people, in every way, both privately and professionally.

We need this democratic practice, conditionally speaking „democratic“ , since there are many formally democratic countries – because this practice is not present in a meaningful way. More work is needed in order to evolve towards the real civilizational values.

Biljana Jovićević





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