Volunteer with Anja

view of Sipan as we left the island

I grew up Catholic and attended Santa Clara University (SCU), a Jesuit institution.  Although I no longer identify with Catholicism, my Jesuit education instilled a value I hold dear—service to community. When I attended SCU, the University’s academic schedule left Wednesdays open for volunteering or engaging in service learning projects. I certainly didn’t spend all my Wednesdays volunteering, but it did create a culture where service was not only considered important, but expected. I owe my academic career to one such experience in college, but that is another story.

So imagine my surprise to be here in Croatia, where just over 86% of the residents are Catholic, that this sense of service to community is nearly non-existent.  In my visit to Libertas University, I met Anja Marković, the Executive Director of Bonsai , who is working to change the culture of volunteering in Dubrovnik. Bonsai is a relatively new non-profit organization that was founded in 2008 and reimagined in 2010 that put volunteering as its center.  Their mission is to increase community engagement through volunteering based on the values of tolerance and respect, active participation, and social sustainability.  

I spent time with Anja on two occasions—a beautiful sunset dinner with the two resident directors of API at Libertas University (Nada and Ivana) and a day trip to Šipan with her and members of other NGOs/volunteers.  Anja is a psychologist very much dedicated to addressing the needs of those who are marginalized within this community, especially those with mental illness and learning/physical disabilities. She works hard to recruit and engage others in service.

One of the things I have loved about my own personal journey here is a connection to family and a better understanding of my heritage.  Family is central and certain structures are in place to support the family.  For example, women are given six months maternity leave with full pay and if she wants to take the entire year off, she can get half of her salary for the remaining six months.  If a woman has a third (or more) child, she is allowed to take three years off with an income of approximately $300 US dollars. I’ve discovered a wonderful website: Expat in Croatia and it outlines more about family leave policies if you’re interested.  But, Croatian salaries are low—an average of 6420 kuna per month (approximately $962 US dollars).  According to the most recent data from Croatia’s gender equality ombudswoman, the gender wage gap is 13.19% (women make less) and that gap has been increasing since 2010. Similar to the US, women tend to be employed in occupations that pay less—education, non-profits, and healthcare (and certainly is true of those who I have met).  But, I digress…the other side of a family-centric culture is that the burden of care for mental or physical illnesses fall heavily on the family–primarily women. Mental illness or learning disabilities are particularly stigmatized so families are reluctant to reach out to those like Anja who can provide psychological support. 

The photos above are from our day at the beach in Šipan where a member of the group found some beautiful starfish! Don’t worry, they were all returned to the sea.

I was also shocked to learn that there is no infrastructure provided for domestic violence or sexual assault.  There are no shelters for domestic violence or support for those who are victims of intimate partner violence.  There is no sex education in schools at any level but it is mandatory to take a religion class (specifically Catholicism). In fact, even at a University level, there are no courses where one can study gender or sexuality, at least in Dubrovnik (my colleagues said that it is different in Zagreb).  I hope to work with Anja and Libertas University to build an event here in Dubrovnik (e.g., Take Back the Night) when I return with study abroad students.

And it’s not true that people don’t volunteer here, it’s the nature of it. One of my cousins gives one hour of her time per week to a church in the Old City so that it can remain open 24-hours a day to visitors (can you imagine taking the 2-3 am shift??).  During busy hours, there is more than one person in the church which translates to hundreds of volunteer hours per week.  I wonder what might happen to the level of volunteering if the required religion classes emphasized the Jesuit value of service to one’s community.     

My Walk With Vesna

Photo of Old Town Dubrovnik taken from Fort Lovrijenac

I co-teach a newly created interdisciplinary course with Professor Kristin Comeforo at the University of Hartford (“Systems of Oppression: Our Binary Code”) for which I am trying to set up a customized study abroad experience here in Croatia.  I’m connecting with scholars, organizations, and activists who are addressing gender issues, one of my main interests.  Nada Raic and Ivana Bajurin (resident directors at Libertas University who I introduced in my last post) connected me to Vesna Barišić who is one of the few people who grew up and remains living in the Old City (there are only about 900 people). She gave me a personalized three hour tour (!) of Dubrovnik.  She has a great interest in how women, Jewish, and other marginalized groups were regarded historically.  If you would like a tour or better understanding of minority groups in Dubrovnik, I highly recommend that you take a tour with her.  I was taking notes like mad—I couldn’t keep up with her! I’ll highlight a few things that I learned from her.

Not surprisingly, a woman’s sole purpose in Dubrovnik during the 13th-17th century was to get married and have children. Marriages, of course, had nothing to do with love but everything to do with producing heirs.  Girls as young as 7 or 8 were already “engaged” and married by the time they were about 15, usually to a man who was twice their age.  Prior to the 15th century the bride didn’t even have to be at her own wedding—only the two fathers were required to be present.  After all, marriage was an economic exchange and families could afford only one dowry that went along with the eldest daughter.  The younger daughters were put into a convent (there were seven convents within the city walls) if they were under the age of 12.  Since 12 was the age of consent, girls older than that had to give their consent before entering a convent. 

Old Town Dubrovnik

There were no graveyards so families living within the city walls had to be buried there.  Nobility could afford to build their own church next to their house so that they could be buried together. Women died often in childbirth so it was normal for a man to remarry several times.  Like me, you might be wondering what happened to all his wives who died in childbirth?  Since he probably had many wives, they may have been buried, but their names were never recorded on a headstone. This lack of recognition was partly due to the fact that it was not her family name, but her husband’s.  Can you imagine how many women have literally been erased in this way?  This lack of identification is likely the case for millions of people who have been systematically wiped out after being buried in mass graves due to war, natural disasters/famine, crime, the holocaust, refugees lost at sea…).

Girls were never educated, even those from wealthy families (this changed in the 1500s).  A girl was not allowed to look through the windows of her house because she might be seen from the outside; this was considered indecent exposure for which she could be punished.  It makes me wonder if the shutters over the windows so typical of the architecture here have anything to do with preventing girls and women from being seen.  There is an impressive stone balustrade leading to the Dominican monastery.  At some point, it was partially walled up so that when women walked up the ramp, their ankles would be hidden from sight.  Women could only leave her home for two reasons: 1) to visit relatives and 2) to attend church. I suppose the fact that there are 30 churches within the walls of the Old Town is a good thing because, as Vesna suggested, women went to church a lot as it was the only way they could gather with other women—to connect, chat, and exchange news.

balustrade leading to the Dominican Monastery partially walled from the bottom so that women’s ankles could not be seen

The streets of Dubrovnik are named either for their characteristics/locations or are named after well-known men.  There is only one street in the town that is named after a woman—Ulica Cvijete Zuzorić—and it’s only because of her “scandal”.  She was born in Dubrovnik in 1552 (at that time, it was called The Republic of Ragusa).  Her father was a merchant and the family moved to Ancona, Italy where she was educated.  She was a lyric poet who wrote and spoke Croatian, Italian, and Latin.  She married an Italian nobleman who was appointed to be Florence’s ambassador to Ragusa.  The couple would host gatherings in their home for artists and scientists for discussions. After her husband died, Cvijete was severely criticized (and most likely envied for her freedom) for continuing to hold such gatherings which were well-known in the literary and artistic community. In 1974, the Croatian acoustic duo Buco and Srđan wrote a song dedicated to her: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qjrm-C3Bv-0

Vesna and me

A walk with Vesna is a walk into a less well-known history of Dubrovnik, certainly an opportunity to hear the stories of those whose histories are hidden in the margins. I hope you will consider studying abroad here and walking with us.