Disasters, Diasporas and a Determined Generation

Uros Maksimovic

The Palm Tree?

Tamara, meaning “palm tree”, is a charming name often given to girls in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

It wasn’t so charming in May, when a cyclone named Tamara caused massive floods and landslides across large parts of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. It was the worst flooding in 120 years of recorded weather history in the region. The natural disaster caused over 80 deaths, forced thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes, and led to billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage in a region that was already struggling economically.

The global Balkan Diaspora – which numbers in the millions, most of them with family or friends in the flooded areas – was quickly mobilized to help. The call went out to Serbian communities around the world, and it wasn’t long before we were packing boxes of humanitarian aid at Ottawa’s new Serbian Community Centre. This modern facility recently replaced the city’s old Serbian property, which had become severely cramped for space.

“The 3,000”

According to Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, there are only 3,000 Serbs in the country’s National Capital Region, which consists of Ottawa, Ontario and Gatineau, Québec. Most local community organizations are run by people of middle and senior age. But this humanitarian drive – spearheaded by a group of Serbs in their 20s and 30s – allowed younger generations to (literally) flex their muscle for a good cause.

The space provided by the new community centre enabled volunteers to sort and pack hundreds of boxes, full of everything from dental floss to diapers. The amount of aid processed was so overwhelming that – at times – the entire basement of the centre did not seem to have enough space to hold it all. The space at our disposal was filled two times over, and a similar amount of aid was collected at the Serbian Embassy.

The drive also showed the ability of social media to facilitate communication. In a coordinated effort with the Serbian Diaspora’s youth-run humanitarian organization, “28. Jun” – which managed the North America-wide collection of humanitarian aid out of Toronto – nearly 1,000 Ottawa Serbs received a Facebook invitation to donate supplies at the Serbian Embassy and Community Centre. Real-time social media updates identified the most urgently needed supplies based on information provided by authorities in the Balkans.

Lessons Learned

While we were happy to let Tamara go, we should learn from her. There will be other Tamaras – hopefully not exactly like this one – but the lessons learned from this experience will be useful in the future.

After a short delay in transporting the second batch of aid from Ottawa to Toronto, all of our supplies eventually reached Canada’s largest city. We learned that small communities need to coordinate closely with central organizers in bigger cities at every stage of a project. This helps them stay visible in the bigger picture, and ensures that the necessary logistical arrangements are in place every step of the way.

Ottawa’s role in the humanitarian drive was also an example of how young people in smaller communities can lead major projects. We learned to identify and use the tools at our disposal – in this case, modern facilities and communication tools such as social media – to contribute to a major international humanitarian initiative.

Ottawa provided a modest portion of the $1.5 million in aid that is being shipped from Toronto to the affected regions, but the city punched above its weight by sending two trucks of supplies. While we hope that a disaster of this magnitude will not happen again, this experience will make us better prepared if another crisis occurs. It will also give younger generations confidence in the fact that they can take a leadership role when it matters most.