MCC photo/Matthew Lester

Damir Vrbanec works with students Remżija Zejnulovski, left, and Edvin Dramaku. Vrbanec has been a teacher with MCC partner Bread of Life Belgrade for more than 10 years. He works with Roma students before and after school, helping with language and other homework.

It was in 1995 when I first came to Bread of Life to ask for help after I lost my job. Once the leaders there saw that I was strong and asked me to work, I loaded and unloaded the trucks, helped in the warehouse. Then, because of my computer skills, I was invited to help with organizing data.

In 2004, when Bread of Life approved a project to encourage education among the Roma communities in Belgrade, I had very nice work at the office at a computer in my corner.

I was not really impressed by the idea of working with the project. 
At that time I had to deal with my own prejudices, the standard prejudices against Roma: they are dirty, they’re the ones who steal and they’re lazy. But none of this is true. Nothing. 

They’re really diligent, hardworking people. They’re really intelligent, talented. But most of these things they just did not have a chance to prove. 

For the first six months we simply had only one job and that was to go into the community, to knock at people’s homes, to get children to come. After six months of this work, parents started to bring their children to our premises. 

I work with children from grades three to eight. Because most of the children personally know me, I can do more for them than just providing assistance with homework. I personally know their parents; I know their teachers. We also get requests from teachers to help a specific child in a specific way. We adjust our approach to every child.

Through this project, I saw actually how much one’s life can change in a period of six months. I saw a child who spent most of his time in the streets transformed into a pupil who goes to school, and even more, a child who likes to go to school. And you see parents express desire for their children to go to school.

I believe that a Christian is not supposed to be fruitless. If he is gifted by the Lord with anything, he needs to use it wherever he can. Bread of Life represents what I believe a Christian should do. I can really be useful for these children, but I also can feel useful, that I’m here with a purpose. 

I can see how life led me to this point. I was born in Croatia and grew up in the Catholic church. My grandmother and my mother encouraged me to go to church. They wanted me to go on to study theology, but my father took the lead. He decided that I should finish military school. In 1976 I moved to Serbia to attend a military secondary school where I became a devoted communist. But all this time I never really stopped looking for meaning and thinking about Christianity.

When we moved to Belgrade in 1989, there were some missionaries from the U.S. we met in the house where we rented an apartment. I used that opportunity to get to know this family, to ask some questions. At one point we decided to go to the church service with them and we just got hooked. They really loved us and they showed that.

In the 1990s when the war started I had a chance to go back to Croatia, but I refused to go. They wouldn’t accept me in Croatia because I spent too much time living in Serbia. My wife and I simply could not identify ourselves with one side or the other — either with the Croatian side or with the Serbian side. People told us that we were traitors. They said, “You are the enemy.”

By then we had found a family among Christians here that actually gave us a sense of identity no matter where we were. That was really the main reason why I decided not to go back to Croatia. We found a church here that we became part of.
In 1994, the army decided to fire me since I did not have citizenship. That meant all the documents and identification that I had were not valid. I could not find a job, and that’s when I first went to Bread of Life.

Since we started the Roma project 10 years ago, lots of things have changed. But personally I still expect the major change to happen five to 10 years from now, when young people of this generation become parents — when they become active people who make a difference in their community, decision makers. I believe in several years’ time we can freely step back from the community and be at peace that what we have built there will continue.


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