Ganja in Gunja: a place where children’s hearts are full of joy
4 March 2015
There are three container settlement shelters in Gunja, hosting some 160 families. The youngest resident is only one month old. When we visited the settlements, we were touched by the stories of people who don’t know if they will ever return to a home of their own – and if they do, where they will go. This may be either because their status in Croatia remains unresolved, or because they were subtenants and not home-owners before the flood destroyed the place they lived in, or they are stuck here because their house is still waiting its turn for reconstruction. In the meantime, they live as they do. Temporarily or permanently.
We walk through Gunja, watching houses being renovated or built despite the rain and mud which make reconstruction difficult, as if this little town hasn’t already suffered enough. And then we come to the “Gunja oasis”: a place reserved for entertainment, laughter and play. A place for children, which UNICEF created after the floods to help the youngest inhabitants deal with the consequences of the disaster that even the adults have a hard time facing. Ganja workshop originally began in a UNICEF tent in the container settlement shelter, and when the weather got colder, it moved to the premises of the local association Zvjezdica, which provides assistance to children with developmental difficulties and adults with disability in the municipality of Gunja.
While the apparent peace in Gunja is disturbed by occasional noise made by construction machinery, in Ganja workshop, lead by the Association Our Children Vinkovci, laughter never stops. The workshop is filled with contagious happiness of children. Like on another planet, it is Ganja in Gunja that we again meet Armena, a curious 5-year old girl with black hair. The last time we saw her was this summer, in the container settlement behind the primary school. She skillfully maneuvered on her roller blades, skating between the rows of containers on the school playground. She is now sitting at the table with her little sister Ejšan, two years her junior, and drawing. She confides in us, saying that she and her family again live in a proper house! Apart from Ejšan, Armena has another sister and a brother, and her mum is expecting another baby. We are happy to hear that Armena no longer lives in a container. She therefore comes to Ganja every day, which is open to all children from flooded areas from 10 am to 4 pm.
The workshop, which has replaced the kindergarten which does not exist in this municipality, has to date hosted 170 children. We learn that the number would have been even higher if all children could have been provided transport. We are approached by the 6-year old Sara. She is drawing a big smiling heart with a crown, a flower and a rose. Ejšan is laughing as she mischievously draws doodles over Sara’s precise drawing. The place where the workshop is held is decorated with numerous works of art created in Ganja creative workshops: there are festively painted paper plates, colorful little dresses made of paper napkins, fish made of old CDs with paper fins, and much, much more that had been conceived by the teachers and educators, and made by busy little hands.
The workshop, which for the children of Gunja truly represents a blessing in disguise, is organised by the Association Our Children from Vinkovci. Educators – Antonija, Maša and Iva entertain children and teach them many important life skills, all with a lot of patience and smiles. Children can thus learn how to make a necklace or a plasticine animal, but also how to tie their shoelaces.
"Parents tell us that as soon as children come home, they look for any sort of material to keep their little fingers busy doing something creative."
– says Antonija.
Imagination and ideas have not limit here, and Ganja teachers have organized all sorts of activities – puppet theatre plays, music workshops, theatre performances, reading rooms… They marked every holiday, and celebrated every child’s birthday, and filled every single little heart with joy and care. On the day we visited Ganja, one of the educators, Miss Iva, was celebrating her birthday, and she treated all the children with a cake and cookies. While teachers were handing out glasses of juice, children were waiting patiently for their piece of cake. Nobody fights to get a toy – everybody is well-behaved, quarrels and disagreements are rare – and if they occur, teachers quickly resolve them. Parents also feel the positive energy created in Ganja, and everybody hopes that this workshop, which kept children engaged while their parents were preoccupied with basic subsistence, will become a permanent program. For each child who participated in the workshop, its value is priceless.
Recollections of the disastrous consequences of the flood, which forever changed their own lives and lives of their parents, will remain etched on many children’s memories. However, there is no doubt that they will also keep the wonderful memories from Ganja, which enabled some of them to learn songs to sing, how to tie their shoes, go to the seaside for the first time in their life, and remember for good the three little phrases important for every human relationship: please, thank you and here you are.
In Ganja they were given a chance to play with their peers, and spend good quality and creative time. They made new friends, both big and small, and through various activities, visits and stories they were introduced to the world beyond Gunja.
Their little hearts are full. Ganja is a real joy, which was born in Gunja in the midst of misfortune.