Marta Schaaf

Marta Schaaf (BOSFAM); Marta graduated from Smith College in 1999, where she studied European History. She spent her junior year in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2000 Marta volunteered for Balkans Sunflowers, a grassroots NGO in Macedonia, and was assigned to work with Roma refugees from Kosovo. She taught English and computers and coordinated Sunflower’s activities with other INGOs. She also assisted the local Macedonian Helsinki Committee and other local agencies with grant-writing and English language publicity. She remained on the board of Balkan Sunflowers, coordinating US-based grant writing. Marta next took a job in New York with Doctors of the World (Medecins du Monde). After a year, she moved to Kosovo, where she directed public health projects. Some dealt exclusively with public health (such as TB control), while others involved working with civil society. Marta helped to set up a health clinic for Roma, and worked to develop the capacity of local disability advocacy agencies. At the time of her fellowship, Marta was studying at Columbia University, with a focus on southeastern Europe, human rights, and political development. Marta wrote the following in a final assessment of her internship: “In general, I was very pleased with my summer, and I think AP offered a unique program. I think because the program is so attractive you would get quite a few qualified applicants. While I was often frustrated with Bosfam, I think this is part of the game when one works with a local NGO. I support Bosfam, and respect the work of the organization. It became almost immediately apparent to me that Bosfam’s first need was to improve its business practices and to begin to make the leap from a one-woman NGO to a small business (not that it will ever completely make this transition).”



Coffee Breaks

23 Jun

My work in the upstairs office at Bosfam is occasionally interrupted by the regular banging of carpet looms downstairs. Usually between six and eight women are down there, weaving carpets and talking over the noise of the looms. Sometimes the banging stops for a moment when they get particularly engrossed in conversation.

I pass through the first floor on my way in and out of the office, and I often see one of Bosfam’s members lying on the cushions that are next to the looms, resting her arms, talking to a neighbor, or sleeping. Some of these women have several small children and no husbands or older children to help them with chores, so they are often tired at work. Since they get paid according to the number of carpets they make (rather than by the hour), Beba, the Director of Bosfam, lets them know that it is okay to rest a little bit when they are at the office.

I am working now on a funding proposal for a new Bosfam project, and as part of this process, I need to explain how Bosfam’s current activities help its women members. It is easy to convey that earning needed money via Bosfam’s income generation initiative improves a woman’s and her family’s standard of living. However, it is more difficult to explain to a potential donor that the very fact of these women getting together on a daily basis helps to make their lives more bearable. One cannot quantify the impact of this togetherness, but for many Bosfam members, it is as sustaining as the money they earn.

The women take two coffee breaks per day, and during each break, they sit around a table, lean on each other, and talk, sometimes all at once. It is usually cacophony, but it may die down a bit when one of the women is having her coffee grounds read by another and the predictions are getting juicy. Sometimes, the women are quite serious. A few days ago, as we sat upstairs in the kitchen sipping coffee, they began to speak about missing sons. Many of the women have sons who never returned from Srebrenica, and they have spent the past 8 years hoping that perhaps they were alive in a jail in Serbia. Some were recently told that their nephews’ remains would be among those buried near Srebrenica on July 11. International organizations are using DNA testing to identify bodies, and while the certainty that a son is dead forces women to let go of the hope that their sons are alive in Serbia, it allows them to begin to visualize their lives without their sons.

The conversation naturally flowed from being without sons to being without family support. One woman described an ongoing illness for which she cannot get a firm diagnosis. Her husband and son are gone, and her two remaining daughters are seeking ways to relocate to Germany. She fears being alone with an illness over which she has no control. The other women listen, nodding silently and then sharing their similar experiences. The conversation moves again to something they all find quite funny, but their vocabulary is beyond my language skills. Laughing, they go back to work.

The sympathetic atmosphere at Bosfam, which acknowledges that time spent drinking coffee is just as important as the time spent weaving carpets, and which allows tired women to rest when they wish, provides needed physical and psychological respite. This supportive environment is not just fortuitous; Bosfam specifically explains that part of its mission is to provide space for women to work, rest, and support one another.

Proving to a donor the positive impact this thoughtful assistance has on the women and their families is difficult, but seeing it is not.

Posted By Marta Schaaf

Posted Jun 23rd, 2003

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