Meet the People: Jana Milovanović, Working to Give Migrants the Connections and Chances Needed to Succeed

By , 17 May 2018, 16:34 PM Meet the People
Jana Milovanović Jana Milovanović All images from Terra Vera

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A few weeks ago I attended a meeting at Ziferblat that was part of the training for Migrantour, a project that aims to give migrants in Slovenia the skills and knowledge needed to become tour guides in Ljubljana.

It was there I first met Jana Milovanović, an anthropologist by training who left academia to follow her various interests outside the halls and classrooms of a university setting, working directly with migrants and other marginal groups, a topic that’s only become more interesting, and urgent, in the last few years, with the opening of the Balkan Route to Europe. As such I caught up with Jana a few days later for a coffee and tried to learn more about her life and work in this context. 

May 17. 2018

How did you start working with migrants?

What always interested me when I was studying anthropology was the issue of borders, boundaries and places/ spaces that are somehow perceived as liminal, at the margins or in between. Already as a student I did some study research on the border issues in Bela krajina, took part in a volume on asylum seekers, published a research on the travelling circus and engaged in projects with Irish travellers as well as Roma communities in Slovenia.

After completing my studies I moved from Ljubljana to the countryside of Kostanjevica na Krki and this also meant shifting from academia to NGO level. It was a spontaneous decision that apparently brought nourishment - I felt I could put fieldwork anthropology methods in practice at a much more immediate, community grassroot level. I started off by raising sustainability issues and awareness in a local community, but when - almost overnight - the so called ‘Balkan route’ was established with border point very close to my village, migration issues pulled me in again and ever since.

Do you do much work near your home?

I do some community related work in my region, organising projects, events and initiatives that deepen people’s awareness on sustainability and inclusion. At the same time, Ljubljana is only an hour’s drive away, so I work in both, rural and urban settings - and by ‘urban’ I don’t only mean Ljubljana, but other cities across Europe as well. I take this as a privilege which is very easy to obtain due to the size and position of the country.

What I like most is making a sort of bricolage, for example inviting asylum seekers and refugees to the countryside and organising workshops where they can join in with local creative youth. Newcomers are often hesitant to leave the town for various reasons, but when they overcome their anxiety the new world opens up for them, something they haven’t experienced before but nevertheless doesn’t seem so threatening anymore.

The same would apply to the people of the countryside - their prejudices, strongly fuelled by the media, slowly start diffusing and diminishing when they see an African commuting in a holy service on Sunday, or making a chair on the main street together with local youth. Personal contact has an immense power in exposing (and communicating) a very different image of migration. 

So why do you work with the refugees?

It is a fact that our social landscapes are ever-changing, and I could never be convinced by nation-state ideologies emphasizing the importance of blood and territorial ties for one’s wellbeing. Our living environments have always been multicultural, though the media recently exposes a very particular (albeit limited) aspect of multiculturalism related to recent global upheavals.

The reason for my involvement with refugees is probably related to curiosity about other life worlds, accompanied by strong belief in benefits of making space for each other and intertwining our skills as individuals, uncovering the potential of something new that might come out as the result. I suppose my approach is humanistic (hopefully) rather than charitable. I don’t pity people, I don’t offer a social service support or a therapy - I am simply not certified to do it. Instead, I use all possible resources to aid at incorporating certain newcomers into my already existing - and expanding - social networks with the aim of establishing creative matches and teams of people with different backgrounds, working together and learning from each other. It is quite a challenging work, but also very inspiring.  

How do you find the people to work with?

I started off by visiting camps and detention centres, talking to people and validating their skills and talents, formal as well as informal ones. I was not interested in official certificates or professional level of achievement. Instead, I was looking for a talent, potential, experience and skill. Weekly social gatherings were organized at Ziferblat - a café with international soul that resembles a living room where everyone is welcome, a social and creative venue in the heart of town. The underlying reason for selecting this particular café were its aesthetic touches, central location and cosy atmosphere as a contrast to the gloom and doom of the asylum centre.

We started off with art therapy and storytelling workshop before moving to hand craft as, slowly but surely, our group was getting bigger and even more diverse. We connected Erfan (Iran), Ilir (Kosovo), Palmas (Cameroon), Moutaz (Syria), Amjad (Syria), Welday (Eritrea), Ahmad (Sfganistan) and many others with the Fashion Department of Ljubljana University (with mentors Prof. Marija Jenko and Prof. Elena Fajt); invited a jewellery designer (Martina Obid Mlakar), ceramic artists (Dragica Čadež and Hana Karim), a team of young interior designers (Prostor Vmes) and a visual artist (Samira Kentrić) as well as film makers to come join and connect.

The idea developed into a project with the title ‘Craft Flow’ that was financed by the Erasmus+ program. This had a snowball effect. In the months to follow strong social networks between newcomers and local creatives were established, as well as trainings and workshops that are leading to the development of an ethical design brand. It is now time to start building the foundations of our next challenge - a creative social cooperative.

So you’re happy working with tourism and trade?

I suppose things are moving in this direction. Apart from the artisan program (or better, parallel to it) we are right now working on a new initiative - training migrants and newcomers to become guides of intercultural urban walks. Migrants and newcomers will act as cultural bridges, leading groups of visitors in discovering how migration has shaped the city of Ljubljana so people can understand the richness of cultural diversity in a new way.. The project that is supported by the Italian organizations Acra and Viaggi solidali, and has spread from Turin to many beautiful cities across Europe, and we are very pleased to be its Ljubljana ambassadors.

As the city is becoming increasingly attractive tourist destination we believe there are many opportunities for guided tours that are offering specific and thought-provoking views of Ljubljana and its many cultural traits, to tourists as well as local visitors and schools. We are now creating our own unique ‘migrantour’ route, and it feels exciting to be part of it. As mentor of the group, Danijel Osmanagić introduces the levels and details of past migrations, and the project also contains a lot of fieldwork - conducting interviews with small business owners along Trubarjeva street, for example. It’s exhilarating to uncover stories that are embedded in the streets of the city.

So of course there is a strong ambition to join the segments, to offer a new perspective on the city that can spread to other local environments and design a unique offer that would enable people to integrate as well as to become economically independent, to thrive.

Is this all funded by the government?

Our work is funded from various sources. Some smaller projects have been funded by certain state institutions, but the major part depends on EU funding – Erasmus+ and AMIF, for example. We haven’t obtained permanent funding sources, and this can of course be quite challenging at times, but a great deal of passion and commitment help us progress.

We are pleased to be gaining international recognition, and projects are evolving. For example, our Craft Flow project resulted in the Living Room exhibition - a Space for Creative Meetings between Refugees and Local Creators, which was first shown at the BIO 25 Industrial Design Biennial, held at MAO in Ljubljana last year. It was very successful, so much so that it’s going to the Tate Modern in London, as part of the Who Are We Project, a cross-platform event reflecting on identity, belonging, migration and citizenship. Unfortunately our artisans who have refugee status haven’t been successful in obtaining visas, so our team at Tate Modern will not be complete. They will be missed there.

Also, despite applying to the ministries in charge we got no financial help towards covering any costs of travel, production and presentation at the Tate. I suppose it doesn’t happen every day that artists from Slovenia are presented in such an established cultural institution, so sadly the state neglected another opportunity to be promoted on a grand scale. We are thus self-financing transport of objects and the team as well as the production.

But despite all the obstacles we see our presentation at the Tate Modern as another stepping stone in raising awareness that newcomers bring skills, talents and knowledge, as well as of the importance of co-production.

What are some of the more specific problems the migrants face here?

There are many, but I will use this opportunity to focus on work-related issues. People who hold refugee status get state benefits for three years, but they are not allowed to work, and I think this is very bad. Work - particularly in this environment where the notion of work is highly praised - means you get connected to others, it means entering social networks in the new living environments. Even if it seems easier not to work and only receive state benefits, which still hold people below the poverty level, after three years they are gone and you are left with nothing - no skill that you have developed, no opportunities that helped you grow, no motivation, no social networks.

So this is where our projects can play a crucial role, to let people develop their networks, find out how to use what skills and interests they have. Creating ‘Spaces of Welcome’, spaces of co-production, knowledge sharing and skill transfer can provide a sufficient way of overcoming this challenges.

If you want to learn more about the projects discussed here, and maybe get involved, then check out the related website or Facebook page.

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