With a zest to learn the ins and outs of community organizing and civic engagement, two human rights advocates from the Balkans have made Lawrence their temporary home for four weeks.
Diana Dimova, of Bulgaria, and Kejsi Hysa, of Albania, arrived in Lawrence on Sept. 8 after a stop in Chicago. With their stay in Lawrence now winding down, the pair took time to reflect upon their impressions of the city and how they ended up in the Sunflower State — nearly 6,000 miles from home.
Great Lakes Community Action Partnership chose local interfaith organization Justice Matters to host two professional fellows in its cultural exchange program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of State.
Dimova and Hysa have visited a plethora of stakeholders and leaders of area social service organizations such as Ballard Center, Centro Hispano, Coalition for Homeless Concerns, Willow Domestic Violence Center and others. They’ve shadowed network members of Justice Matters and attended the organization’s annual listening sessions, also known as house or cottage meetings.
They’ve also toured Watkins Museum and Lawrence Community Orchard, walked Mass Street, volunteered at LINK (Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen), and talked with residents to learn about issues community members and families face, including poverty and homelessness.
The internship program’s goal is “to empower active citizens to be strong advocates for citizen-led democracy in Eastern Europe” and to use the skills learned in Lawrence “to develop a project to advance civil liberties, social justice, and civic engagement back in their home communities,” according to a Justice Matters news release.
Larger food portions and a bus system that’s proved challenging for the Europeans have contributed in part to what they described as an initial “culture shock,” but the pair said they felt very lucky to visit Lawrence.
Hysa, 25, reveled in seeing people here practicing their religion openly, supporting one another through volunteerism and engagement, and taking in simple pleasures with family and friends — like drinking a cup of apple cider at a public gathering.
“You see community being involved in all the events that are happening around and this is something that you don’t see a lot in our countries, because people are always busy,” Hysa said. “We truly have met amazing people so far, and we have a lot of new friends coming into our life, and although the time period is very short it has been great.”
Dimova, 47, immediately noticed the cultural differences between social service providers here and her home country of Bulgaria, where corruption plagues elections and the war in Ukraine has led to increased economic instability.
“It’s a big challenge because we are leading and working in a very different human rights environment,” Dimova said. “So it’s not easy to work with LGBT, with new arrivals and asylum seekers from the border. And we face a lot of problems.”
Each day is “absolutely unpredictable,” said Dimova, who works near the border of Turkey and Bulgaria. She is the founder and chairperson of the non-governmental organization Mission Wings Foundation, which supports refugees and programs to prevent violence against women.
The organization provides social workers, mental health support and cultural mediators for their clients. Above all, they advocate for the safety of children and adults with a goal of helping them eventually procure the tools they need for self-sufficiency.
“People, they are afraid they will not receive asylum from the state agency for refugees, because if they share about the corruption, if they share what’s happened exactly on the border,” Dimova said. “And somehow we try to encourage them to be more brave, and we support them with our lawyers, social workers, psychologists.”
Dimova said that she and her team are well-equipped to provide social services directly, but they face obstacles and challenges in rallying community support around refugees and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The struggle for social justice is ongoing there.
“It’s not easy,” Dimova said. “And we have a lot of negative stereotypes and attitudes in our home country. It takes a lot of efforts, a lot of campaign and a very clear strategy, to support the community to be more friendly.”
Discrimination and harassment are everyday occurrences for the LGBTQ+ populations in the Balkans, according to the women. The threat of street attacks and hate speech force many gay and trans people into hiding, Dimova said. Being a refugee or Roma — an ethnic minority group that has experienced genocide and rampant racism — might actually be safer, Dimova said.
“More of them hide themselves, because really, they’re in danger,” Dimova said. “I’m so embarrassed how my citizens treat the LGBT people, but this is the reality, unfortunately.”
Hysa works in Tirana, Albania as a case manager at a shelter for LGBTQ+ adults ages 18 to 29. She said it’s difficult to talk about issues regarding sexuality and gender in her society. In Lawrence, she’s observed that LGBTQ+ issues are discussed much more openly.
“This is why we’re trying to advocate, so community in general can understand that it’s just a human right and that’s it,” Hysa said. “It’s just a human right to be yourself.”
The women are visiting Lawrence during an affordable housing crisis that coincides with hundreds of people living outdoors. They’ve seen people camping in tents and living on the streets here.
Dimova said homelessness had weighed heavily on her mind since she arrived. During listening meetings with Justice Matters, the women heard from two unhoused people who voiced the need for legal aid in addition to affordable housing.
“The biggest problem is not that they’re asleep on the street, but they face a lot of problems,” Dimova said. “Maybe we should listen to them more. They can give us ideas (on) how to solve this problem.”
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The social workers agreed that to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness, the roots of its causes must be addressed with adequate mental health care, addiction treatment and affordable housing. During their observations, they questioned whether the Lawrence community has provided so many ongoing services, rather than temporary, that it has led to a growing population of unhoused residents. They also questioned who should take the lead role in addressing the problems that contribute to homelessness — the government or faith organizations.
“We also have homeless people, but we don’t have a LINK so they can have at least one free meal. We don’t have that,” Hysa said, emphasizing the importance of empowering people. “It’s better to prevent than to save because it’s easy to start preventing now so we don’t have to do a lot of saving, because that is more expensive. And it is more expensive in time and money and energy.”
The pair departs Lawrence on Oct. 6 to meet with fellowship leaders and interns in Washington. Together with Camille Debreczeny, outgoing lead organizer for Justice Matters, they invite community organizations who would like to visit with them before they leave to send their request to the following email addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hysa and Dimova expressed their gratitude to the people of Lawrence and Douglas County, especially the people they met during their visit. They shared a special thank-you “from the bottom of (their) hearts” for their host families, Ann and Tim Hossler, Janelle Johnson, and Kelly and Brad Wall.
“Thank you for opening your houses and hearts to us, thank you for your hospitality, generosity and making us feel (at) home,” Hysa wrote in an email.
Debreczeny said Justice Matters and its leaders were happy for the opportunity to host the pair.
“I think it’s kind of given a boost to our listening process, because it’s exciting for our leaders to be training an international organizer in the process,” Debreczeny said.
After Hysa and Dimova return to Eastern Europe, they plan to implement the new skills they’ve learned in a project. Debreczeny will visit the women in their respective countries sometime in the future as part of the exchange. She said she plans to leave her position with Justice Matters soon, after a debriefing period with her replacement.