My Velocity


The rate of change of displacement with time.  V= S/T where S is for speed and T is for time.

My Velocity led me to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006, to the Children’s Home of Mostar.  My Velocity to led me to advocate for health as a human right.

Recently, I decided to revisit my journal entries from the summer of 2006, one of the healthiest and happiest times of my life.  More importantly, the time that helped determined my velocity in life.  I needed to remember this pivotal moments in a time when I find myself filled with uncertainty.

The summer between my 1L and 2L years in law school, I took the opportunity to study International Criminal and Human Rights Law in Amsterdam.  A four week program covering everything from terrorism to women’s rights.  The lessons I learned both in and out of the classroom started shaping who I wanted to become as a lawyer.  (Note, none of this came from drug use as I did not partake in marijuana while there.)  For I had truly hated and cried everyday my first year of law school – I couldn’t understand why I was there to study civil procedure and property and torts.  I was too stubborn to quit, but I couldn’t imagine myself in this legal world.

The summer program aside, I decided about a month before that I wanted to extend my stay in Europe to do something meaningful.  How many chances would I get to be in Europe?  And while I could save to spend a last week in Italy where a friend was or visit Prague or Paris or other history-filled magnificent cities, I wanted to do something different.  I wanted to experience the uncommon, a place forgotten.  I remembered growing up the exposes on 20/20 about Romanian children in squalid orphanages which inspired me to look into volunteering at an orphanage.

But my path to help was not so simple as showing up.  There were approvals you had to get and screening and so much more – all of which I didn’t have time to go through.  Until a friend mentioned that her family friend ran a foundation that worked with an orphanage in Bosnia.  Bosnia!  I hadn’t thought of it.

My perception of Bosnia was that the roads were full of landmines and the cities of violence.  I knew there had been a war there but I had never studied it in detail.  I knew the Winter Olympics was once held there.  But I couldn’t find much in books at the book store describing the country.  I couldn’t find much information online.  And the fact that the orphanage was in Mostar and not Sarajevo proved even more difficult.

The Bosnian War and Genocide

fm_yugoslavia_pol96Bosnia and Herzogevina were once part of Yugoslavia.  First, in 1990 Slovenia and Croation broke away from Yugoslavia.  Then in 1992, the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a referendum of independence which was rejected by the political representatives of the Bosnian Serbs, who had boycotted the referendum and established their own republic.  The Bosnian Serbs, supported by the Serbian government and the Yugolav People’s Army (JNA) mobilized to secure what they saw as their territory.  And then there was war which would last until 1995.

Complicated as many wars are involving several factions mostly based in culture and religion, the Bosnian War too proves an intricate revolution of steeped in historical issues.  Unfortunately, like many wars before this and many after, genocide took a central role in the conflict.  In World War II, genocide involved the eradication of Jews.  In Rwanda it was the Tutsis.  In Darfur it was citizens of West Sudan.  Genocide and other war crimes have occurred in so many countries.  Here, the Serbs were primarily responsible for ethnic cleansing. But most notably was the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995 including the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys and the mass expulsion of another 25,000–30,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians, in and around the town of Srebrenica.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established as a body of the United Nations in 1993 to prosecute these war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Just weeks before, I visited this court located in the Hague, Netherlands while studying in Amsterdam  – evoking many questions for me about justice (possibly to be explored in a later post).


I knew nothing of Mostar when I first heard of the city and the possibility of traveling there.  Mostar  is the largest and one of the most important cities in the Herzegovina region and the 5th largest in Bosnia.  It is situated on the Neretva in the country.  Mostar was named after the bridge keepers who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva.   The Old Bridge, built in 1557, was destroyed in 1993 during the war.  I mention Old Bridge because it connects 2 sides of a city – Muslim and Catholic a division that remained even when I visited in 2006.

0518_Old Bridge 2

0520_view from Old Bridge 2

The Children’s Home of Mostar

Let me begin by saying yet again, I knew nothing of Mostar.  I did not speak or know any of the language (Serbian – or srpski).  I didn’t know where I was going.  I had no phone (and certainly if I did it wouldn’t have had any apps)Yet somehow I got to this wonderful city that changed my life indelibly.  And here I will share excerpts from my journal entries from those days 7 years ago next week.

August 8, 2006

I had to meet with Lejla and the director first.  Unfortunately the social worker is on vaction in Egypt for 2 weeks so they weren’t sure exactly what to do with me.  Lejla translated a few things for me to answer and it seemed they would let me stay – though I’m at a loss for understanding anything here so I wasn’t sure.  I was only assured that I could stay when they showed me to my room and then to the kids…

…the kids.  They seek so much attention, the little ones especially.  I met the kids under about age 10 right away.  They came and greeted me and were all over me at once.  The only thing they know to say in English is “what is your name?”…0577

Nothing is what I expected.  I didn’t think this place would be so nice and well funded.  I didn’t think it would remind me so much of the psych wards I’ve been on.  I didn’t think communication would be so difficult.  I didn’t imagine the kids would be so independent and well adjusted.  Though they seem a tad bit aggressive and dramatic – but I think that’s only to get attention.  I didn’t think I’d be expected to have a plan other than showing up.  So many things are different from what I expected.

Even the few comments of the war have been unexpected.  Lejla said she’s lived in Mostar her whole life.  She said that “you forget” about the war as time passes as a way to deal with having been surrounded by it.  She said people have changed.  I don’t doubt they have – for I feel no animosity or tension of any kind here in this former war-torn country.  But I am amazed that anyone could move on after being in the midst of such tragic events…

August 9, 2006

…Today, I found the kids around 9am and met Nadira (Ndira?) who knew some English.  She had me get the children’s colouring books and crayons and watch them for a little over an hour or an hour and a half.  Mostly I spent the time putting out small fires as the kids take to fighting each other constantly.  Really they just pick on each other like siblings and no real harm is done.  But there are so many of them and they are a tad bit more aggressive than children I’ve known.

For example, Armen (?) is a trouble maker.  He really seems to want to prove himself and show he’s tough.  Thus he really can’t stand my authority – or whatever authority I may have.  Around 3:30pm I went to watch the little ones finish their nap time when the pedagogs went to lunch.  The kids were restless and this boy was on me right away.  He was kicking and punching.  Then he grabbed a long piece of wood (not quite a 2 by 4) and tried to come at me.  I confiscated that, which only further upset him.  When the kids ran downstairs and turned on the tv, he came at me with a wooden bench and even picked up a small table.  I defused each situation, while also attempting to control the other kids, but I didn’t see this boy coming to slap me.  It was such a shock! Even the other kids were “struck” by it and a few came to comfort me.  Luckily the pedagogs were soon back and thus the endless using of me as a punching bag ceased.

I have bunches of bruises from today.  I’m fine and I understand the kids’ actions.  I tried my best to be stern and say no for what it was worth.  I did tell the pedagogs so they could punish/reprimand the kids as need be.  But there wasn’t much more I could do myself.

In the few words I had with Zelma (Selma?), she said that domestic violence is a huge problem in Bosnia.  She says the kids often witness domestic violence, and as I presumed the violence of these children can just be a reaction to that (though she emphasized they must be taught that it is wrong). She said also that there are no agencies to deal with domestic violence as every other resource goes to things like the war – that people are still focusing on the problems of the past and not on the present.

I was interested in this last comment, because it seems to me that most Bosnians do want to live for the present.  Earlier today Ndira spoke of how the people here try to live a normal life even having suffered through recent and terrible war.  She seemed more interested in criminals seeking justice now than the basically “faux” punishments doled out by the ICTY regarding the past events.  She noted that she though all conflicts were due to politics, ignoring the present innocent casualties.

0547_grave siteIt is such that I find Bosnia in an odd paradox.  It is a country living in the past.  They say they want to move on and at times seemed to be focused on the present, leaving the horrid past behind.  But they don’t let go of everything.  They can’t.  Though they maybe could work to rebuild the city, I think the ruins remind them of where they came from, as do the mass graves.  Still, Ndira can’t erase the scar on her foot where she was shot and another woman will not forget having to run from home to home throughout the war.  Who could forget such things?  And who would want to forget?

0521_Don't Forget MostarHere I come to another paradox.  All of my life I’ve been taught not to forget the Holocaust lest it happen again.  As I read now about Rwanda, learn about Bosnia, or hear about Lebanon and Israel, I can’t help feeling we’ve betrayed ourselves and the world.  We did forget.  And we let such incredible atrocities happen over and over again.  What’s the point of not forgetting if we choose not to recognize the same when it happens time and time again?  With this, my heart breaks and I am further inspired to work harder to change the world.  Perhaps my ideals are too big for me, but I must try.

I want to help everyone, especially the children.  I don’t want to forget what’s happened, but more so, I don’t want to let it happen again.  I want to hope for peace – no more fighting or even hitting.  I’m less than optimistic as I still hear comments like “those on the ‘other side’ do not want to help you if you’re not Catholic” or when I hear about the never-ending tragedy of domestic violence that seems to be spiraling out of control unchecked.  Still there is some hope, however smal.  I may never know the changes that will come to make this world a better place, but maybe I can help as it becomes. I can hold the childrens’ hands as we awalk to town for ice cream.  I can dance, sing, play and colour with the kids.  I can sit quietly and watch a movie to bond with the older kids.  I can relate by telling how much my kitten is like theirs (theirs is named Bobo) and I can just give love and myself as I am.

Above all, I can pray.

August 12, 2006

I wanted to cry tonight when putting the children to bed.  There’s no one to read them stories or sing them a song as they fall asleep.  Even the little ones are basically shoved in to bed and left.  Of course, most won’t stay or they’ll throw fits.  Its so hard because I want to hold each one and rock them.  These kids may have everything and I know the people that work here love them, but they don’t have real individual love and care.  My heart breaks for them.

It seems I can’t do much.  As Professor Silk said – in this line of work I must be prepared to be constantly discouraged. And I am.  All I could do was buy them things today.  Jules and Amarisa accompanied me to the city to help me find a CD of Bosnian music.  I also had them help pick out 2 CDs and 2 DVDs for the house.  Then I found 15 colouring books and bought the girls sodas.  But what are these things?  What does a CD or DVD really mean in the long run?  They are material and of little real substance.  They cannot change the world.  Nor can I.

I’m still trying to understand why I’m here.  I talked with Selma for quite a while today about Bosnia.  From what I gathered, Bosnia is in need of better education, technology, and medicine.  Really the country needs investment.  Perhaps this is what I’m here for, to take this message and bring it back to America?

I think the world musn’t be afraid to reinvest in Bosnia.  Yes the country is war torn, but it is a strong country.  And although much was lost in the war, they did not lose their intellect.  However, now the world thinks of Bosnia as a 3rd world country – dangerous, unstable, and devoid of any modern and even commonplace things.

Bosnia has everything, just maybe not the best of everything.  But the international community has withdrawn from this country.  If only they knew that with a bit of investment this place would be so strong and people wouldn’t feel they have to leave for better opportunities.  Bosnia has come pretty far considering it’s been on its own.  Still, it could use some help to continue growing – which would in turn effect poverty, health, education etc.

Then I think, maybe it isn’t Bosnians who are stuck in the war, unable to move on.  Maybe it’s the rest of the world that won’t move forward.  We see war and the ICTY but not what is going on right now.  I myself marvel more at the destruction here than the beauty.  My focus and the worlds focus are off.

I believe that children are our future.  I believe the world must invest in them for a strong and peaceful future.  We must invest in their health and education, providing the resources and technology to help them advance.  Why then do we forget countries like Bosnia and only focus on the tragedy or threats to oil?

Is this why I’m here? To help spread the word that we must invest? And where else besides here in Bosnia have we forgotten and misplaced our focus?

August 13, 2006

… In the end, maybe this journey was less about the end goal in getting here but more about how I got here and how it affected me.  Maybe this was just to show myself that I am able to do anything I want despite even my diabetes and celiac.  Maybe it was always less about the kids and more about what was given to me.  But maybe that is too selfish.

I don’t know really.  I may never know…

My Velocity

In such a short time, I learned so much – even a few words:

  • Kako se kaze – How do you say?
  • Hvala – thank you
  • Molim te – please
  • Duga – Rainbow
  • Ne – No
  • Si – Yes

And I returned to America with the velocity that I had been lacking the year before.  I was to pursue human rights – particularly health as a human right.  Immediately I started an effort to divest our law school foundation funds from companies that operate in Sudan – ultimately successful though many said they did not want to be involved in this country’s conflict.  I delved into health law and the next year became a visiting student at the University of Houston’s Health Law and Policy Center.  And every job since graduation has been to the end of helping others through our healthcare system – whether through as a policy analyst for the State of Texas, an attorney working on Medicaid Appeals for severely disabled children, a guardian ad litem, a patient navigator and other such endeavors.

In my efforts, I have become quite literally destitute – I am on food stamps, I have no health insurance (but I do have a wonderful physician who will treat me pro bono), I face evictions often, I too struggle through a system set up to ensure people with so little fail.  I first question and then at times lose my velocity in the moments when times are so very hard.  This is why I came back to the journal, to visit the time where I found my velocity.  Then I am inspired once more, renewed with the sense of purpose.  And I realize that I would never choose a different path – I wouldn’t trade the pursuit of health as a human right for a law firm job and a million dollars.  I don’t know how I’ll get by, but I know this pursuit is my velocity.

How I wish I could return to Bosnia and the Children’s Home.  How I wish I could visit other countries and help in any capacity.  How I wish I could help stop violence that affects children such as those I met that one week.  How I wish the right to health, as other human rights, would not be trampled upon or withheld or even revoked in times of peace or war.

A Velocity of Discouragement and Tenacity

That summer, Professor Silk taught us that in this line of work I must be prepared to be constantly discouraged.  And I carry with me an email from one of my mentors – Dayna Matthew that I will share here – an email that reminds me yet again of my velocity.  My velocity in 2006 was to Amsterdam, then Bosnia, then divesting from Sudan, then health as a human right where I continue today with utmost speed and urgency –

Dear Erin,

You are not wrong.  You are feeling the disappointment and frustration of realizing what “making a difference” actually turns out to be about.  You are absolutely, positively right.  But you are going through a transformation that I am afraid I have gone through only a few “moments” ahead of you.  Let me explain.

At first, you believe that the simple truth of the differences you want to make will cause change to occur.  Surely, if you simply reveal the injustice or error of any given problem, the problem will right itself.  You believe at first that there cannot possibly be any explanation for maldistribution of wealth, or hunger amidst plenty or irrational prejudices except the lack of revelation.  You think, at the very beginning, that by simply shedding light, good people will see and change directions.  And then you realize that revelation alone is not enough.  Maybe it’s because the injustice is so far entrenched or maybe it’s because the solutions are more complex than you originally thought.  But you reckon with the fact that just showing the problems for what they are will not be enough, and you move to the next phase.

This second phase is where you believe that getting people to join you will make the difference.  You assume that spending time with your colleagues who may not have your strength of character to believe change is possible, or may not have your courage to challenge the status quo, but who certainly care as deeply as you do about the injustice that you see (here, I am being very facicious) — if you simply strengthen their resolve by inspiring and motivating them, you will have an agent for change.  This, Erin, is possibly the most baffling and disappointing phase of all.  Because you come face to face with the reality that many, many, many people do NOT see injustice.  In fact, many people who you thought would welcome your inspiration (even if they could not see the vision themselves).  But they don’t.  There are all kinds of reasons why they don’t.  The reasons are mostly things you NEVER thought of and never saw coming.  They aren’t sure injustice is injustice; maybe hunger is good for people; perhaps if we help too much we’ll end up causing harm — people will make arguments you cannot fathom!  The worst is realizing that some people are very well served by the problems you have been hoping to change.  (These are really quite few, though).  Also you will find that people just don’t have TIME for the problems you have been hoping to change. (This are really quite numerous).  And finally, you will find that you have got to have “a talk” with yourself in order to maintain your sanity.

This is where, I believe, you may be.  Erin, you DID come here to make a change.  That is who you are inside and that is who you HAVE to remain.  But now you must make the differences you came to make soley for the reason of being true to yourself and what you believe.  You have to now find a way to answer your “calling” even if no one around you “gets it” and even if no one around you will join you.  Actually, people will join you.  But now you have to find another place to draw strength from, than from the people you will have to lead.  THere are small numbers of students on other campuses — in organizations and in groups that you will have to find to identify with. You will have to find the core of the causes you can affect while you complete your legal training.  And there will be great satisfaction in identifying those alone.  You are realizing also that in this “preparation” and “equipping” phase, you have to put up with not being able to affect EVERYTHING at once, but that doesn’t mean you cannot affect SOMETHING profoundly.

This e-mail is far too long.  I hope you will stop by my office later today — because I think you MUST keep moving on.  You have to continue to believe in the difference you came to make.  The thing is, now, you realize how much more solitary and extraordinary your life’s work is.  But believe me, it is worth it.  Keep the faith!

Dayna Matthew


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