How Empata Is Helping People in Serbia During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Ljubica Goranovic

My name is Ljubica, and I’m the founder of a little local charity in Serbia named Empata. It translates to Empathy, a word that describes our mission the best.

I registered the charity in 2017, when I was 26 years old. By that time I already had experience with organizing charity events in our community with my friends. We focused on organizing concerts, art exhibitions, and plays to collect donations. We used the donations mainly for the children in our community who were seriously ill and their families had no means of financially supporting their treatments. My friends and I got into helping others when tragedy struck close to home and one of the families in our community needed desperately. Once we started, we couldn’t just stop helping.

For the spring of 2020, we planned charity events to help us buy equipment needed for the pregnancy ward of our local hospital. We had a lot of plans for children’s art shows and theatre. We thought it would be nice if the children in our community helped us improve the place where babies are born.  There is a saying in Serbia, and it goes like this: “Tell God of your plans so he can laugh at them.”

Empata volunteers in Serbia assisting people affected by COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reached the Balkans and Serbia, and we got some of the most restrictive measures in Europe implemented in our country. Life as we know it has stopped. The “police hour” was from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. and nobody could leave their homes. We were on a total lockdown on the weekends, for more than 72 hours straight.

The elderly, people over 65, couldn’t go outside at all, not even for walks or to go to a grocery store. Not even when everyone else was on lockdown. They only let the elderly go to the stores in the morning, from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., 3 days a week, and the stores would open for them. After more than a month of a complete lockdown of people 65+, our government decided they could walk for half an hour, 500 meters from their house, once the rest of us are forced indoors.

The economy of Serbia has halted. Many jobs disappeared, especially seasonal ones, and the entire hospitality branch has suffered a massive hit. That hit the most endangered families in our community disproportionately, compared to other branches of the economy. Many workers in the hospitality business are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to make ends meet even in the best of times. Times got tough fast.

Ljubica holding donations.

People’s mental health suffered on all fronts. When you are not watching TV, you are worried about money. When you are watching TV, you are constantly bombarded with doctors and politicians making the worst possible predictions. Even though our numbers of people who died of the virus were and are very low, the consequences of COVID-19 and the government’s reaction to the crisis will be with us for years to come.

Some light in all this darkness came from people willing to help one another. Empathy was displayed at every corner. The young people were organizing to help the elderly get groceries and house supplies they needed, as well as medications. Small farmers who would usually sell their products at farmers markets, moved online and the young developers and marketers helped them navigate the online space, and figure out how to sell their crops through social media marketing in their own communities. People were struggling to find disinfectants, gloves, and masks at first, but that shortage of supplies has eased.

So my little charity found itself paralyzed. We couldn’t do what we do best, which is exchange culture for donations, as we like to describe it. All gatherings were forbidden. Our plans to help out our maternity ward at our local hospital were postponed indefinitely. Babies will have to wait for us to figure this one out in the coming months. But we couldn’t just sit still for two months. So we organized.

We got in contact with the local farmers and businesses and asked for whatever groceries and crops they could donate. Our small community responded really well and gave a lot. We made grocery packs, with lots of fresh and essential items, and we delivered them to the families most in need of help during these times. The pictures are of some of the items included in the packs, but with no pictures of the people we delivered them to since we wanted to respect the privacy of the families we helped.

Spinach to be delivered to those in need in Serbia during COVID-19.

One day a friend of ours came to us with the idea of cheering up our community.

He noticed a lot of store employees were working overtime to cope with the new rules for working during COVID-19. They were also among the most exposed during the crisis, along with our health workers who now have double the responsibilities and workload with the same number of staffers as before the pandemic. The workers of our government’s firm for cleaning and disinfecting the streets are one of the groups with the biggest financial struggles. And they haven’t had a day of rest since this whole thing started. All of them work long hours, with lots of exposure and sometimes no means of protection because of the lack of protective gear.

Since our friend is a world-famous chef, Daniel Miksic, who is a part of the Chefs for Life charity, he had the idea of making and delivering healthy snacks to our local heroes. He needed a professional kitchen for his cooking, so a local hotel offered up their kitchen since they were closed during COVID-19. And the local farmers offered their best products, milk, eggs, jams, butter, oats, and lots of other groceries. Some donated money and helped us with purchasing the packaging for all the snacks we made.

We cooked every Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6 a.m., for several weeks. We visited our local hospitals and COVID-19 units, pharmacies and pharmacists, several grocery stores, and the volunteers of the Red Cross, who were on duty the entire time, helping the elderly get their groceries and medications. We also visited our local society for disabled individuals and delivered the snacks to them. Many of the workers were surprised and did not expect us to come with gifts, snacks, and flowers donated to us from a local florist.

Serbian charity workers from Empata preparing meals during COVID-19.

This was not the activity we have planned for this period. Nor were they essential to the people we tried to help and cheer up. But we hope we brought a little bit of joy and relief to the stressful days of some of the members of our community. We provided a lighthearted distraction to their work hours and some delicious snacks made from local ingredients to show support to our local heroes who helped the entire community go through some of the toughest challenges in the last 20 years.

We hope never to be in a similar situation and have to repeat these activities again. In the coming months, we will try to raise money for the pregnancy ward of our hospital and deliver on the promises we made prior to COVID-19. Hopefully, life will slowly turn back to normal. Maybe not the normal we were used to, but some new normal we can all live with in peace.

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