"By helping others we also help ourselves": interview with Jana Hradilková of the Berkat NGO
I was looking forward to interviewing Jana Hradilková because I was finally going to get to know one of the co-founders of Gender Studies, a NGO I have been working for in the last seven years. The other reason I could not wait was that I had always been impressed with the activities of the Berkat NGO. In the interview, Jana told me about how the organization started, what 'Berkat' means and explained how helping people has a positive effect on everyone. Her honesty, openness and unique energy were wonderfully refreshing.
How did you transition from setting up Gender Studies in the 1990's to working for Berkat and Chechnya?
My involvement with Chechnya started when I still co-directed Gender Studies. The combination of the war in Chechnya and oral history pulled me into the cause. At this time, one of Gender Studies projects was about oral history (Women's Memory - Ed.) and I found it particularly interesting. I clearly remember how in 1993, older ladies started coming to the library at the Centre for Gender Studies (at Klimentská Street in Prague) asking us to help them start a civic association or another platform that would enable them to meet on a regular basis. This was an important moment. I told them: "All right, ladies, feel free to come here, we'll help you, but how about you share your memories with us in exchange? We'll chat with you and record it." That's how the Women's Memory project started. For me, it was a kind of a safeguard against becoming too abstract in our work. This project was grounding in that women's lives and roles would be reflected in the light of everyday life, which oral history does. First, we only interviewed Czech women in the Czech Republic. In 1997 we had the idea to expand the project into other Post-Communist countries also because Pavla Frýdlová, the project coordinator at the time, had a close friend in Yugoslavia. The war had already started and we met with women from Yugoslavia several times. The war made a deep personal impression on me.
How does this relate to Chechnya and the founding of Berkat?
When the war in Chechnya broke out in 1999, I was approached by someone who needed assistance with organizing a petition of Czechs against the war. My friends referred him to me because they thought I would be able to help. So I got together a group of people I knew from different NGOs. Our goal was to shape an NGO memorandum which would have more impact than just a petition signed by individual citizens. In fact, I was organizing a coalition against the war in Chechnya. The main idea was to protest against human rights violations in Chechnya and to show solidarity as we were a country which also experienced an invasion – in 1968. Besides working on the memorandum, I also asked Jim Ottaway (American philanthropist who helped fund several Gender Studies publications - Ed.) to support an anthology of interviews with women from the Chechen city of Grozny. This was how I met journalist Petra Procházková (who lived in Chechnya – Ed.). We started writing to each other very frequently and I asked her to join the project. It meant that she was going to gain financial access to resources she could use to operate a shelter for children there.
Eventually, we raised money from the general public. People donated spontaneously to our campaign, as we toured the country and screened documents from Chechnya made by Petra Procházková and Jaromír Štětina. We also had an exhibition of war photographs. However, I was very frustrated about the fact that civic activism among Czech people was palpable, people were turning to us asking what they could do, yet little was changing. The situation in Chechnya was getting worse. Finally, these requests motivated us to start Berkat as a service to people who wanted to help.
What does the word 'berkat' mean?
It is a Chechen word. It means happiness in the sense of blessing in their language. Children in Grozny came up with it when they discussed what the shelter should be named. In Arabic, it means creating abundance from next to nothing. That's something we learned later when we dabbled in Afghanistan. Afghanistan happened because, after 9/11, Petra Procházková went to work there as a war reporter for a few years. Her work extended the activities of Berkat. We identified four villages in the Southwest of Kabul which offered nothing in the way of resources, but were settled by refugees. For example, in Fakiro (translates as The Poor) there wasn't even a well, so people drank rain water from the puddles. They were completely dependent on outside help. We thought we could train local women's groups in business. In the beginning, we had the naive idea that people here would go crazy about Persian rugs, so we came up with the "Happy Flying Carpets" project. We hadn't realized that carpet production is quite complicated and that we didn't have the capital to buy all the equipment the women would need to make rugs. In the end, we had to compromise and ended up with the idea that they would do ordinary work they were used to doing. Every Afghan woman has a wonderful feeling for colours and is good at embroidery. So we simply asked them to do that, to embroider. Then we would buy the best pieces and gradually, we jointly thought of complete products which would be attractive and comfortable to wear for people here. This usually meant tunics to be worn with trousers, scarves and hats. The embroidery represented the traditional aspect of the products but we shaped their overall form and made orders like in standard business. Eventually, our relationship became professional, which was what we had originally wanted, because we had believed it was going to help the women to improve their lives.
How did InBáze/InBase, the community center for immigrants, come about?
Many refugees from Chechnya and other countries in the Caucasus emigrated to the Czech Republic. There were also refugees from Afghanistan. Because they knew Berkat worked in their countries, they came to us and asked us to deliver their messages home. They wanted us, paradoxically, to serve as their connection with their home communities. Then in 2003, we had an idea to set up a community center for immigrants. A year later we built the InBáze/InBase. It was funded with a grant from the European Union and it materialized the principle of community help for immigrants.
What is the attitude of Czechs toward aid in countries like Afghanistan or Chechnya about which people know little more than that the majority population is Muslim?
Berkat started by bringing a group of Chechens to the Czech Republic. They lived here for a while and we found out a lot about each other. For example, we realized that there were many more things we shared than things we didn’t share. First of all, they are people just like us. Their Islam is different than what Czechs expect. Many Chechens are actually like Russians, especially people who are now middle-aged. Because they lived under the Soviets, their lifestyle was very similar to Czechs’. In short, our lived experience and genetic heritage brings us close while the differences which might stem from their Muslim religion are minimal. On the other hand, the media notices primarily these differences. Journalists, for example, find the differences easy to see and to grasp. They can also be easily exploited for marketing purposes. The media presented the situation in the Caucasus largely with the help of the external attributes of the local culture which, however, make little sense in real life. That's the other reality, the media reality, which feeds on contrasts and has a life of its own. And naturally, big issues such as terrorism and safety also play a role in the way a society is perceived.
What are some tangible outcomes of the Berkat and InBáze/In Base projects?
The first outcome was that Berkat served people who wanted to help. For example, a Czech citizen wanted to contribute 500 CZK to a Chechen family every month. We put together a list of families which needed this kind of help and presented it to the interested Czechs. They would then be able to choose who to support according to who they liked and how much they could. We always tried to bring the two sides closer together by providing information, encouraging letter exchange and other methods, many of which proved unrealistic, of course. Not everybody is able to share personal information. Neither can disclosure of personal information be required in exchange for humanitarian help. This was a fragile aspect of our work and we soon realized that there were many different ways we could facilitate mutual contact and communication. For example, we brought Chechen children to the Czech Republic to do a couple of dance performances and to experience what people live like here. Because until people meet face to face in a particular location they will never really listen to you. They can start to understand what life and people are like here and why only once they come here. The same is true the other way around.
It was like a mutual learning program. We also decided that we didn't want them to be completely dependent on us so we helped them create a community center where they could meet and decide what it was they needed and organize it themselves. Later, we would sit there and brainstorm what they would like to do for a living and all the ladies wanted to have beauty parlours. Unfortunately, it is hard to fundraise money for beauty parlours so we took it a step further: we started trainings in computer work, English, and sewing. The last course they came up with was a cooking course and it became very popular. So these were some concrete outcomes of our work. The point of our service is to push them and to inspire them by sharing our experience with working from ground up. In the spirit of the word berkat, we try to create a lot out of nothing.
How about the gender dimension of your work?
Well, the gender aspect of our work was pre-determined by the book Aluminium Queen, published by Gender Studies and Lidové Noviny (a publishing house - Ed.). It was a collection of interviews Petra Procházková had done with women in Grozny, Chechnya. So even though we in no way tried to focus only on women, it became our only option. We needed to start communicating and cooperating with women because their work was the easiest to see in the context of everyday life. And supporting women clearly entailed supporting their children and their families. For these reasons, our help naturally took the form of creating the first community center for women. What surprised me very much was that even the local men acknowledged that women were carrying a very heavy burden and that a women's community was the right idea. We continued to stick to this model. When Berkat was starting out, 80% of its members were women. We found out that whether we wanted it or not, it was much easier to recruit women than men. For example, already back in 2003 or 2004, our most important colleague in Chechnya, the leader of a local group, said that helping others was the best way she could help herself. She said that working to help other people was a formula which enabled her to escape her own complicated problems. And I have realized this as well, here, that by helping others we also help ourselves.
Do Berkat activities have any impact on the Czech society, in your opinion?
This goal is not articulated in our mission or in our job description, but it is embedded in the core of our work. When I reflect upon the almost ten past years, I realize that the idea that you can help in places where it seems impossible makes a lot of sense. This principle has taken a firm root in this country and it's not going away, but it is not only a result of the work of Berkat, of course, I am sure there are other groups like us. Berkat helps to acknowledge the value of helping others. It presents charity by choice as something credible and worthwhile. Berkat also represents alternatives to traditional charity by integrating a creative approach through giving both sides an opportunity to understand and shape their input. Every person on either end of the relationship is actively involved because they come up with new ideas about how to do things.
Are there any other unique aspects or benefits of the work of Berkat?
I think we are unique in that we help people rediscover their freedom and independence. We help them break their dependence and in doing so, we learn to understand the importance of individual, responsible and sustainable way of living in relationships. Both parties learn with the help of this principle, which is disappearing in this over-institutionalized world; we constantly live our lives in the context of given conditions. So this work is a search for pathways in which people can operate regardless of these conditions, these external restrictions and practice true responsibility in these new spaces. I believe that we generate infectious energy that is positive and that spreads without any further intervention from us.
Jana Hradilková is an observer, a researcher, a writer and a facilitator of ideas of her friends as well as of her own. She has been married for 30 years and has four children. Jana has co-founded a number of NGOs, including Pražské matky (Prague Mothers), Gender Studies, Ašoka-podnikatelé pro obecný prospěch (Ašoka-Enterpreneurs for Public Good), Berkat, and Semja in the city of Grozny, Chechnya. She strives to create and foster conditions for the engagement of people who seek new ways and space to create positive energy (http://www.berkat.cz, http://www.cecna.cz).