From York to Serbia

Luke Rodgers, 21, from York, spent a lot of his childhood living in foster care. Inspired by his experiences and funded by UnLtd, Luke created Foster Focus to support and mentor other looked-after children. Here, Luke describes his ISV Serbia experience:

What was I expecting from the ISV? To learn, have fun, meet new people, try new food, but most of all to learn about the culture. I was hoping that I could learn from the projects that are tackling issues.

It’s always useful to bring back new knowledge to our country and test out different ways of working, it keeps things creative and versatile and more importantly gives you a greater chance of making an impact in your area, mine being with under-privileged young people.

I suppose I took my own perspective, experiences, beliefs and values. I believe that there is not one person in this world that we cannot learn from. Each time we learn from others, it moulds our own thinking.

I also took an understanding of how we can support young people. I am a huge believer in giving all young people hope, and showing them a belief that they can achieve anything they want. I think we should look at young people’s stigmas and labels around behaviour. We shouldn’t see behaviour as a problem that needs to be suppressed, but as a message that needs to be answered.

Two things struck me. The first thing was how parts of the governing systems didn’t seem to support many under-privileged groups, and the second was how personally life-changing the trip was.

An eye-opening experience

One of the projects that I visited that worked with homeless Roma children broke my heart. There are 600 reported homeless Roma people in Belgrade, with an estimated 2,000 in total. The attitudes towards the community are generally very negative, they suffer racist attacks, physically and verbally on a daily basis. The project provided a place for these kids to drop in, eat, and meet one another.

They had a magazine that they sold where the money supported the project (like the Big Issue does here). It was an amazing place and the people who ran it were so inspirational. They had eight beds there to allow the children to stay whenever they wanted to give them some warmth, physically and emotionally.

To meet so many people from different countries was eye-opening and an experience that I find hard to put into words.

But soon after they opened these beds to children the government introduced a policy stating children could not stay there. This was a clear counterproductive policy and in my opinion a case of institutionalised racism.

There are a lot of areas that are in need of legislative development, government attitudes need to be addressed and there needs to be support in place for those who need it.

My feelings weren’t all negative surrounding the country, though. In fact, Serbia is one of the most beautiful and amazing countries I have visited.

The future

When I came back I saw a statistic from ‘V’ Youth Organisation that said 92 per cent of children in the UK don’t think they have enough opportunities. If I had not been to Serbia and had only been exposed to British culture I might have agreed. However, after visiting a country that only recognised and created policy around youth organisations in 2007, I see that children do have opportunities in this country, and we cannot deny that.

We need to change our attitudes towards the opportunities we have here. We live in a society that has an amazing education system, free health care, social care, and we need to make the best of every opportunity. The things we sometimes complain about here, across the world someone might be dreaming about.

I have learnt about myself. The way that my project works, it means that I am the product. So I’ve learnt about my own strengths and weaknesses.

I am just humbled, privileged and overwhelmed by this experience.

Inspired by his experience in Serbia, Luke has now created the Through their Eyes project, which aims to document the lives of the Roma children he met in Belgrade.

The resulting artwork will then be exhibited in the UK to raise awareness of the challenges that face Serbian Roma. He is travelling to Serbia in April to launch the project.

For more information click here.