Mara Foundation – Dedicated to the Balkans

Interviewer: Lea Linin
Photos: MARA Foundation

I talked to Lonneke van der Holst, a volunteer in Mara Foundation, attempting to discover something about the organization’s origin, its purpose and how it has developed during time. She tells her own story of how she became involved with this student organization, and the recent road trip she had with two other Mara Foundation volunteers.

When was the organization established? How did the idea to form this type of organization come about? Was there a particular event that was the instigator?
Mara Foundation was established in 1994, after a lecture of Professor Jankovic, who was an opposition leader as well. He held this lecture in Leiden, the first student city of the Netherlands. During this lecture, he called for students to go and help people in the Balkans. After this lecture, 7 students from Leiden started Mara Foundation. The concept was buying medicines in the Netherlands and bringing them to places harmed by the war. The idea was to distribute the medicines, not making any difference in ethnicity, age or gender. After Leiden, many other student cities in the Netherlands followed in establishing a Mara Foundation. Nowadays, there are 7 cities in the Netherlands in which Mara Foundation is active.

Why did Mara Foundation choose to focus its activities on the Balkans?
We chose the Balkans because of the war during that time, and because Professor Jankovic remarked that the Balkans was only 2 days driving away, so it would be relatively easy for students from Western Europe to go to the Balkans and help.

Mara Foundation started out by providing medical help, but has broadened the scope of help it provides. Do you identify the needs of an organization/school/ institution, and then decide on the type of help you provide?
After a while, Mara foundation Amsterdam started to remark that, after the end of the war in the Western Balkans, the economy started to rise again and the pharmaceutical sector started to re-establish as well. By critically looking at what was still needed in the Balkans, we remarked that students and youngsters in the Balkans still lived quite isolated from the world outside. We thought that if we would invest in education, the youth could eventually be the engine of integration of the Balkans in the world.

How do you select your beneficiaries? Do you nominate them? Can they possibly contact you and ask for your support?
The transfer to education has only taken place one year ago, so for us it’s still a bit trying out what would be the best way for selecting our beneficiaries, but normally we google projects, visit them, and then decide whether we want to go back to cooperate or not.

How many organizations/ institutions/projects has Mara Foundation helped so far? Could you mention some of them?
So far, we have helped:

1.) Solidarity Foundation in Belgrade
2.) A foundation for young artists in Presjevo (South Serbia)
3.) The centre for tolerance and integration in Bujanovac (South Serbia) with a journalistic project
4.) A computer project in Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
5.) Mladiinfo in Skopje
6.) Dina Mitrovik’s youth-club in Stip
7.) A book donation for several schools in Macedonia in cooperation with NGO Babylon
8.) Youth Office Loznica (Serbia)

Mara Foundation has several branches located in different cities in the Netherlands. Are their activities similar?
No, Mara Foundation Amsterdam is the only branch which works in the field of education. The rest still works in the field of medicines. Mara Foundation Maastricht will in the near future do a trial project in the field of education, but has so far just invested in medicines.

Is Mara Foundation primarily a student organization?
Mara Foundation is just a student organization. The board members are all students, and 90% of our donators are students as well (except for our own mums and dads, aunts and uncles, and grandparents). The idea was: students (donators) for students (the board of Mara Foundation) for students (in the Balkans).

How did you first become involved in the organization? Why did you choose Mara Foundation? Why was it appealing to you?
I personally got involved about a year ago. I study European Studies, and I got an e-mail through my student mail. Many of us are studying something with politics or law or economics and development cooperation. Before we switched to education, there were a lot of students of medicine. Why it was appealing to me personally is because I’m very interested in investing in the wealth of Europe (the EU and its surroundings). I really want to work in that field after finishing my studies, and Mara Foundation seemed a great opportunity to already do something with my ambitions.

How did your road trip across the Balkans go? How was your team assembled? Did you, Laura and Paul know each other?
Our trip through the Balkans went perfect! Nothing went wrong and we were able to stick to the schedule. We expected quite some difficulties because of the cold weather, but everything went ok. Laura, Paul and me knew each other because we’re all board members of Mara Foundation Amsterdam. Our board consists of 10 members, and every time we go to the Balkans, we go with three of us.

What did your activities involve?
Our activities during our journey in December involved visiting projects we supported in the past (in Serbia), visiting organizations with whom we might cooperate in the future (in Macedonia and Kosovo), and doing 3 donations. The donations consisted of one computer donation to Mladiinfo in Skopje, one book donation to a youth club in Stip and one big book donation to several schools in 7 different towns in Macedonia.

Was this your first Balkan experience? Have there been any particularly annoying or interesting Balkan features/moments that have been engraved in your memory?
This was my second time in the Balkans. I was there in July 2009 as well. During summertime the weather was magnificent! During wintertime the alcohol was very good in order to warm ourselves a bit… Of course there are many striking things, such as schools which were maintained horribly. We realize that we cannot fill the gaps the government causes with its education policy, but we hope we contributed to education for at least some students in the Balkans…

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