A program that matches young adults with children from disadvantaged backgrounds is filling a gap in social services and creating lasting bonds.

Since 2017, Amina Beganovic, a young pharmacist living in Sarajevo, has been meeting with a girl she calls her “little sister” once a week. They enjoy long walks and talks together, and going to museums and movies. They also go ice skating, a fun pastime they learned together.

The girl, now 11, is growing up in challenging living conditions. She has become more independent and mature during their time together, Beganovic says, acknowledging that their relationship has helped her too.

“As much as I positively influenced her, she helped me to be more understanding and patient,” she says. “When the COVID-19 pandemic started, my first thought was how it would affect my family – my mother, father and sister and her, my ‘younger sister.’ ”

Playing a game at a group get-together for Older Brother, Older Sister volunteers and children.

Just like Amina, hundreds of young volunteers in Bosnia and Herzegovina strive to help children who are growing up in difficult environments as part of the Older Brother, Older Sister mentoring program. Older Brother, Older Sister pairs volunteers aged 20 to 30 – most of whom are students, young college graduates, or young professionals – with children aged 6 to 14 living in socially disadvantaged families, orphans, and others who lack parental care, with the aim of helping them develop positive life habits over a certain period, usually one school year. 

The pair normally meets once a week: they attend cultural events together, play sports, or just hang out. The program’s regular assessments have found that it brings benefits to children and helps them adopt healthier lifestyles. It also helps young people get involved in volunteering and community service and develop their own social skills.

Service Gap

Older Brother, Older Sister got its start 19 years ago as a project of the Sarajevo-based addiction prevention organization NARKO-NE, which recognized the gap between the needs of children growing up without adequate family assistance and institutional social protection services. NARKO-NE works on the prevention of risky behaviors among children through activities that encourage them to adopt healthy lifestyles.

The Older Brother, Older Sister program is based on a model applied in several other countries. 

The decentralized system of social protection in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina makes the provision of social services a difficult job. The country’s constitution transfers responsibilities for social protection to the two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, and the separately administered Brcko District. Within the Federation, responsibilities are divided between the entity and the cantons. In Republika Srpska, local governments are responsible for providing social protection. In other words, procedures vary depending on where the child lives.

Preventing the risk of children being separated from their parents and mitigating the consequences of family separation are some of the tasks of the Centers for Social Work located throughout the country. Most local communities in the country have these centers, but the services they provide are underdeveloped, underfunded, and sometimes unavailable to children who need protection.

The needs of socially vulnerable families and children have long exceeded the existing technical, financial, and personnel capacities of the Centers for Social Work, as identified in a 2014 analysis by the international nongovernmental organization SOS Children’s Villages. Staff shortages, financial problems, and poor equipment at the centers are flagged in a 2019 report by the office of the national Human Rights Ombudsman.

According to data from the 2013 census, Bosnia and Herzegovina has almost 620,000 children under the age of 18. The SOS Children’s Villages report gave figures of 184,720 children registered as beneficiaries of social services and 112,537 children at risk of losing parental care.

‘Trust, Communication, and Cooperation’

Faced with numerous limitations, some governmental bodies are willing to cooperate with the country’s active nongovernmental sector. In Sarajevo Canton – one of 10 cantons in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and which includes the capital Sarajevo and its surrounding municipalities – the Older Brother, Older Sister program is operated jointly by NARKO-NE, the cantonal Center for Social Work, and the Bjelave Home for Children Without Parental Care in Sarajevo.

NARKO-NE is responsible for the overall operation, including training volunteers. The Center for Social Work and the Bjelave Home recommend and monitor children participating in the program.

“In the beginning, there was a bit of skepticism because it is not easy to leave children with someone you don’t know. But we came to see that [the program] is based on trust, communication, and cooperation,” says Tarik Smailbegovic, director of the Bjelave Home. “It’s such a great program, and it has accomplished a lot.”

Experts suggest that Older Brother, Older Sister is indeed beneficial for children, as it encourages social, emotional, and cognitive development.

“The program prevents antisocial behavior and deviations in all spheres of children’s lives, and also protects them from social isolation,” says psychologist Aida Omeragic of the Center for Social Work in the city of Zenica.

“Through socializing, sharing experiences, conversations, and finding solutions to difficulties, if the child is experiencing them, it is possible to build up their self-esteem, inner strengths, and generally improve self-image,” Omeragic says.

Similar “Big Brothers Big Sisters” programs are running in the United States, Canada, Australia, and several countries in Europe, with studies indicating positive overall impact on their participants. An evaluation of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ireland, for example, found that young people with a volunteer mentor were more hopeful and had a greater sense of agency in relation to the future. According to the study, young people with a mentor felt better supported overall than those without one, and parents of mentored youth rated their behavior more positively than did parents of non-mentored youth.

When it comes to assessing the efficiency of the program in Bosnia and Herzegovina, various evaluations have been made, primarily internally. An assessment from 2017-2018 is based on a comparison between questionnaires filled in by children before and after taking part in the program, which surveyed their feelings on school success, behavior, socialization, dedication, work habits, hygiene habits, free time and other topics. It points to several positive changes in the children who took part: they said that they achieved better results in school, their participation in social activities increased, and their social skills improved. Children between the ages of 11 and 14 were more likely to participate in extracurricular school activities and sports after attending the program.

The most recent program evaluation, conducted during the 2021-2022 program cycle, found that participation contributed to improved communication and social skills and higher participation in extracurricular activities. The number of children who reported having no hobbies also fell.

Assessments indicate that many children develop new hobbies while in the program.

The results of the program are regularly discussed at meetings, explains Sanela Sehic, who coordinates Older Brother, Older Sister for NARKO-NE. Monthly group and individual meetings are held as a form of support for volunteers, but also as a monitoring tool for their work with children.

“Volunteers report on changes in the behavior of their younger ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in various areas, such as adopting the rules of polite behavior, developing good manners, empathy for other people, and adopting personal hygiene habits,” Sehic says.

Since 2004, around 700 children from Sarajevo Canton have participated in the program. Local groups in other Bosnian towns and cities also run their own Older Brother, Older Sister programs – currently Mostar, Travnik, Tuzla, Laktasi, Banja Luka, and Foca. All told, about 1,900 children have taken part.

Networks of Connections

In 2004, Nerma Daut Bajramovic was a freshman psychology student at the University of Sarajevo when she became one of the first Older Brother, Older Sister volunteers at NARKO-NE. Today, her “younger brother” is 32 and living a stable life, and she works on developing the program at the Older Brother, Older Sister Foundation. The two of them are still in contact.

The foundation was established in 2013 on the initiative of NARKO-NE and with the support of the other partners. The network of current and former volunteers is constantly growing, Daut Bajramovic says.

Many alumni are still involved with Older Brother, Older Sister. Some, like Daut Bajramovic and other former “older sisters,” work for the foundation. Others, such as Samir Mahmic, took a slightly less conventional approach. A former program coordinator, Mahmic decided to dedicate the first marathon he ran in February 2022 to the program, raising around 500 euros through sponsorship.

Many former volunteers continue to contribute to the program through fundraising.

“Because I was a part of the story ‘from the inside,’ I have heard so many wonderful, touching, and emotional stories … The program is very important for children’s upbringing, and this is probably the main reason why I decided to collect and donate funds specifically for it,” he says.

Persistent Challenges

Private donations like Mahmic’s are welcome, but not enough to cover expenses. The program is mainly supported by foreign donors. Local governments have not financially supported it so far, though their staff work as collaborators and advisers for volunteers. In general, local authorities in Bosnia allocate very little money to civil society organizations.

NARKO-NE and the Older Brother, Older Sister Foundation are advocating for the program to be included in Sarajevo Canton’s social protection system. This would better equip the program canton to meet children’s specific needs and respond to their problems, NARKO-NE’s Sehic suggests. This will take time, however, and the difficulties are compounded by the labyrinthine political structure and changes in cantonal governments. Constant government turmoil and the COVID-19 pandemic further slowed down these efforts over the last two years.

“The requirements and problems of every child are not the same, and very often their needs go beyond material assistance and require counseling, guidance, and assistance,” Sehic says.

Currently, 45 children in Sarajevo Canton are participating in Older Brother, Older Sister. But many others are in need of mentoring, says Smailbegovic of the Bjelave Home. He advocates for increasing the numbers of volunteers and children involved through dedicated budget funds.

“Once the program enters the system and becomes a social service, the size of the program will not be defined by money but by need,” he says hopefully.

The program also suffers from its own limitations. Volunteers are selected through annual open calls and interviews before the start of each program cycle (each cycle is aligned with the school year, running from September to June). Most volunteers are committed to the program, but sometimes older “sisters” and “brothers” meet with children only irregularly. This can harm the development of the relationship between them and jeopardize its beneficial effects. Program coordinators, however, try to overcome such obstacles during regular support meetings with volunteers.

Another factor is that a large percentage of volunteers are young women. Since young men are not so interested in volunteering, it can be challenging for “older sisters” to establish a relationship with adolescent boys.

Although aware of the shortcomings of Older Brother, Older Sister, Daut Bajramovic is convinced of its positive effects. “There are many more advantages than risks in this program,” she says. “And we hope its benefits will keep multiplying.”

Lidija Pisker is an award-winning journalist and researcher living between Italy and the Balkans.

All photos courtesy of the Older Brother, Older Sister Foundation.