Croatian volunteer sees refugee girl through tough times

Syrian refugee Yara has developed a real bond with Katarina, a Croatian visual therapist who is helping her to overcome low-vision challenges

Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

Katarina Marasović is an educational rehabilitator and visual therapist. When she learnt that a Syrian refugee with severe visual impairment needed help in Zagreb, she didn’t hesitate to volunteer her time and expertise. Now Katarina and the 17-year-old girl, whose name is Yara, have become firm friends.

Katarina, 26, heard about Yara through the Croatian Red Cross. She spent most of this year visiting the girl once or twice a week at home to teach her to read and write. The improvement is huge but the real change will come when the two can finally go out and work on developing social and everyday skills.

She is my friend now. She’s the best thing about Croatia

Yara and her family – parents, older sister and younger brother — were resettled in Croatia from Turkey two years ago. Back in Turkey, Yara couldn’t complete elementary school as she didn’t understand the language. To prevent the same problem arising again, Katarina first came to Yara to help her with Croatian.

Katarina had been volunteering with people with disabilities since high school. As a recent graduate of visual therapy, she found Yara’s case intriguing. The teacher and student clicked immediately.

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Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

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Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

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Photo: UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

“She is my friend now. She’s the best thing about Croatia,” Yara says of Katarina.

When they met in January, they had to start from scratch with the braille alphabet. But Katarina quickly discovered that Yara wasn’t completely blind — if the letters were big enough, she could see them. So they could move on to practicing on paper and at the computer.

During the lessons, Yara also talked about her memories from Syria, her days in school and her dreams. This was how Katarina found out Yara wanted to learn to play the piano, something she might be able to help with. Yara’s grander dream is to see as a healthy person.

“I barely knew Yara when we began working together and I learn something new about her everytime we meet,” says Katarina. “She is like a puzzle to me and I’m still putting the pieces together.”

Yara had severe difficulties when she first came to Croatia. Handicapped with a spinal condition, and stuck on the fourth floor of an apartment block without a lift, she had to have two rounds of surgery at the Klaićeva Children’s Hosiptal in Zagreb, followed by rehabilitation. She was provided with daily physiotherapy and a long spa treatment. During the process she could rely on the help of a nurse assigned by UNHCR.

Even now, it is not clear whether she will ever walk without a crutch. All depends on her upcoming – third – spinal surgery.

Thanks to Katarina’s and the Croatian Red Cross’s efforts, Yara was assigned a place at the Vinko Bek Education centre, regarded as the best special needs institution in Croatia for children with visual impairment. Here, she follows an elementary school curriculum.

“Yara is almost 18 and not a kid anymore,” says Katarina. “She wants to live the life of a teenager. The other day I played her some Croatian pop music. She liked it but said Syrian pop was better.”

Yara is eager to do things by herself, so I will help her in that. That way she will be happier with herself, and at the end of the day she will be happier in life.

In the lessons with Katarina, literacy is important but now that the basics have been covered, the volunteer teacher wants to move Yara on to social and general life skills.

“I would like to see her being involved in the family’s everyday tasks,” Katarina says. “For example, I would like to see her help (older sister) Rayan bake a cake, or even go to the store on her own.”

Katarina has taken Yara to her heart and both as a friend and educational rehabilitator, she wants her to keep on growing and achieving.

“Yara is very shy,” she says, “but there is something more about her. Yara is eager to do things by herself, so I will help her in that. That way she will be happier with herself, and at the end of the day she will be happier in life.”