With mum's support
Dragana (now 24, pictured second from the left with her SOS family) was born into a Roma family in east Bosnia. When she was very small, her parents took her to hospital. They never returned. These are her recollections:
Shortly before I turned two, I went to live in an orphanage. I remember some very bad things. Once I had to strip naked and get down on all fours. Then I was beaten and forced to take a cold shower.
All that changed when I turned eight and joined an SOS family. My SOS mother was the first person in my life who didn’t hurt me. I was so used to the constant fear that I missed the beatings. One day, I brought her a slipper, begging her to hit me. She took the slipper and gently touched it to my hip. I smiled. This was the last physical punishment I would ever receive.
When I enrolled at secondary school, I was torn between ballet and textile design, but mum encouraged me to sign up to both. She said she would turn the world around to help me achieve my dreams. Word went around of the little Roma ballerina, and eventually I was offered a scholarship. With mum’s support, I kept the scholarship for six years and to this day remain the only Roma to finish two secondary-level courses at the same time. I’m proud because I made mum proud.
I have been happily married for over a year now. My husband and I often visit my mum, and he is almost as close to her as I am. One day he asked me how I’d feel about applying to be SOS parents. I realised that this is what I wanted all along. We’re going to change children’s lives. We’re going to do for our children what my mum did for me!
Teaching love and tolerance
As the violence intensified, however, the Village was evacuated and she fled to the King Faisal Hospital, a group of younger SOS children in her care.
“Life was tough,” she says. “We did not have enough food or water, and the children were so afraid. Being the oldest, I decided to be responsible for the children. I began to emulate what I saw my SOS mother doing at home. She used to be strong and she always took charge of all situations... I was able to care for all the children. Thankfully, we came out of the ordeal alive.
“After the incident, I felt motivated to be an SOS mother. The fact that I could take care of children during such critical moments made me feel confident that I had the ability to make a significant difference in a child’s life. I knew the job was demanding... but I followed my heart.”
However, the murder of her SOS sister in the genocide took a heavy toll on Mathilde. She sank into depression and returned to live with her SOS mother, Bernadette. “I wondered what to do with her now that she was so depressed,” Bernadette remembers. “She cried, shouted, locked herself in her room.”
In the end, becoming an SOS mother was part of the healing process for Mathilde. “I needed something meaningful to do; I wanted to care for kids as I was cared for.” And so, just four months after the genocide ended, Mathilde began training as an SOS mother.
Over three months in 1994, 800,000 people died because tolerance and love were forgotten. Today, Mathilde seeks to instil these values in every child she raises, so that those terrible events may never be repeated.