Airing My Ignorance

2017-Badali JoelBy Joel Badali

For this blog post, I thought I’d talk about the various ways in which I learned to navigate the fact that I come with the emotional baggage of a very openly sensitive man, yet find myself frequently at the centre of conversations where I speak naively about issues I have potentially no business discussing.

In Serbia, this ignorance is manifested through my eagerness to sit down for coffees with anyone willing to speak to me about their personal experiences or the broader political and social issues affecting their lives. Perhaps my intuition, and ease at exposing my ignorance while simultaneously thinking I’m a good listener, comes from my background in psychology and a few years working at a counselling centre with vulnerable populations.

One of the dynamics that I found most interesting is the position of Serbia as a nation readying itself for the long-standing promise to gain accession to the EU. Serbia, as people here have described to me, is no longer considered a “developing country” at least by various funding agencies yet still lags behind on many key indicators of quality of life and economic development, particularly vis-à-vis countries already in the European Union[1].

These conversations quickly turn to the poverty in Serbia, which I myself  have come to understand as being a two-fold construct.

One side is the concept of poverty with which most people are familiar, that being in terms of material deprivation and a lack of financial stability, if any. The second however, I have come to realize is the poverty, or impoverishment of one’s human rights. One might be financially impoverished yet still have for instance basic civil rights, access to labour unions, and protections against systemic discrimination.

As has been suggested to me by some of these “coffee-goers”, living in poverty in Canada and Serbia are two different circumstances, and two different outcomes. I agree that this is true for many people, yet I am also acutely aware (again from personal experience and law school) that this simply does not hold true for far too many back home despite the international reputation that Canada enjoys in the arena of human rights. In fact, almost everyone I speak to here heralds Canada and discusses the amazing life we all must unequivocally live. My very equivocation on this issue is where my ignorance, or perhaps mutual misunderstanding begins to unfold, leading to the interesting conversations I am ironically privileged to have with virtual strangers over coffee, and the reason for me to continue arranging these estranged run-ins.

One way that my conversations about human rights and poverty begins can be as simple as making an order at a coffee shop. When it comes to ordering a drink, a meal, and certainly a second or third drink, I have been questioned on why I hesitate to order more, or even ask for the price. Astonished, the person sitting across from me says, “but everything here is so cheap, it must mean nothing to you to order more”. In some ways this is true I argue, and they are right, food and housing in Serbia is for the most part much cheaper for me here in Serbia than in Canada, but my view is that for most Canadians, this outsider perception of wealth and financial security does not come from material wealth, but from the second kind of wealth—the stability and reliability of my State-protected rights. Indeed, some of the friends I have made recognize that their impoverishment is not directly linked to their financial situation at all times, but rather that their financial situation can change on a whim, for example through the expropriation of property or corporate corruption. The two types of poverty I identified have thus come to be conflated, leading to the erroneous assumption (though often true) that I, as a Canadian, could not possibly need to abide to a financial budget.

The two forms of poverty is evidenced when I attempt to justify my frugality by mentioning the thousands of dollars of debt I owed to provincial government, but that doesn’t phase most people. And it shouldn’t. Here again, the prospect of upward mobility and ample job opportunities make the risk of taking on debt a reasonable trade-off to gain an education and a professional degree. The notion that short-term financial debt doesn’t make me impoverished supports my point that the two types of poverty can be mutually exclusive. Meanwhile in Serbia, many youth are motivated to leave the country for the very reason that the job market is stagnant, that their rights aren’t respected (despite being constitutionally or otherwise entrenched in Serbian and international law), and for some, they simply can’t be themselves (whether because of race, ethnicity, or LGBT status for example). Therefore—at least in my view— material impoverishment aside, the more relevant issue in Serbia appears to be the second kind of impoverishment—that of citizens’ human rights.[2]

Again, I try to naively prode at people’s reasoning for leaving Serbia, asking about their family, about their awareness of social issues in the countries to which they seek to migrate (usually we end up discussing the U.S. given the current circumstances), and the guilt they may experience leaving their home country.

Some choose to stay for the very reasons I point out, however most sadly do not. Of course, I am happy that someone has the opportunity to migrate and find a better life—but that is on the individual level—on a societal level, I understand that leaving the root problems unchanged will not make the situation better for anyone else. As I mentioned in my first blog post, people cynically question why I tell them I enjoy my life in Serbia. Certainly as a foreigner, my life is relatively easy and I do not experience anxiety about my government or even the minority stress associated with people from marginalized groups. But I cannot deny that I do see the capacity and existing infrastructure of a country replete with people willing to make a difference, with stories to tell, and compassion to offer to strangers to their own country. Indeed, with my remaining weeks here, I find that service providers and coffee-goers alike (not that they speak for the general population) share their empathy for refugees and asylum seekers who use Serbia as a transit route to the EU where they will make a claim for refugee status.

People here convey this empathy for refugees through their common experiences of historical (and continued) hardships, and have few qualms about sharing their land and resources with refugees who are increasingly left stranded by the EU in Serbia thanks to Hungary’s fence to the north, and growing anti-refugee sentiment in neighbouring Bulgaria and Croatia, effectively creating a bottleneck effect in Serbia. Of course, the anti-refugee sentiment is likely present among some Serbians as well, but nonetheless from my vantage point, my experiences speak to this country’s capacity and even potential willingness to embrace human rights and a respect for international law.

The exposure to the little nuances that personal relations provide would not have been possible without a program dedicated both to human rights and legal pluralism through an appreciation for diverse learning experiences in legal education. I remain grateful for the experience that McGill and the Mental Disability Rights Initiative Serbia have provided me – from reviewing legal documents, analyzing policy, attending conferences at the UN (and later having coffee with Serbia’s UN Human Rights Officer – which goes without saying at this point, I guess), meeting with service providers ranging from the Red Cross and MSF to local NGOs, I have been fulfilled both academically and socially, coming to terms with my naivety about issues that I am learning to – and hope to—speak about when, and if, I do make the Bar.

And so concludes my final blog post from my time in Serbia. If you made it this far, well, thanks for reading.

Ignorant, or enlightened? Let me know what you thought about this entry, and maybe we can talk about it over coffee.


[1] European Union. (2016). Sustainable Development in the European Union: A Statistical Glance from the Viewpoint of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. pp 164. doi:10.2785/500875

[2] This is of course not to say that the first kind of impoverishment is not quite serious as well, with a median income well below the mean income that is reported indicating a disporportionately large number of people earning below the average wage, which in itself is already quite low. See Average Salary in Serbia: Gap Between Data and Reality http://serbianmonitor.com/en/economy/28266/average-salary-serbia/

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