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“Wit rules, strength rolls the logs”.

She is a tiny human being, but a huge personality. She sits on her wheelchair as a beautiful porcelain doll on her throne. She is so fragile that if you grasp her hand it will break. Although she is not able to move her body without the help of others, her thoughts are independent, and her ideas are the ideas of a leader who is reshaping the way disability is experienced and viewed in Serbia.

Until the age of six Julijana Catalinac was quite an ordinary child. Then disaster struck. She was diagnosed with a severe form of muscular dystrophy. As the second child in a family with three girls, the other two sisters healthy, she was in a unique position regarding her parents and the rest of the outer world. For more then five years she was in bed. Her mother Piroska was her support, the one whose dedication taught Julijana never to surrender. Her father, although a kind and loving man, never adapted to having a psychically disabled child. After his death Julijana’s connection with her mother grew even stronger. After her sisters left home, the two of them lived together, with mother tending to Julijana’s many physical needs. Then disaster struck once again. The only one human being Julijana depended upon was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. Not thinking of herself, Piroska’s greatest fear was that she would leave her daughter alone, helpless and without protection.

“Mother supported me during the worst period of my life,” Julijana says today, “so, of course, I was determined to make her last days easier.” Her sisters were absent most of the time, but Julijana was a constant presence at her mother’s bedside. Nobody called her to ask how she was doing; it was a lonely vigil. When her mother passed away, Julijana fell into a deep depression. She saw only two possibilities: to kill herself or to fight for herself. After months of loneliness, Julijana somehow pulled herself together and decided to fight for life.
Looking back at that dark period, Julijana says “As long as we think about our disability as a tragedy, people will feel pity for us. As long as we are ashamed of who we are, our lives will be considered useless. As long as we are invisible, other people will tell us what to do.” Julijana forced herself to go out into the world, where found strength for life by connecting with other people and making friendships.

In the late 1980s all of Julijana’s efforts to reach out to other disabled individuals culminated in the establishment of the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Sombor, of which she has been a founding member. She has been active in this Association ever since. The MDA has neither premises of its own, nor a steady source of financing. It receives government financial support through its sponsorship of successful “projects.” Julijana initiated the association’s first project, the one that was important to her as someone confined to a wheelchair: the adaptation of pedestrian crossings for wheelchair access. While progress has been made, even today there is no access for the disabled at many post offices, banks, ambulances or the local government offices. Public transportation is still inaccessible for those using a wheelchair.

For its next project, the MDA initiated the idea of educating and hiring personal assistants. For people with muscular dystrophy a skilled caregiver can mean the difference between isolation and a full, participatory life. The funding for this project paid the salaries of the personal assistants over a three year period. Since 2010, however, budget cutbacks have reduced funding to cover just seven months of salary per year. In 2012 the funding will probably be cut completely, putting the disabled people’s journey towards independence on an uncertain path.

Juliana, as a founding member of the local MDA, often participates in interviews and panels on TV programs and radio broadcasts. She writes about muscular dystrophy and related issues for the local newspapers and helps with the educational campaigns about the disease, for the other members of the public.
Julijana’s example gives hope to those whose needs have been neglected that changes are possible. She is working hard to educate the new generations of the disabled, as well as the people around them who care. She is self-confident and not afraid to confront politicians, who can be arrogant about their power and dismissive of her political views.

As a public persona Julijana is beloved by the media. She’ll on her smartest dress, a brightly colored designer hat, and her jewelry, to talk to journalists and TV reporters about the rights of the people she represents. Her courage and strength are epic, and her feisty attitude breaks barriers and boundaries. She has also appealed to the international community to recognize the struggles of the disabled in Serbia. The good news is that although Serbia is a transitional country with a lot of problems to overcome, there are some positive trends that have directly impacted the way the country’s disabled citizens are being integrated into the Serbian society. This is due, in no small part, to the tireless efforts of Julijana and other volunteers at the MDA.

At the end of our interview I found myself looking at this porcelain doll and trying to imagine the difficulties that she has had to overcome, often with no one to turn to for help or solace. In the Serbian language there is a proverb: “Wit rules, strength rolls the logs”. Julijana’s self-confidence and her passion for improving conditions for the disabled have moved the conscience of many people in Serbia. She is an example of what a woman is capable of doing with the power of her mind.
After meeting her, I decided to join the cause she promotes, one of which I, like many Serbs, was not aware of. Julijana’s fight for the disabled has brought a new dimension to my struggle for the rights of women in Serbia.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Beautiful!

What an amazing profile, thank you so much for sharing with us. Julijana sounds like an amazing and powerful woman who is changing the way people in Serbia think about disability. It is a testament to her that you are also now joining the movement. One quick suggestion--I would encourage you to incorporate more quotes into your piece. Quotes help give us a sense of the person you're interviewing.

Great job!

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Duda's picture

Dear Rachael,

Julijana is an amazing and powerful woman.

I know that I have so many things to learn from you and WP team.

Thank you for the suggestion.
Best wishes,
Dubravka

Monica Clarke's picture

Thank you Duda

A beautiful piece of writing, fed by a dedication and understanding which says you are a special lady and that Julijana's organisation is strengthened by your presence there. Love from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

Duda's picture

Dear Monica,

I tried to do my best. I hope that the Julijana's story will help and inspire women in the world.

Thank you very much.
Dubravka

Marina90's picture

:) Juliana is a powerful woman !!!

My aunt is a fighter! We are proud of it!

WILDKat's picture

Strong witted frail heroine

Dubravka,

Your tale of Juliana and her personal battle to stand strong for the abilities of the disabled in Serbia moves me to share your article with those living with handicaps in the US. Thanks for telling the story with such a sensitive heart.

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

WILDKat's picture

Strong witted frail heroine

Dubravka,

I am moved to share your article with those living with handicaps in the US. I love that you included the photos. Is there a reason you have not posted your photo to your profile? I look forward to your next well-written article.
Great start!

Griffin LaToulippe, http://www.inventechenterprises.com/eats/eats.html, may have an invention to help Juliana be a bit more personally independent. At 17, he won Ashoka's Technology 4 a Better World national competition this year along with my 15 year old son, McKenzy.

We are fortunate to amplify Juliana's voice and to connect solutions and challenges for a higher level of humanity in our communities.

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

valerie.bagley's picture

Thank you for sharing this

Thank you for sharing this heartfelt story about such a strong and resilient woman. This is a beautiful example of the power of one. It's also given me an awareness of an issue that most people don't bother to address. Keep telling these stories, Duda! They will change the world.

Duda's picture

Dear Valerie,

Thank you for your words. I agree with you, Julijana is such a strong and resilient woman. Her's life story is amazing.
Best wishes,
Duda

BlueSky's picture

A Giant of a Personality!

I love your use of the word 'epic'. All the Big words apply to Julijana. Thank you for sharing such a tremendous testimony of meaning-full life. And you did a great job telling it Dubravka.

Duda's picture

Dear BlueSky

I think that the Juliana's voice has to be heard.
Thank you.

Virginia W's picture

Wow! What an inspiration for us all !

Incredible story-telling that drew me in with heart-felt interest to know more of Julijana. And to know that as interviewer you are so touched by her life and story that you also took positive action. That's energy and action changing the world. Thank you for sharing with such passion.

Virginia Williams, MBA, PCC | Executive Coach and Learning Facilitator

Duda's picture

Dear Virginia,

Thank you for your words. I think that Julijana is an inspiration and her voice has to be heard.
Best wishes,

Jan K Askin's picture

Rolling the Logs

Dear Duda,

The use of regional sayings always move me because they apply to the singular and the universal. From all parts of the world we are touched by the ongoing story of Julijana.

You effectively captured not only the physical body, but more importantly, the human spirit of a woman I am proud to claim as a member of the human race.

Your sister in the US,

Jan

Jan Askin

Duda's picture

Dear Jan,

it is so nice to hear that all of you like this article. I tried to do my best.
Thank you for your words.

Happy New Year.

Duda

MaDube's picture

Dubravka my dear, Julijana's

Dubravka my dear, Julijana's story is so moving, thanks to you and the way you captured her spirit. I can not begin to imagine what she has been through in her past. All I can do is admire her for being where she is today and for the amazing work she is doing with women in similar situation to her past. Great profile.

Duda's picture

Dear MaDube,

I tried to do my best. She is, really, amazing woman.
Thank you.
Happy New Year.
Best wishes,
Dubravka

mrbeckbeck's picture

Inspiring leader

Very well done! I am glad to know Julijana, and about all the work she is doing to bring dignity to disabled persons in Serbia. Clearly there is a lot of work still to be done, and I hope that the funding required is made available.

I am so impressed by her commitment and dedication... but, as she said, it was that or death. In choosing life, she is helping to lift the lives of so many others. What an inspiration for all of us.

Thank you for sharing this profile with the world, and introducing us to an amazing change-maker!
Warm wishes for the New Year,
Scott

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Manager

Duda's picture

Dear Mr. Beck,

yes, Julijana is an amazing woman. Her energy is huge.

Best wishes for the New Year,
Dubravka

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