This story was first published in Belgrade Insight print edition on July 13, 2018.
by Patrick Howard, Belgrade
Serbia’s brain drain is one of the worst in Europe’s recent history, but some Serbs just cannot stay away.
Jovana Ruzicic remembers her teenage years in Belgrade as a time of war and shortage.
“I remember living under the embargoes – waiting in lines for hours at gas stations, the empty supermarket shelves, standing in line for milk and bread,” she said.
Her parents considered leaving for the United States, but their jobs stopped them. Instead, they sent their daughter there alone to finish high school. Ruzicic stayed 11 years, becoming part of one of the biggest depopulations of a single region in Europe in recent history, an exodus that robbed Serbia of hundreds of thousands of its people, in many cases the young, educated and talented.
But what sets Ruzicic apart is what happened next – she came home.
“This country needs everyone who wants to do something for it to be here doing something,” said the 38-year-old, who now runs a non-profit tackling discrimination faced by mothers in Serbia.
More than two decades since the collapse of federal Yugoslavia, Serbia’s population continues to decline, the result of low birth rates, the depopulation of rural areas, widespread poverty and migration. The United Nations predicts Serbia’s population could collapse by over 15 percent by 2050.
According to official statistics, Serbia’s ‘brain drain’ – the rapid outflow of well-trained or well-educated individuals to counties that offer better economic and social opportunities – accounted for the departure of roughly 27,000 people in 2007. In 2015 that number had more than doubled to 58,000.
Many believe they have little choice but to seek opportunities elsewhere. According to official statistics, the youth unemployment rate in Serbia averaged 42 per cent between 2008 and 2017. The average net salary is 400 euros ($475), one of the lowest on the continent. The World Economic Forum ranks Serbia 137th out of 142 countries in terms of ability to retain talent.
Ruzicic, however, never stopped seeing Serbia as home, a warm, caring community where her mother would stop her car to help a woman laden down with shopping bags.
Not coincidentally, Ruzicic founded a non-profit in Serbia called Center for Moms, a team of 30 that fights against the kind of discrimination faced by mothers in the Balkan country and helps them fulfill their personal and professional goals.
In 2014, Center for Moms gathered 250 mothers to lobby each of the Serbian parliament’s 250 lawmakers to pass legislation that cut some of the red tape complicating the process of obtaining maternity benefits. Ruzicic says her work shows what is possible, if attitudes would only change.
“The mentality here in Serbia is that everything is impossible,” she said. “I once had a boss tell me to stop looking to improve and change things, explaining to me that ‘The one who looks to the stars steps in the s**t’.”
“People tell me I am stupid for coming back,” said Ruzicic, who also organises a community group of some 1,400 repatriates called Repats Serbia. “They get angry at me for not taking the opportunity to stay in the US.”
“I knew I would come back”
Dragana Filipovic, 37, faced similar challenges when she returned to Serbia from Britain.
“Everyone had already forgotten that I had been here,” said Filipovic. “Nobody knew about me anymore.”
Filipovic, from the southern Serbian town of Vlasotince, graduated in speech therapy in Serbia and spent several frustrating years working in the public sector. Feeling unchallenged and discouraged by bureaucracy, she left to do an MBA in Britain, but conceded “I always knew I wanted to come back.”
“I was already writing out my business plan for the practice I was going to open in Serbia while I was packing my bags to come back.”
Filipovic’s return is all the more surprising given the industry she works in. Healthcare professionals are leaving Eastern Europe, and Serbia in particular, in droves.
In June 2016, the average monthly net salary for a doctor in Serbia was 400 euros, according to the Serbian government. That compares with the 4,000 euros starting salary for a medical graduate in Germany, where Filipovic could have settled given her partner is German.
Filipovic, however, has a different take on it.
Serbia’s underdeveloped health sector represents an opportunity for a qualified speech therapist.
“In the UK there was already a market for the work,” she said. “But here, it had just started developing when I set up. This made it like I was a part of its beginning, like I was developing [the field of speech therapy]. Now, it’s becoming more competitive and the care being provided is getting better as a result.”
Filipovic says she takes greater satisfaction from seeing the impact of her work in Serbia, where for six years she has been providing services for children that they cannot get from the state.
Besides the economic impact, brain drain has serious consequences for those left behind, in many cases children who grow up in families that have disintegrated due to a parent or sibling having to leave to work abroad. Such children can be disadvantaged when it comes to success in school or work, according to the OECD.
Ruzicic and Filipovic both say they hope more Serbs will stay and help their country develop.
Ruzicic said she believed her work at Center for Moms will encourage women to demonstrate to their children the importance of helping others, just as her own mum did in helping other women with their shopping bags.
“Now I do things even bigger than that, and I hope my kids will do even bigger things than me,” she said.