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SARA | NEW YORK, NEW YORK

This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on April 14, 2017.

Sara is a co-founder of the Sunrise movement, an organizer with IfNotNow, and a Croatian New Yorker. This is her story:

“My name is Sara Blazevic and I’m from New York City. I grew up here. My father is from Croatia. My extended family lives in a rural part of Croatia that has been threatened by flooding. The area is under-protected and if anything happens there, it will be under-reported.

During my junior year of college, I was sitting in bed during finals week working on a paper. I was going through my Facebook feed, as one does during finals, and I saw a YouTube video that one of my cousins posted. I clicked on it. I didn’t know what I was looking at. It was a cellphone video taken out of a helicopter flying over a flood zone. I could see this muddy, brown sea with debris floating in it. As the helicopter dropped lower and lower, I realized that the “debris” was people standing on rooftops because the water had risen that high. A massive storm – the kind of storm that only hits once in a thousand years - had hit the Balkans and thousands of people were evacuated and had their homes flooded.

The people in the video looked just like my family. There were old ladies wearing black dresses and head kerchiefs. I felt a ton of fear that my family, that the village where my grandmothers are from and where my cousins live, could have been struck by the storm. I tracked it over the next couple of days. It didn’t end up hitting my family’s village, but what was really striking was that it was so hard to find coverage of the storm. The only thing I could find was when Novak Djokovic, after Wimbledon or the Open or one of those big tennis matches, was talking to the courtside press. He turned to the cameras and said, “You shouldn’t be covering this. You should be covering my country and my people who are dying right now and losing their lives.” For the first time in my life I realized, “wow, my family’s home, this place where I have physical and emotional roots, could literally be swept away by flood waters and no one would know. No one would talk about it.”

Sara in Novigrad, Croatia as a kid. 

Sara in Novigrad, Croatia as a kid. 

I thought about the house that my grandma grew up in, where her family hid Partisans in the walls of their house during World War II, where the fascists descended on her village and set up barracks. All that history would just be lost. That was really jarring and striking to realize. I felt really vulnerable. Croatia is one of those parts of the world where terrible things happen and no one talks about it. Most people don’t care about it or even know it exists.

My family back in Croatia didn’t talk much about the flooding. There was this laissez-faire attitude from my cousin who posted the video like, “Yup, this is happening. We will see if it comes this way.” People aren’t neurotic in Croatia the way they are in New York City where I grew up. In NYC, everybody that I know, relative to the rest of the world, is a huge worrier. People move very fast and worry a lot about everything. I remember when Hurricane Sandy was coming towards NYC, every single person I knew was stocking up on all this stuff. People were freaking out.

During the floods in Croatia I remember being like, “why is nobody acting alarmed? Why is my dad not calling me about this? Why isn’t this more of a thing?” My friend in Croatia said that most people were like, “well, if it comes, we’re screwed, and if it doesn’t, we’ll all be great.”

Croatians in their early twenties grew up during a massive civil war. My cousins spent a lot of their childhood in bomb shelters. Their dad has stories about diving in front of his kids to protect them from sniper fire and shield them from shattering windows. Older people grew up during World War II or with parents who lived through WWII. It’s a place where the memory of war and violence is pretty close at hand. There is a widespread belief that we can only do so much to change our future and the world around us. There is a sense of, “why would we get so worried when we can’t control it?”

Sara with cousins in Croatia as a kid. 

Sara with cousins in Croatia as a kid. 

When I visited Croatia in the summers as a kid, I spent a lot of time playing on the river bank, the same banks that have been flooding more frequently in the past few years. My family’s house is right by this river called Dobra, which means “good.” I remember catching fish in my bucket. I would sit in the water where it was shallow and watch the baby fish swim across my bucket. I remember catching them and putting them back, catching them and putting them back. I would fish with my great-uncle, Ujo. Sometimes we would stand on the bridge—it’s a very little bridge—and fish down the river. I jumped off the bridge into the water when the water was high enough.

I heard all of these stories from my grandmother about that river: that’s where my family would bathe back in the day, that’s where the cows would go to drink water, that’s where beer would get cooled before refrigeration. We had photographs of my grandmother and her brother when they were kids standing in the river washing their hair. I remember feeling moved that this tiny little river could hold so much.

One summer when I was a kid, before I left to go back to New York, early in the morning before our car left to drive to the airport, I ran down to the river. I stood there and meditated on it and said, “Hey, I’ll miss you. I’ll see you next year.” I filled a little jar with water and sand to take. I wanted to carry it with me everywhere.

As I got older, it became sadder to leave Croatia because I knew it would be a whole year until I saw my family again. The person I’m closest to is my grandmother. She’s very tough. She and my grandfather met in the Communist Youth Party and she was a spy for the Partisans when she was thirteen. She carried messages across Nazi lines, across fascist lines. She really liked taking care of me and my little sister, cooking for us, and showing us off to her friends. I would sleep next to her when I was little. I remember her singing me to sleep with different Croatian songs. There’s a baker that comes through the village every morning, and drives this truck that sells bread from the city nearby. At six in the morning, my grandma would go out with a basket and buy different kinds of bread and pastries. Sometimes I would go with her and she would get me jelly donuts and bread shaped like different animals, like lobsters and crabs.

Sara's grandfather, who was a commissar in the Partisans, when he was 23.

Sara's grandfather, who was a commissar in the Partisans, when he was 23.

I went back last summer in the first half of August. My grandfather passed away in 2015, so the last two summers I’ve been there have been different. People are getting older and sicker, and I am also older and more independent. When I visit now, after the floods, I feel like my time is more precious. I am aware that this place might not be there for me forever. I hear more stories from relatives about heat waves and big storms. For the most part, people don’t talk about climate change. They talk about other things related to the climate crisis, like the weather, and the food they’re growing. My uncle, who’s a hunter, talks about changes in the forest and with the animals. But, everybody in Croatia really believes in global warming and is like, “of course this is happening.”

The flooding in Croatia really deepened my commitment to fighting the fossil fuel industry and fighting to stop the climate crisis because I realized that nobody outside of Croatia was going to fight for my family or for that place. It lit a fire under me to do that, to take seriously the power that I hold as a young person in the United States, and to do everything I can to fight to protect the people and the places that I love and care about.

My biggest advice for people who want to get involved in local climate organizing work is don’t be afraid to talk to people. Figure out what people care about and what they believe in, and share with them what you care about and what you believe in. I’ve seen a lot of people who are deeply concerned about climate change go down the route of only talking to people that already agree with them. There are so many reasons for that. But, my advice would be don’t fall into that trap, even if it’s difficult to talk with people who disagree with you, you know? Any strategy that is only about reaching people who are already convinced isn’t going to make a difference. Figure out how to speak in the language of the people you’re trying to build with."

The Dobra River near Sara's family's home. 

The Dobra River near Sara's family's home. 


FURTHER READING

Croatia is responsible for only 0.06% of global carbon dioxide emissions, but the country is sharply affected by climate change[1]. Rising temperatures, more frequent dry spells and droughts, severe storms, flooding, and other extreme weather events have already begun to threaten Croatia, and the rest of the Balkans[2].

Climate researchers and meteorologists have drawn a direct line between climate change and increased flooding in the Balkans. As air and water temperatures rise, the ocean is more prone to evaporation and the air is able to hold more water, leading to more moisture accumulation in the air and larger deluges when rains[3].

The impacts of climate change create enormous health and safety risks in Croatia. A 2003 heat wave, for example, was responsible for an estimated 185 deaths in Croatia alone[4], and the 2014 flood killed more than 40 people and displaced tens of thousands throughout the region[5]. Additionally, there has been a rise in vector-borne and infectious diseases throughout the Balkans as temperatures have risen[6].

The changing climate could have severe consequences for economic security in Croatia. Two industries expected to be hit particularly hard are farming and tourism, the latter comprising a fifth of the country’s GDP and more than a quarter of its employment. The UNDP predicts that farmers will lose crops due to changing weather patterns and more severe weather events, threatening their livelihood and raising food prices. Tourists are expected to increasingly avoid Croatian beaches as the heat becomes more extreme[7].

In response to the dangers posed by climate change, steps have been taken to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy[8]. Croatia is developing a Low-Emission Development Strategy in accordance with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. A focus on renewables and energy efficiency in Croatia could create up to 80,000 green jobs[9].

[1] Ina Vukic. “Croatia Negatively Affected by Climate Change.” Croatia, the War, and the Future. 2 December 2015. https://inavukic.com/2015/12/02/croatia-negatively-affected-by-climate-change/

[2] Zoï Environment Network. “Climate Change in the West Balkans.” United Nations Environment Programme. 2012. http://www.zoinet.org/web/sites/default/files/publications/Climate-change-west-balkans.pdf.

[3] Peter Thomson. “The Balkans’ Flooding is Linked to Climate Change. And Here’s How.” PRI. 20 May 2014. https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-05-20/balkans-flooding-linked-climate-change-and-heres-how

[4] United Nations Development Programme. “Climate Change in Croatia: New Human Development Report Launched.” United Nations Development Programme. 16 Feb. 2009. http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2009/02/16/climate-change-in-croatia-new-human-development-report-launched.html

[5] Alan Taylor. “Balkans Struck by Worst Flooding in 120 Years.” The Atlantic. 20 May 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/05/balkans-struck-by-worst-flooding-in-120-years/100739/

[6] Zoï Environment Network.

[7] United Nations Development Programme.

[8] Zoï Environment Network.

[9] Ina Vukic


ACTION STEPS

1. Share Sara's Story.

2. Check out and donate to Sunrise, a movement Sara co-founded of young people in the United States uniting to stop the climate crisis. Sunrise has a 4-year plan to make climate action an urgent priority in every corner of the country, expose the fossil fuel executives who have purchased politicians and blocked progress, and build a movement strong enough to elect a people's government and pass an agenda for our health, home, and future.

3. Sign and share the Pledge to Protect Our Home and Resist Trump by organizing in your district this summer.

4. Send Sara an email at sara@sunrisemovement.org to let her know if you are interested in taking on a dedicated role this summer -- especially if you are interested in digital and distributed organizing, social media, action planning, and logistics.