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DMWC Lifestyle lounge interview with Veronique Garrett

interview by Aneta Mackovski 

Veronique finds herself in Macedonia for the simple reason that she has married a diplomat.  They have been posted across the world from Switzerland to Taiwan, met wonderful people and had fantastic experiences. Her life has been defined very much by the fact that she had five children in close succession one of whom has Down syndrome, and she chose to follow her husband in his career.  Initially she is trained as a teacher but soon specialised in early intervention and special needs. Wherever she has been she has wanted to plough her own furrow and make her own mark, not least here in Macedonia.  

Vinojug refugee camp in Gevgelija

What does the concept LIFESTYLE mean to you?

My time in Macedonia has been defined by very much by disability issues. Having a disabled child is not an easy thing and we, like all parents of disabled children, have had to face huge challenges. Coming here with Florence was not a decision we took lightly. I knew before coming here that disability rights and awareness are less developed than in the UK and, I wondered how Florence would be accepted and included in society. I have always been an advocate of inclusion and trying to build on what has already been achieved here in Macedonia soon became my main occupation. It has permeated all that I have done during my stay and continues to occupy most of my time.   When we arrived it was unusual to see a disabled person on the streets. There was little awareness of what could be achieved with early intervention and a positive attitude. Parents and disabled people themselves face huge challenges. Things are still difficult and many obstacles remain. Attitudes are changing and people are becoming more aware of disability issues. There now seems to be a greater tolerance and awareness of what it is like to be disabled, of what disabled people can achieve, of their abilities and not their disabilities. Society needs disabled people just as disabled people need society. A society that includes disabled people will always be stronger.

Tabanovce refugee camp Macedonia – passing the time teaching refugee

Do you aspire to involve your life passions into your daily routine and do you believe that this would further an authentic lifestyle?

A common thread with all that I have done since I have been here has been children and disability.

The plight of the Roma children struck me hard when I first arrived. I would pass the same children several times a day as I went about Skopje. From the start I never gave them money and they soon learnt this but I always have a bag of sweets or a stack of biscuits to hand out if the traffic light goes red. I got to know them better when I started going to the Centre for Street Children in Shuto Orizari on a regular basis. In June 2017 my husband Charles was the Honorary President for the DMWC Charity Bazaar and together with Emilija we chose the children from the centre for street children as a beneficiary. I have always believed education is the way out of poverty and the money raised went towards implementing several workshops on topics as varied as sexual health and self- defence. I’ve made some good friends in ‘Shutka’ and still get a thrill as I walk around Skopje and I am greeted by a cry in the distance, ‘Veronika, Veronika’ followed by several little children running up and embracing me.

Tabanavoce refugee camp Macedonia – playing with refugee children outside UNICEF child friendly space

August 2015 saw the refugee crisis here and I started working with La Strada, initially down in the camp in Gevgelia and then in Tabanovce. The crisis was of biblical proportions. In any one day there would be up to 3,000 people coming through. On some days the numbers reached 10,000. All were exhausted, some traumatised, some ill, some in pain, some angry and some elated. We saw everything from the strong and resilient to those who just could not endure any more. Once again it was the children and the disabled that had such an impact on me. They were the innocent victims of this whole tragedy. We did what we could to make their short stay in the camps bearable and when politics intervened and borders were closed and they began to stay longer I started teaching English. It was rewarding work as they were bright and motivated but conditions were not good.

Special Institute Demir Kapija, Tabanovce refugee camp Gevgelija

As the camps began to empty so did the need for me to visit them. I began teaching in Vizbegovo, the asylum centre in Skopje. The lessons are at times chaotic, children and adults of all ages, speaking different languages and with differing abilities, but they are fun if at times challenging.

In August of last year I began to visit the Special Institution Demir Kapija. I try to visit twice a week and know the road by heart now. Having personally witnessed how important early interactions with disabled children are I was keen to work with some of the children there. There are many people both adults and children who are crying out for love and attention, resources are poor and conditions very bad, many residents never leave their beds and spend days on end staring at a ceiling. Not easily shocked, the surroundings in Demir Kapija have had a profound effect on me often leaving me with little faith in the goodness of humanity, but recently there have been some improvements and again I feel a shift in attitudes is happening. People are trying to instigate change, it won’t happen overnight but with the right input and direction, conditions and quality of life will improve.

 

Special Institute Demir Kapija

Where do you look for inspiration and motivation to achieve your lifestyle goals?

I feel blessed to have five happy and healthy children and a husband who all support me in my endeavours.  I often wonder at the miracle of having produced such different offspring all with their own personalities and aspirations. They motivate me more than anything.  I feel we have been dealt a fantastic hand of cards and as such have a responsibility to pay some of our luck back to society and to those more vulnerable and less fortunate than us.

What do you consider to be a healthy and gratifying lifestyle and what is your advice for creating and maintaining it?

Doing lots of sport and remaining fit is what keeps me going, I love it and miss it when I don’t do any. When I have time I get out my sewing machine and try to be creative. They say everyone is creative to a lesser or greater extent – lesser in my case but I enjoy it. My children have got used to receiving homemade presents that don’t really have much use but they know it gives me pleasure to make them and give them.

Teaching for children in the Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers in Vizbegovo

Living in Macedonia is exciting and distinct. Please share your impressions of your favourite places you have visited in Macedonia.
Within a couple of weeks of arriving in Macedonia we had walked up the Ljuboten, it was a beautiful day in mid-summer, the wild flowers were out and I knew then that Macedonia would be a good posting. We often walk from Matka to Vodno and rarely bump into anyone on the way. My real favourite however has to be walking up the Vodno which I try and do three times a week – it is when I do my thinking alone and surrounded by beauty, I shall miss it when we return to London.

Walking in Macedonia