Amela Velic from Sarajevo had an accident in the summer of 2000 at a swimming pool. She was diving and hit her head on the ground which left her paralyzed from the neck down. Amela was then 17 years old and was working as a waitress, a job she held during her school holidays.
“At the hospital I was told I would not live so long. For three months I could not breathe by myself. They had opened my throat and had me hooked to a machine to breathe. I lived at the hospital for 15 months, 3 of the months were in the intensive care unit and 1 month in the plastic surgery unit due to an operation on my legs for bed sores, acquired from poor care.
The nurses bet when I left the hospital that I would not make it. I was still in a bad condition finding it difficult to breathe. I did not have the proper equipment needed at home. No one is offered any equipment when leaving the hospital. So when I left with my mother she did not know how to help me, turn me, etc. I did not have a proper bed. My family had to invest in all the equipment: bed, wheelchair etc. My parents had to loan money from the bank. It took five years to pay this back and limited our life. This was a difficult time for the whole family as sometimes we did not have food on the table.”
Amela became engaged in the disability movement after a long period as time was needed to adjust to her new life. What sparked her engagement was a meeting with Professor Salzer from Austria in 2005. He had been active in Bosnia already from the 1990s performing many operations. This work lead to the start of a small project to fund people with high level needs for survival through his organisation called Doctors for Disabled. It was through this project that Amela met Professor Salzer. He came to her house after having met her and seeing her passion for disability issues. In 2006 he then started another project for Personal Assistance and offered Amela a job within the project. She translated all relevant documents for the project and the organisation hosting the project, as she could speak German.
In 1992, Amela with her mother and brother went to Switzerland due to the war in Bosnia. Her father had been working in Russia and when the war first started he could not come back to Bosnia so her mother needed to find a way to protect herself and her children. Amela was eight and her brother was four. Her Mother chose to leave the country with organized transport. They did not know where they would end up. They first went by bus to Croatia and there they were asked if they wanted to go to Switzerland. They signed a contract saying that once the war would end they would go back to Bosnia. Amela went to primary and secondary school in Switzerland and had the opportunity to learn German –this would prove to help her in the long run. When she came home from Switzerland in 1998 she did not work for a year but then started working as a waitress until her accident.
Without having met Professor Salzer, Amela thinks it could have been difficult to find work. Professor Salzer pushed for Amela to study something when she was working within his project. She started to study German as she had learned German in Switzerland and became a translator.
There was a call for people with disability to work within the Raiffeisen Bank for which Amela applied and went to the job interview. She got the job but as she had just started to study she knew she would not manage working and studying at the same time so she told the NGO she did not want to take the job. With this experience and the confidence she now has she sees how she can obtain different work.
When Amela was young she never imagined working in an office. She was sporty and always outside. So to sit in an office 8 hours was unthinkable. Now to sit forever is not easy!
Amela explains that when people see her in a wheelchair they tell her how they think she is a hero. But for Amela it is normal to study and work. She says that nothing she does is being a hero. She would have worked without her disability. “Why is my work special just because I am disabled? I am proud that we can continue our project on personal assistance. I am happy when I visit clients and they see me as a role model. I understand the issues and can share motivation to work and live ordinary lives.”
Her vision is to open a Center of Independent Living. Her and her colleagues want to be able to offer the service of personal assistance as she finds it is the most important service for a disabled person needing personal assistance, allowing them to live active lives.
The advice she shares with other young disabled persons is –“Don’t give up! Of course we all have ups and downs! I am not one to give up and have troubles understanding why someone gives up. Life starts in the head, it has nothing to do with the body. Life is how we imagine it!”