In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Fighting Breast Cancer and Coronavirus the Jewish Way

Former JDC employee and ThinkPink founder Nela Hasic shares how coronavirus has changed the work of fighting breast cancer but leaves her hopeful for the future.

By Nela Hasic - Regional Director, ThinkPink | June 19, 2020

Nela Hasic (middle) and two members of the ThinkPink team adapting to the COVID-19 crisis.
Nela Hasic

The world has become a very strange place to live in. I used to think there were so many differences between different populations and different countries, but this crisis shows how vulnerable we all are. Our health systems are weak, and no one is actually protected.

As soon as we learned about the novel coronavirus, my organization — ThinkPink, a JDC partner that provides support and resources to breast cancer patients and survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina — took action, moving our activities online. We organized intensive psychosocial support online and connected a smaller Viber group of survivors with a psychologist. We’ve also tried to powerfully use our social media, organizing weekly life coach sessions and online yoga sessions for our followers.

The message we’re sending survivors is simple: We’re not losing our focus or getting distracted from our mission, and we know what we have to do. We will find a way to overcome this crisis. I’m a big fan of innovative ideas, and this is a great moment to convince some of our older network members that it’s OK to have important conversations online. As the whole world moves toward telemedicine, it’s the perfect moment to try to move some of our psychosocial support structures online. 

A screenshot from one of ThinkPink’s online yoga sessions.

We’re getting good feedback from our community and from the larger Bosnian public. Some people who’ve never done yoga before are now trying our classes because it’s comfortable for them to participate from the comfort of their own homes. The women I work with like the life coach’s optimistic messages. “Be happy. The sun rises each day,” is the kind of thing people are happy to hear now. The other day, we put out a press release about care packages we provide survivors. We were a bit late getting them out this year because of the crisis, but we received so many nice messages from the survivors, along with positive coverage from the media. People told us, “We know you’ve had some funding cuts, but we’re very lucky to know you’ll always be on our side.”

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture: The pandemic has changed basically everything.I’m worried about the long-term impact on women’s health and breast cancer in particular. During these past three months, there’s been no early detection, no routine checkups. People are sitting at home and suffering, afraid to go to the doctor because they’re afraid of COVID-19, and I’m afraid of what that will cause. In the weeks and months to come, I’m sure we will see an increase in diagnoses of late-stage cancer. I’m part of a pan-European network of organizations dealing with similar issues, and everyone’s worried about this — not just me in Sarajevo, but colleagues in Germany, in Belgium, and all over.

We at ThinkPink still haven’t been able to return to bringing our flagship mobile mammogram units to rural villages, but we hope to get those up and running by late June. Of course, they’ll be organized differently, following social distancing protocols, guaranteeing a much cleaner space, and taking care not to gather in groups larger than five people. I truly believe we’ll never go back to the way it was before, though I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. 

I truly believe we’ll never go back to the way it was before, though I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. 

Still, our mission hasn’t stopped, and we must continue. The Tikkun in Action grant we received from JDC-GRID is very important to us at ThinkPink not just because of how it helps our work, but because it connects us to the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization. I know I’d never be where I am today without JDC, and though it’s been a few years now since I was actually a JDC employee, I still feel like a Jointnik in my soul, and I think that’ll keep me going until I retire. 

Our beneficiaries and partners know JDC has been here in Sarajevo for a long time, and it’s important for them to know that JDC is still present. I really hope my connection with JDC will continue far into the future. Whatever JDC needs on the ground here in Sarajevo, they can always count on me. It doesn’t matter whether it’s related to women’s health or not, I’m always here to do whatever I can. 

Nela speaks at Imagine More, the JDC Global Women’s Summit held in 2019.

Listening and learning about the programs JDC runs all over the world is always an inspiration for me. Wherever we are, whatever is happening in the world, we must keep going. This crisis is new for all of us, but JDC also reminds me that improvisation has always been my middle name.

A former JDC employee, Nela Hasic helped launch the Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP), which provided psychosocial support, mobile mammogram units, free aid packages, and more to breast cancer patients and survivors in the Balkans. After 15 years, Hasic launched an independent NGO, ThinkPink, which continues the work and was among the first recipients of JDC’s new Tikkun in Action grants rewarding projects inspired by Jewish values that strengthen civil society and serve marginalized populations. Visit the Tikkun in Action website to learn more.

READ MORE ABOUT NELA: Battling Breast Cancer in Bosnia Means Changing the Narrative

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