Serbian Community

On the Life of Serbs in British Columbia

January 26, 2022
Written by Slobodan Despot, Translated by Lara Curasev
San Issue 27 - Winter 2021/2022

In a nearby Vancouver bar, or pub to use the appropriate English term, I chat with my friend with a drink in hand. Bit by bit he complains to me about a time when he took his son to kindergarten. He recounts how when the teacher lined up the children and told them to go upstairs to the classroom, he then leaned over his young son and gave him fatherly advice quite loudly in Serbian. He told his son to behave since he knew that the boy could be unruly. Since he was the only adult among the children and was speaking in a foreign language, his son pulled on his sleeve and pointed with his eyes at the children who began to look back at them.

“He was embarrassed, and I felt bad,” my friend said sadly.

Somehow, I manage to convince him that his kid is not ashamed of him as his father, or of the Serbian language, rather it is a matter of self-preservation. Children, more so than adults, do not want to be different or stand out from the crowd. And we cannot blame them for it. It is up to us as parents to strike a balance between the linguistic needs of everyday life in this environment and our own identity. A balance that is reflected in nurturing and speaking in Serbian as much as possible, and doing so primarily in the home.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has recognized the importance of preserving the identity of Serbs. In addition to its spiritual function, the church has been the cradle of literacy for centuries and a bulwark against the efforts to assimilate the Serbian people and convert them to other religions. That merit of the church is incalculable. In modern times, there is no longer the loathed Turkish conqueror to contend with, but many of our people have emigrated around the world for many reasons. Thus, the first immigration of Serbs to British Columbia dates back to the beginning of the 20th century or before the First World War, when our people were employed in mining and worked in wood processing plants. The second wave came between the two wars, mostly for economic reasons. The third wave of immigration arose due to political reasons after the Second World War, while the fourth – in the early 1970s – occurred for economic reasons. Finally, the fifth wave, perhaps the biggest one, occurred between 1991 and 1999 and was caused by the wars in the former Yugoslavia. It is estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 of our people arrived in and around Vancouver during that period.

Fortunately, Serbs in British Columbia (especially Vancouver and the surrounding area) get along, so they help each other out. Working as a community, with the financial help of benefactors, two Serbian Orthodox Churches were established, which closely cooperate with one another.

I had the pleasure of speaking about this with Father Vuk Milišić, the priest of St. Sava Church in Vancouver. The church was consecrated on July 25, 1971. In addition to the regular service, the church has a significant function in gathering the Serbian population together. It has a Serbian school attended by about 35 students – classified according to their age and knowledge of the Serbian language. In addition to religious education, the school teaches the Serbian language, Serbian history, as well as music education. Children also participate in choir singing on Sundays, after Serbian school. The educators are our people who do it on a volunteer basis. In this way, music education is taught by a music teacher. All classes take place on Sundays and last two to two and a half hours – half an hour per subject, which is quite flexible. In addition to Serbian school classes, there are also workshops introducing the group to different types of professions. For example, a Serbian man who is a dentist by profession gave a lecture in dentistry, a chemist did a class in chemistry, etc. The church also organizes day camps and sleepaway camps that run from 9am to 5pm. It is interesting that the St. Sava Church also organizes nature excursions on Saturdays. The church organizes folk dance classes for both children and adults as well. It also has its own library.

The other church is St. Archangel Michael located in Burnaby. That church has similar activities, and it also houses the Serbian Cultural Centre, with its own library and amphitheatre. The larger space in this church enables the organization of an arts program, with guest appearances by well-known artists from the motherland.

In addition to these churches and their dedicated and successful work, Vancouver can also be proud of the Serbian Film Festival. The festival is supported by the Ministry of Diaspora, as well as individuals and businesses from Serbia and Canada. The festival was given proper publicity, including in two leading daily newspapers in British Columbia – The Province and Vancouver Sun. Media sponsors include Serbian Television in Vancouver and B92, among others.

As can be seen, considerable efforts are being made to enrich the lives of our people in British Columbia by preaching the faith while also nurturing the mother tongue, traditions and culture. There is no doubt the results achieved will be a great contribution to preserving the identity of Serbs in these areas.

This article is part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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