Vedran Milat, who comes from Split but has been living in Damask for a couple of years now where he works as the director of humanitarian organization and deputy manager of the mission, is a longtime student and friend of Jantar language school. Talking to Vedran for an hour seemed to have lasted only for a couple of minutes, and you could easily spend a couple of days listening to his interesting stories and anecdotes. Here you can read the interview he gave for Jantar during his last visit to Split. We believe you will find it interesting to read his story about how languages opened the path to one completely unexpected world.
You were among the first students at our school – what’s your memory of it?
My first memories of Jantar are lessons in the living room of an apartment in the neighbourhood of Blatine, early 90s. I was lucky that my parents recognized the importance of learning English language and Jantar was nearby, opposite our flat. There was domestic atmosphere, pleasant and age appropriate, which definitely helped in overcoming that initial feeling: “oh, no, I have to go to school again”. There were often some treats given for a correct answer, and, of course, I liked it very much.
To what extent did studying English in Jantar help you in life? Did it influence your life’s path?
I think that only when I finished college did I realise how much studying English in Jantar had meant to me. Mirjana somehow always managed to make us feel like we weren’t in school and that we were learning something new, in Jantar it was a natural process and I stopped translating sentences in my head very early and started thinking in English. Since I got a job after college in an international company where I needed the language, thanks to years I had spent in Jantar I didn’t feel like I was using a foreign language, so I can say that this language school had a crucial role in defining my professional development.
Are you still in touch with your teacher Mirjana Sobin?
Of course. Years spent in Jantar have turned our relationship into friendship and almost family atmosphere whenever we see or hear each other, not just the two of us but also our families. Since she retired she has also become active on social media, she’s almost become an “influencer”, so this is another way we keep in touch, even when we are not in the same city, and it is known that neither of us likes staying in one place.
What affected your career choice?
It’s hard to say. I started travelling with my parents when I was in elementary school, as much as the war and their jobs and incomes allowed us to do so. I started discovering very early how there are many things that are interesting outside Croatia and Split, people who were destined to be born less fortunate. And as much as it may sound as a cliché, I think it partly affected my choice to get a job in an international humanitarian organization. Of course, let’s not kid ourselves, it was pretty challenging to work for a foreign company, with options of travel to faraway countries and certain privileges that Croatian firms couldn’t offer. But I believe that the basic feeling was to connect, one way or the other, all my so-called ‘loves’ – travelling, helping others, working in a dynamic and international setting and, for Croatian standards, a fine business proposal.
For the last couple of years you have been working in Damask where you are at the head of the humanitarian organization International Medical Corps. What are the biggest challenges of your job?
Yes, I became an operational director and deputy director of the IMC in Syria. There are many challenges there... Syria has been in war for over a decade, nowadays there is one whole generation of children who don’t even remember periods of peace. My team and I are trying our best, in accordance with main humanitarian principles of course, to improve the living conditions of those who are most vulnerable.
It is interesting that one of the main offices of that organization is in Split. Why did they choose our town specifically?
In the 90s Split office provided support for the activities of the IMC in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo... Since that team proved to be professional, competent and successful, little by little it grew to become the main office for the whole organization, next to Los Angeles, Washington DC and London.
Do you think that Split has progressed in the last couple of years or it remained stagnant?
I believe it is making progress, but unfortunately it is progressing more slowly than I would like it to. I’m not one of those who only find bad things and critique everything – there is a plethora of good things that have happened to Split and in Split in the last couple of years. The gastronomy offer is amazing, there are many fantastic restaurants and bars, on a global level. Peristil has been renewed, some parts of the Palace, there is new airport terminal... Of course, there is still space for improvement. What makes me sad is that we don’t have a longterm vision of progress of this town. Everything they do is planned year after year and often depends on some private or political interests. We often hear that there is not enough money for some developing projects and I categorically disagree with that statement. There are always funds, you just have to be willing and wise enough to use them properly.
How would you describe the local population of Syria?
They are similar to us in their temperament. In this area there was a mix of eastern and western cultures for thousands of years and they have all left a mark in their own way. Besides – our Saint Duje was also a Syrian and we accepted him as our own, I guess it says something for itself.
How do they react to foreigners?
My impressions are very positive. In almost a year I haven’t had a bad experience. When I say I am from Croatia, older people immediately remember how much Croatia participated in building Syria in the past (harbours, dams…...) and many of them went to study to Croatia. Younger generations have heard of us because of football, of course, Luka Mordić opens almost every door.
People probably ask you if it is dangerous to live in Damask. Can a man get used to constant danger and how are you dealing with all that?
A man can get used to anything, even to life in conditions of war. I often say that people who work in this department have a little deranged system of safety evaluation, so what appears normal to me now, many will see as living on the edge or even outside their comfort zone. What I can say is that the operations are relatively far from Damask and that life in the city is mostly normal, as much as it can be. Damask is beautiful, it’s one of the oldest cities in human history and people can really enjoy it.
What are your hobbies?
It depends on the season. In summer, it’s definitely diving and anything sea-related, fishing, sailing, wakeboarding... In winter, it’s snowboarding and winter sports. I’ve been practicing free-diving for almost ten years and I’m an international umpire, so I participate in competitions quite a lot. When you reach a certain level as an umpire, you find yourself in beautiful places like Bahamas, the Canaries, Dominica. Last year I was the referee during World Championship in Turkey. Of course, there are always journeys with friends, but those are usually active vacations too.
You travel a lot. What is the meaning of travel in your life?
Journeys are a very important part of my life and I am sure they will continue to have such a role. I am ready to spend the last dime on travelling. Discovering new places and civilisations, people who are different and similar to us at the same time, it’s something precious. Travelling has taught me how to value variety and adjust my views of the world via encountering new cultures. We often hear that story that God forgot about the Croats at the time when he created the Universe, and then he left them the land he wanted to keep for himself. In the last 20 years I’ve heard that story many times on several continents. Of course, I still believe that Croatia is incredibly beautiful and that there is only one “home”, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many other amazing places on Earth.
Do you think it’s important to study foreign languages?
Definitely. My grandpa would always mention that old proverb: the more languages you know, the more of a person you are, and in his nineties he would read in Italian and English and study new words. Knowing a language gives you the possibility to get to know a country and their people more in depth. At the moment I am still on English, German and French, and I have basic understanding of Italian. Recently I’ve been studying Arabic too. When you speak foreign languages, you have more options and broadened horizons.
Do you think that the world has forgotten about humanity in their obsession with profit and hate or is there hope for a better tomorrow?
There’s always hope for a better tomorrow, even though we might perceive future times to be dark. It’s a common mistake to think that individual effort doesn’t count because: what meaning could that possibly have in a world of those who work against common sense? But everyone is important and should start with themselves. It might sound as a cliché, but I truly believe this is true. One less plastic bag in the sea, one glass bottle instead of a plastic one, walking instead of driving – these things matter. At the beginning of this year I came across a web page called Future Crunch that promotes solely positive news and I remained baffled – not one of those pieces of news did I find on usual and popular websites, and each of them has amazing significance for humankind. That is what we need – a little bit of positivity to get us started.
What is the role of teachers nowadays?
I would say teachers are crucial nowadays. They help parents in educating their children and they are irreplaceable in their effort to help children become good people. During my school days I met a lot of great teachers. Later on I became friends with some of them and I still like to spend some time with them from time to time. I also had bad experiences, which I’m trying to forget, but all in all I think I was lucky. We should invest in our teachers and we need a system that is going to help them grow. They need encouragement to shape their students to become good people who are going to build a better future. After all – that is what our future depends on.