It is easy to understand their skepticism.
After years of false promises followed by years of a regime that largely forgot them, the communities in the Sandzak region of Serbia have seen their share of disappointments and hopes left unfulfilled.
So when Claire Sneed stood before them at their town hall meetings and talked about all the projects that could be done to improve their communities it is understandable that many had doubts. After all, here was a 20-something American working with a group called Mercy Corps that had seemingly come out of nowhere and was promising them the support that many communities had not seen in a more than a generation.
But as the walls broke down and the dialogue flowed, the communities and peoples of Sandzak warmed to Sneed and began to understand that both she and Mercy Corps were serious about collaborating with community members on projects that would improve their lives.
"When we first got there people were extremely excited but also curious and a bit skeptical. We got out into the field right away and as they saw projects in action and things getting done the excitement grew," Sneed said, who recently returned to the United States after spending a year overseeing Mercy Corps' projects in the Sandzak region.
Located in southern Serbia, the predominately Muslim Sandzak region is made up of rural villages and small towns that largely rely on agricultural production. It is a region were economic collapse and years of political instability under the Milosevic regime have left behind crumbling schools and hospitals and where some are still waiting for the electricity and phone connections they were promised decades ago. It is also a region where, until Sneed and Mercy Corps' arrival, no international non-governmental organization (NGO) worked.
In July 2001, Sneed helped to establish Mercy Corps' main office in Novi Pazar and began work on the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Community Revitalization through Democratic Action (CRDA) program. The five-year program aims to revitalize communities through small infrastructure projects such as school repairs that are conceived and co-managed by local councils.
"The main role that we try to play is to serve as facilitators. We try to get people in the communities excited and involved. Community development and democracy building only work if you find tangible ways for people to participate," Sneed said.
Working under a tight deadline, Sneed and the local staff held numerous town meetings during the initial days of the project and helped to set up 20 community groups and start 21 infrastructure repair projects in the first 60 days. The program and participants have not looked back since.
"The biggest thing is helping individuals and communities to realize that they have the ability to get things done and to improve their circumstances. Seeing the changes on people's faces and watching the leadership skills develop is really quite inspiring," Sneed said.
"The program is helping to transform the way people think. There are people there now who can speak so intelligently about community development and understand the power of community involvement. It's amazing."
While Sneed said she already misses working in Serbia Ð she returned home to attend graduate school Ð she remains actively interested in the people whose lives she has touched.
"The great thing about the CRDA program is that it is five years long. This will give us a real opportunity to see how the entire region evolves," she said.