Petra Jakovac-Bohnenschäfer

Co-worker Finances / Insurance / Translation SOS Children's Villages in Germany
photo: © Stefan Lechner Photography

Positive Panic

It was in 1994, when I had just been doing my job with SOS for a year and a half, when I had a colleague from SOS Burundi as a guest at my office in Munich. We had sat down at the table to have coffee and chat about our work. The atmosphere was relaxed and good.
At that time, I had the habit of having my office radio switched on the whole working day. It was turned down low, so only I could hear the music and news without bothering other colleagues in their work.

A message with an impact
Then the news came on and I froze! They were reporting that a civil war had broken out in Burundi and that the country had closed all its borders and the airport of Bujumbura.

I was staring at the radio, then at my colleague and then back at the radio again. All I was able to say at that moment was "Attends un moment, s'il te plaît." (Please, wait a moment.) I felt the adrenalin kicking in and a feeling of panic was slowly rising inside me. My thoughts began to race. How could I possibly get my colleague back home to his family? With the borders and airport closed, he would be trapped here not knowing whether his family was safe.

I know what war means and what it does to families and individuals finding themselves in it on either side of the lines. I am half-Croatian and there was war in our country from 1991 to 1995. I know that the biggest concern for a civilian during wartime is the well-being and survival of their close ones. So I was determined to bring my colleague home at any cost.

When I told my colleague what I had just heard on the news, he was completely shocked and the very first thing he asked me was: "How am I going to get home to my family?"
We immediately left the office and went to the next travel agency close to my office and I asked the lady there whether it was true that there were no more flights to Bujumbura? She checked this on her computer and confirmed.

My next idea was to contact the Regional Office for Burundi which, at the time, was located in neighbouring Rwanda, and I asked her to book the next possible flight that would take my colleague to Kigali. Luckily, we were able to get a flight to Kigali for the same day and, only a few minutes later, I was able to send my colleague to the airport by taxi.
I went back to the office to tell the colleagues in Rwanda that their colleague from Burundi would be arriving at Kigali airport.
Taking a breath after some moments of emptiness and fear
I was very relieved when the Regional Office in Rwanda told me of the arrival of our colleague in Rwanda the next day. They also told me that they managed to get him across the border into Burundi to be reunited with his family. It had literally been “last minute” as only one day later Kigali airport was also closed for several days.

I was so glad to have been able to help my colleague return to his family, and the lecture I learned that day was: Even if a situation is crazy or horrible and you do not know what to do, and even when you start to panic, you can turn this into positive energy to take action by doing the right thing at the right time. Just keep your courage, be strong and never give up!

Petra Jakovac-Bohnenschäfer

Petra’s job involves administrative work in a PSA, where she interacts with colleagues from all over the world on almost a daily basis. Intercultural communication is therefore very important to her. She likes her job because of this and is very grateful for the experience.
In her personal life, family is everything to Petra. This does not only comprise her husband and son, but also a whole lot of relatives and all her good friends, whom she treats like family members. Her perception of family, which is not so common in German society, comes from her Croatian heritage.
As Petra is half-German, half-Croatian, there is more than one place that she calls home. Her background means that she can bring together the best from both worlds and make it work for her and her environment. In her free time, Petra likes to read everything connected to languages – be it linguistics, semantics, writing/literacy, dialects, language endangerment, etc.