Inspirational Women interview with Mateja Kordić
Mateja Kordic is what people that wear suits to work would likely refer to as a wild child. What I see in Mateja, however, is a hard working woman, with a huge heart, that is committed to making a difference in this world. In her resume, she lists skills such as empathy, compassion and being a good listener -- things that unfortunately many don’t see as important, nowadays.
After studying design, she started her own accessories brand and online shop. Subsequently, she started working in product management for an Austrian snowboard & surf clothing shop, for 6 years, before Mateja decided she’d had enough of the fast paced life and wanted to explore the alternative. She wanted to use her time and energy to make a difference in the world.
Mateja is now officially on a study leave, and has so far dedicated her time to acquiring new skills and knowledge through online courses for foreign languages, marketing, photography… Last summer she attended a course organized by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in Berlin which inspired her and a team of Austrian and Slovenian volunteers to create a local unit and dedicate themselves to educating others about climate change and its consequences.
I caught up with Mateja a couple of weeks ago when she was just about to return from Serbia where she volunteered for a Collective Aid NGO, an organization that works with refugees, migrants and azil seekers in Serbia and Bosnia. She described that work as extremely rewarding, inspiring and eye opening. As one would expect from someone like Mateja, she didn’t come back to her home in Slovenia empty handed. On her last day, she found 2 stray puppies, one of which became her permanent companion. The other found a forever home with the help of friends and doing the social media outreach she’s so good at.
Alongside all of that, Mateja turned her online store Chickita into a blog where she finds time to write about her projects, low waste living, snowboarding, outdoors and other adventures.
1. Mateja, you definitely took the path less traveled. I’ve been reading your blog every once in a while and I observed your learning curve and transition to a different way of life and thinking. Can you tell us more about yourself, your path and current mission?
I ́m 37, born and raised in Slovenia, but I spent all my summers on the island of Hvar where my dad's side of the family is from and where we have a house on the beach. That's where my love for an easy, simple life comes from as well as my love of nature. I’m always trying to do what makes me happy, as cheesy as that sounds. If I didn't enjoy the job or profession, I tried to change it. I always want to learn new skills and grow. Some people knew what they wanted to do their whole life and are happy doing the same job. I don't think I will ever be one of them and neither will any of my friends. So we are all free and happy together, figuring things out, learning new skills and exploring the paths less traveled or just making our own paths. And I truly believe that when you are in a good place, when you are happy and content, only then you will want to and be able to help others. I started looking around myself and how much impact my lifestyle has on the environment and other people.
What could I do to lower my carbon footprint and cause less harm. We (in developed countries) can so easily ignore the consequences our way of living has on other humans (usually in developing countries), animals, planet. But now slowly the consequences are coming to our front yard. Our beach on Hvar is full of plastic, Adriatic animals are polluted with plastic, things are changing -- storms are getting stronger, floods and droughts are more frequent. Most of the animals I used to see around our beach on a daily basis are now gone.
That's where my concern for our planet turned into rage and panic. We reached the point where we all have to change our habits and lifestyles in order for humanity to survive. My current mission is to find how and where I can help the most. How I can use my skills to help the situation we are currently in. At the moment, I'm studying NGO management and soon photojournalism. Something I’ve been passionate about for a long time and maybe, now more than ever, the world needs to see exactly what is happening to our planet through my eyes as well.
2. Due to war induced instability in the middle East and other tensions caused by religious and political interests, Europe has been dealing (or not really) with a “refugee problem” for the last couple of years. The media has been reporting about millions of people fleeing to Europe, incidents on the borders, tragedies on the Mediterranean sea… and not always in an empathetic way. Can you tell us about your experience working with the refugees who are now living in camps around EU bordering countries?
The Serbian border has become difficult to cross. Hungarian authorities stopped the admission of refugees from Serbia into their so-called ‘transit zones’, even though many remain on waiting lists, as tension and frustration runs high. Croatian authorities continue to force refugees outside of their borders. Alleged violence, harassment and robbery have been reported by refugees on both sides of these borders as well as in Slovenia and along other crossings.
Since the beginning of the migrant crisis to date, more than a million migrants have been registered in the territory of Serbia. At this moment, about 4,000 migrants are located in 14 permanent or temporary reception centers in the Republic of Serbia. Between 500 – 1000 refugees arrive in Serbia every two weeks. I was working with people from the largest refugee transit centre in Serbia, situated in Obrenovac, just outside the capital, Belgrade. Obrenovac is a single-male transit centre with people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran…
It was definitely emotional and hard to spend 8h with the cca. 20 men in the community center, teaching, motivating… Sometimes it was just being there for them and listening to their stories about the bad experiences they had, families they miss and dreams they have. They are compassionate, smart and more understanding than many people they meet during their transit. Some even talk about returning home because of the brutality they have faced at different borders and the hopelessness they feel regarding the system that keeps rejecting them. They can end up stuck in the Balkans for years, some people I’ve met have tried to cross the borders over 50 times, coming back battered and bruised with multiple injuries from authorities – yet they still keep trying.
As long as the human spirit and determination remains strong, people will continue trying to cross the borders, no matter what the price is, in search of peace and a chance for a new beginning.
We reached the point where we all have to change our habits and lifestyles in order for humanity to survive. My current mission is to find how and where I can help the most.
We reached the point where we all have to change our habits and lifestyles in order for humanity to survive.My current mission is to find how and where I can help the most.
3. How can a regular person help in this situation?
The best way to help refugees is to donate cash to humanitarian organisations or charities. Cash donations are the fastest, most efficient way to get help to vulnerable people. Cash donations enable relief agencies to cater to the specific needs of the affected population as quickly as possible. They also allow relief agencies to buy goods in the affected region, which helps regenerate the local economy. The second way to help is to go volunteer for organizations working with refugees.
This way you will have a chance to meet and work with refugees as well as learn about their fears and dreams. They love their country, families, friends and all they want is a safe future for all of them. The media make them look like monsters and brainwash people to be afraid for their safety and jobs. If people had the chance to talk and spend a day with any of them, they would be ashamed for ever thinking that. We must keep reminding ourselves that the people that are fleeing all have a story to tell.
Their homes have become a dangerous place to live in. Their basic human right of security was violated -- leaving their families and risking their lives was a last resort. They are proud of who they are and wish they did not have to leave. So it's important that more people become aware of that and start spreading compassion instead of fear and anger. You can, of course, also donate items the camps always have need for, like blankets, tents or winter shoes. Offer some remote help, like translating, legal advice, etc ….
4. A lot has been discussed about environmental changes and their impact on our quality (or even possibility) of life on this planet. However, I think the message still didn’t hit home with many people, especially the corporations. Can you tell us more about what you had learned from Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project?
I think the big corporations are aware they are destroying the planet and putting our health and safety at risk. But their main goal is to make money, no matter the cost. In fact, just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. But they love to blame us, the consumers, for pollution. Also, a terrifying fact is that the world’s richest 10% of people, produce half of the global carbon emissions. Rich, high emitters and companies should be held accountable for their emissions, no matter where they live.
In October last year the report by UN (IPCC) on the impact of global warming of 1.5C by as early as 2030, precipitating the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people. The date, which falls well within the lifetime of many people alive today, is based on the current levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The planet is already two-thirds of the way there with global temperatures having warmed about 1 degree C. To avoid going even higher will require significant action in the next few years. But the world is now completely off track, heading instead towards 3C.
The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 tons of CO2 per person/year. This includes our transport, flying, food (by going vegan you can drastically lower your carbon footprint), heating, electricity, how much clothes and other items you buy.
The simple fact is that global temperature rise throws natural systems out of balance: Rainstorms, severe droughts, powerful tropical cyclones, extreme heat waves, rising sea levels, displacement of nearly half of the world’s population, flooding coastal areas literally swallowing entire islands, populations of animals dying out.
The climate crisis has real and dangerous impacts on public health as well. This is especially true for the most vulnerable – children, the elderly, and the poor – who are at the most risk from heat stress, air pollution, and extreme weather events.
Like young climate activist Greta Thunberg said at this year’s UN Climate Change COP24 Conference: “It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.” These are some of the topics we covered at Climate Reality training last year. If anyone is interested in climate change and wants to learn how they can help, I highly recommend applying for the training. It's available to anyone, for free. You can check on Climate Reality page if there will be a training close to you. We all definitely need your help. More about carbon footprint (http://www.chickita.si/carbon-footprint/)
5. This is the first time I have a feeling like things are moving in the right direction. We’re not sure if it’s happening fast enough but people and brands are taking up the challenge to reduce the use of plastic and waste production in general. Can you advise us on where and how to start as individuals? A couple of low waste living tips for beginners?
I’m really happy EU Parliament voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. It can not be all on us consumers. The companies producing all this plastic have to be accountable and be stopped. Another terrifying fact is that only 9% of all the world's plastic actually gets recycled. So recycling should be our last resort.
If we stop buying and start pressuring the companies to change, the change will come. Take a look at what you are buying and using. If you buy a lot of water bottles, switch it for reusable one. You can reuse glass bottles from juices, water or tomato sauce, or buy a nice one you will love (from Bellabeat) and carry it with you wherever you go. In case you travel a lot to countries where water is not safe to drink, buy a purifying filter or bottle (also coal sticks) and filter the water.
Best switch I made was definitely my menstrual cup and safety razor. Minimize your cosmetics and give soap bars a try. I love my shampoo bar, it smells nice and it takes a lot less space in my bag. You probably already own a tote bag or a basket, bring it to the farmers market where it's easier to avoid plastic, plus you will be buying locally grown produce. Buy 2nd hand clothes or at least avoid fast fashion as much as possible and check more sustainable brands. 22nd of April is the start of Earth Day and also the Fashion Revolution (https://www.fashionrevolution.org/).
Most importantly, use what you have. Use old bags, old jars, old plastic containers, old napkins, clothes, shoes…repair if things get broken or repurpose them. There is no need to go out buying all stainless steel and glass jars and food containers, if you have some good plastic ones at home already. No need to buy new sustainable clothes, if the ones you have are still nice. And after the products needs to be replaced, buy a more sustainable plastic-free version. You can find some ideas on my blog. (http://www.chickita.si/plastic-free-swaps-plastic-free-july/)
6. From your blog, I know you’ve developed an environmentally friendly, low waste beauty routine? Can you tell us about it and give us a couple of tips how to start?
I always had problematic oily skin and I think a lot of it came from eating dairy in my teenage years. After I stopped my skin got a lot better and I really wanted to stop using all those harsh anti-acne products and wanted to have less products in my routine -- and also less plastic. I started switching to more natural, simple, cruelty-free and vegan products. I gave away products I did not use or used what I liked. Along with that, I started using coconut butter and oils as my face and body cream. I use it also as a make-up remover (for those rare occasions I wear some). I sometimes use apple vinegar (mixed with water) as a face tonic. Or make my own face and body peeling.
Like I mentioned before, I use a soap shampoo bar for my hair and another soap bar for my body. I found great toothpowder and I´ve been using it for more than a year now, together with my bamboo toothbrush. Other products like aloe vera gel or sunscreen I try to buy from organic, vegan, cruelty-free cosmetics companies, preferably packed in glass containers. I also bought cream deodorant in a glass container that lasts forever. There are many affordable organic makeup companies on the market today. But to be honest I hardly ever wear make-up, so I’m just using up what I have right now.
7. You’re so dedicated to being better and doing better. But one of the reasons why you’re on this mission, now, is because you wanted to avoid burning out. What does life-work balance mean to you and how do you make sure that as an empathic person you don’t take too much weight on your own shoulders?
I wanted to leave my job, because it was really not fulfilling and didn’t align with my beliefs. I looked at the older people around me, or the ones that have been there longer than me and it was not where I wanted to go. But as soon as I left and started doing things I care about, I put too much pressure on myself. In my month in Serbia we worked sometimes 12h per day or longer, but we loved what we did. However, if you never really stop, if you live and work with the same people and in difficult situations, you can burn out before you even realize.
So my corporate job didn’t cause me to a burnout because I was somehow disconnected from it all, I did not care enough about it. But on the other hand after I returned from my volunteering job I didn’t feel like doing anything. Didn´t write a blog post for a month, or picked up my camera, slept more. And I didn’t even realise I was a bit burned out. Because when I returned to my normal life after helping others, I felt that whatever I did was not enough, as if I wasn’t helping anymore.
I would turn on Instagram and felt even worse, because I follow too many activists and environmentalists that were out doing things. So now more than ever I need to work on my life-work balance, although I officially don’t work. I try to switch off social media or my phone for at least 48h and also limit the time I spend on my phone. I set study and work time, and take the rest of the day off. It’s not easy, but I’m working on it. I also try to stick to one or two projects, topics, problems at once. Because I know that if I think I can dive deep into more of the topics, or help more projects, I will feel overwhelmed and maybe even end up not doing anything. It took me a while to realize this: “You can’t do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good you can do.”
8. Your Instagram pictures are one big outdoor adventure. Snowboarding, hiking, swimming…. What’s your recipe for staying fit and healthy?
I really hope it doesn’t come out like I’m the most active person, because I'm definitely not doing enough. And since my boyfriend and most of my friends are professional athletes they are not easy to keep up with. But I do live in the mountains so I'm either snowboarding, splitboarding, hiking, running around, swimming in the summer and SUP-ing. This winter I got too lazy so I'm trying to get back on track now. If the water is bad, I try to watch a TV show or documentary from my bike. Now that I have a cute doggy it’s even easier to get out of the house and go to the woods to recharge.
I’ve been eating plant-based for the past 5 years. Not only for my health, but also for ethical and environmental reasons. Today we have more choices than ever -- to choose a diet that is good for us and for the planet. This was by far the best thing I did for my health. And I try to hang out as much as I can with my friends that are basically a group of crazy, active, strong women that push my limits. We just came back from a 3 day climbing trip around Istria. This was my 3rd time going rock climbing and I think if I want to spend more time with them I will just need to start climbing more, haha. Oh and laugh, that's the best thing for staying young and happy.
9. How do you see your life changing in the next 10 years, what would you still like to achieve? How much do you think about your health and well-being when planning for the future?
I fear how all of our futures are going to look like in 10 years.
I can take care of my health and well-being, but all of that is for nothing if we don’t take care of our home, our planet that gives us clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. As long as we keep destroying it, in 10 years the planet won’t be healthy but neither will we or the new generations. The next 10 years scare me, but we need to stay positive. We need to keep doing all that we can to change things around. I hope you will join me, because the world needs your help right now.
Photo credit: Alenka Klinar