Ivana Nikolic, dancer, activist and student of philosophy and educational sciences at the University of Turin (Università degli Studi di Torino), Italy

Ivana Nikolic is an inspirational young woman who has managed to turn tragedy and personal difficulty into beauty. As a hard-working and caring visionary who believes in a just world, she uses her dance as activism, to educate and break down stereotypes.

Nikolic was born in 1991, the same year that her country, the former Yugoslavia, started to break apart. With her father an Orthodox Serb and her mother a Bosnian Muslim, her family was directly affected by the war. Nikolic was born in Novi Sad and identifies as Serbian, while her brother was born in Banja Luka and identifies as Bosnian. Her father was the first in the family to leave the country and was considered a deserter. On his journey he passed through Croatia; Nikolic claims that he never speaks of that experience and how he managed to survive and arrive in Germany. Her mother and brother stayed in Vukovar, where the three of them hid in the cellar of a house owned by Jovanka, a woman they called their ‘fairy godmother’. Nikolic said that many years later, when she came to read The Diary of Anne Frank, she suddenly understood the fear and distress that her mother and Jovanka must have felt.

In 1992, the situation in the country grew too unstable and tensions heightened. Nikolic and her family were no longer able to take refuge in Jovanka’s cellar and left Vukovar by bus with neither money nor food, in the hope of being reunited with her father in Germany. Nikolic stresses the bravery of her mother during this experience. Unable to pay for tickets, her mother was nonetheless able to convince the bus driver to take her and the children to Germany. The driver held onto her mother’s passport and only returned it when Nikolic’s father paid for the tickets.

As a Bosnian Muslim fleeing from the war, Nikolic’s mother was given asylum in Germany; they stayed for three years. It was a terribly difficult period for her mother, as she had no news from her family back home. Despite all of the fear and turmoil that the family endured, Nikolic states that she grew up in a peaceful home where they played, shared stories and were bound by love.

In 1994, her mother learned that her extended family had left Bosnia and were staying in an Italian camp in Turin. In 1995, the family were reunited when the grandparents decided to bring Nikolic and her immediate family to Italy. In order to achieve this dream, the family had to endure yet more challenges. Nikolic says, ‘An obstacle to travelling [to be reunited with their family]… was not enough to stop people who had come through a war.’ And so they arrived in Turin and began a new life there.

In Italy, Nikolic was encouraged to study, and her family’s positive belief that love and peace would always outweigh the negative experiences of war allowed her to excel at school and university. At the age of fifteen she began to combine her social and artistic practice, whilst volunteering with several non-governmental organisations. She found herself working with young people, people with disabilities and immigrant families from her neighbourhood. She has described Mirafiori Sud as a district with a high crime rate, where many young people have problems with their family, drug abuse is prevalent, unemployment rates are high and many are in and out of the legal system or care institutions. Her commitment and determination to have an impact upon this community led her to run an after-school programme. However, it ran for only three months from September to November 2014, because of threats and hate crimes that targeted her and the local Roma community. Yet she persevered and with the help of the local authority, the Fondazione della Communità di Mirafiori and the ASAI organisation, Nikolic set up an educational programme for young boys and girls in January 2015, which is still active.

In 2014, she led a campaign called ‘Attenti a NoN Ripetere’, which was aimed at fighting discrimination and advocating social inclusion. The campaign was supported by young people in the city, several associations, the Resistance Museum and the Jewish community of Turin. Its aim was to remind people of the atrocities committed against various ethnic groups in history, in order to avoid any repetition. With activities, workshops and the development of an active citizenship programme, the campaign focused on young people and remembering the Porrajmos and other ethnic genocides.

Nikolic is currently organising several educational, artistic and cultural events and activities that aim to promote inclusion and a positive awareness of cultural differences through music and dance. In 2016, she founded her Roma dance company, Ternype Dance, which has two main goals: to share the beauty of Roma dance as art and to help challenge prejudices and stereotypes. Ternype Dance has gone on to perform at several events in Italy and across Europe, and it has run several workshops. Nikolic has also been given numerous prizes and awards; on 8 March 2010, she received an award for her commitment to social issues from the then Italian president Giorgio Napolitano. On 14 November 2015, her company was given a CILD Award in the Collective Voice category for its work promoting freedom and civil rights. On 27 January 2016, the Italian Senate recognised her campaign, ‘Attenti a NoN Ripetere’ and in 2016, the European Commission awarded her an honorary position as Italian and Roma ambassador, in acknowledgement of her fight against discrimination.

Since 2011, she has been part of the ternYpe International Roma Youth Network, which gives young people the opportunity to become active citizens; since 2016, she has been part of the scholarly committee of Romani Early Years Network (REYN). She has featured in a documentary movie, Opre Roma by Paolo Bonfanti and is starting a new film project in 2019.

Nikolic is currently completing her degree in philosophy and educational sciences at the University of Turin. Not only is she a role model for young Roma internationally, she is also an important figure in Roma dance history. Thanks to her enthusiasm, commitment and positivity, Nikolic is a positive example of what is possible when love outweighs hatred and discrimination.