The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications invited Olson -- author and 1964 graduate from UNL -- on Nov. 29 to speak about her recently self-published book, World citizen: Journeys of a Humanitarian.
Experiences are the foundation of any story; they are reflected and shared with others. Jane Olson, a volunteer and storyteller, shared how to touch hearts with her stories.
“Stories touch your heart and I think people really want to be touched,” Olson said. “You know, a great book will do that for you.”
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications invited Olson — author and 1964 graduate from UNL — on Nov. 29 to speak about her recently self-published book, World citizen: Journeys of a Humanitarian.
During her book talk at the International Quilt Museum, Olson described her early childhood in Denison, Iowa. Coming from the Midwest, Olson said she learned to have an open heart, which motivated her to volunteer.
Olson has about three decades of volunteering experience with Human Rights Watch, an international organization that defends human rights. She traveled all over the world to aid war survivors. During her travels, many survivors shared their stories with her.
“I really have been all over the world, into some of the darkest places, a lot of war zones and places of extreme poverty and even extreme disease,” Olson said.
She was 45 years old when she started volunteering. Olson said she wanted to raise her three children before traveling and waited until her last child graduated from high school.
“The day our youngest child left for college… her father took her and I was on a plane to Moscow,” Olson said in her talk.
What made Olson’s stories so interesting was how she told and wrote about them. She collected notes, newspaper clippings, photos, hotel receipts and old passports from her travels; and due to her journalistic background, she carried journals and camera gear to document her time overseas.
She also kept a burlap sack skirt from survivors in Bosnia and shared it with the audience. This was a memorable gesture and helped put her story into perspective.
“When I came that evening, I just thought she’d talk about her book, tell some stories, and [I] didn’t know what to expect,” Dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications Shari Veil said. “If you watch, she brought up the burlap sack skirt when she was talking about working with the women in those communities… she held the audience well.”
Olson started her story with some background, she was volunteering for the organization World Vision. Their mission at the time was to aid internally displaced people, Olson said. She traveled to Bosnia in the 1990s, during the Yugoslav Wars.
In her talk, Olson said 50,000 people were forced into shelters in central Bosnia. She worked with women and children, and that’s when she met Mensi.
Mensi started a beauty salon for the women survivors at shelters in hopes to help them, “rediscover their humanity and will to live.”
Mensi is a survivor herself and shared her story with Olson. Before she met Olson, her community went through an ethnic cleansing as the Serbian military killed all the men in her city; she lost her husband and father.
Olson said Mensi and her 4-year-old son were taken into vehicles with other women and children from her community. They drove for hours, having no clue where they were going.
“Eventually, they came to a school building and they were all loaded into classrooms, very small classrooms, like 33 or 35 to a classroom,” Olson said in her talk.
Mensi shared with Olson that throughout the day and night the Serbian militia would go to the classrooms, take the girls and rape them. Mensi along with the other women and children in the classroom experienced other forms of physical harm like “cigarette burns and choking,” Olson said.
Some Bosnian men found the school and rescued some of the survivors including Mensi and her son. Mensi was brought back to the shelters.
Yasna, a survivor from Serbia who experienced the same traumatic experiences as Mensi, was a fashion designer and wanted to teach young girls how to sew. There was an old garment factory in Fojnica, Bosnia that was bombed and burnt down, Olson said.
The men at the shelters went through the factory’s remains to find industrial sewing machines, scissors and zippers — anything that didn’t burn in the fire they tried to salvage, Olson said. The key material they were missing was fabric.
“Yasna had an idea,” Olson said in her talk. “She said, ‘What we did have in great quantity was burlap bags,’ because the United Nations food program delivered huge burlap bags filled with potatoes and rice, beans.”
Yasna taught the girls how to make patterns, measure themselves and sew the burlap clothes. Later that night after meeting the survivors, the young girls put on a fashion show with the clothing they made, Olson said.
Olson was so moved by seeing the young girls feeling a sense of pride that she bought about a dozen of the “burlap fashions.” After telling the story, she proceeded to pull a burlap skirt out from her bag and showed the audience.
These collections were kept at her home in Santa Barbara for years, but writing a book wasn’t on her radar.
“I did a lot of public speaking. I’ve told these stories publicly many times,” Olson said. “People always said to me, ‘You need to write a book,’ ‘We love your stories,’ ‘You should write a book,’ but I continued traveling and I was very, very busy.”
About five years ago, Olson broke her ankle from a fall and spent seven months in a wheelchair. She changed her mind.
“I was going nuts from pain and from inactivity,” Olson said. “I had everything in files, and I could reach the files from my wheelchair, so I started pulling out files and just reading my journals.”
After reflecting on her journal entries, she started writing her book and joined a writer’s group. The group met on Tuesdays. At every meeting, members had a goal of writing 10 new pages to bring and read out loud.
After her ankle healed, she put a pause on writing so she could travel. When COVID-19 started, she found herself back at home, in her dining room, writing her book for two more years.
Olson couldn’t include every story she documented, but she tried to connect as many as she could within 29 chapters.
Dean Veil met Olson over the summer while visiting UNL alumni in Los Angeles and found out about Olson’s book on her trip. After hearing about Olson’s experiences, Dean Veil said she thought Olson would be an incredible example to show students interested in solutions journalism and advocacy pieces.
Dean Veil is a chair for the E. N. Thompson Forum at UNL, but the forum already had scheduled speakers for the semester. This year the E. N. Thompson Forum focused on inviting speakers to campus whose presentations related to the theme, “Creativity to solve global problems,” Dean Veil said.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to invite Olson to speak at UNL, she paid her way to make the presentation happen.
Olson visited students in journalism-related courses before her book talk. She spoke to many students that day, but out of all of them, a Political Science student made a lasting impression.
Junior Evan Dunn stayed 40 minutes after her class visit to speak with her, Olson said. Olson’s presentation on her humanitarian work struck a chord with Dunn’s interests in human rights.
“It was just strange,” Dunn said. “I met Jane at a very interesting intersection in my life where I was looking a lot at human rights, especially domestically, but due to some other classes and some of my peers, I started looking internationally.”
Olson told a variety of stories throughout the day. She kept the stories she told in-class separate from those shared at the book talk.
Senior Journalism student Dominic Bhola, was in his Mosaic Multimedia Class — a course covering stories about underrepresented and diverse communities in Lincoln — when he met Olson.
“I feel like Jane Olson is kind of like a living archive as a person,” Bhola said. “She has all of these experiences and memories that give us insight into what the world has been like over the decades that she’s been a humanitarian.”
To watch Jane Olson’s book talk, click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZaPLAxmUFk
To listen to a recent interview with Jane Olson, click on this link: https://share.transistor.fm/s/cdb0c7a5