Being Vegan, Vegan Being: Ilhana Skrgic – We Have Been Offered Roles as Guardians of this Planet.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Hi, my name’s Ilhana Škrgić, and I live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’m an English teacher, with a Ph.D. in Philology and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. I’m also a published author, focusing mostly on the world of academia, but I’ve been known to venture into poetry as well. In 2013 I was appointed World Animal Day Ambassador for Bosnia and Herzegovina. My official website is www.cursedpoet.net, but you can also find me on Instagram @cursedpoet.

What lead you to veganism? How long ago?

I first became a semi-vegetarian in 2004 after seeing a PETA poster with a horse’s head and the caption that went something like: “Did your food have eyes?” Up until then, I proclaimed to love animals but went along with eating meat like the rest of society. That was, without a doubt, a turning point in my life, although I am sure that enlightenment would have come in another form to me, albeit perhaps a bit later. I grew up with pets, and I even founded the Friends of Nature Society when I was a kid, making little newspapers and recruiting other kids from the neighborhood in feeding stray animals. Anyway, after that fateful lightbulb was turned on in my head, I took the steps necessary to phase out chicken and fish in the following months, and continued my path of vegetarianism until 2010. On November 1st of that year, after recognizing veganism as the only true way of being a friend to animals, I became a vegan. This year I will celebrate my 10th vegan anniversary!

When you first went vegan how did you phase out your non-vegan food, clothing and other items?

Already during my vegetarian days, I paid attention to not buying leather items (fur was out of the question years before that), and when I went vegan, I made sure I have a list of products not tested on animals in my wallet to help me shop for items such as shampoo, shower gel, and toothpaste. Soon I found a lot of companies that were cruelty-free and vegan – even in this region. As for food, since my mom also went vegetarian around the same time I did, it was fairly easy to look inside the fridge for plant-based goods!

Do you make any exceptions for yourself or if you are married with kids – your family, when it comes to veganism?

No exceptions – at first it might have been a little challenging, but I took it as an adventure – and there is truly nothing more peaceful than being aligned with your principles! I am not yet married, but I would like my kids to follow their natural compassion (that I believe resides in all newborns) and go vegan as well.

Do you believe we should show children the process of how animals are turned into meats?

Yes. This is an utterly barbaric and unnecessary process that everyone should see in order to question their life choices, children included. This is the third decade of the 21st century with a true plant-based feast out there that is accessible to everyone – let’s start acting the way our technology and knowledge enable us and turn away from the massacre.

What does being vegan mean to you? For example, does it extend to not killing bugs and bees?

Definitely! We share the planet with all these species, insects included, and they have the same right to be here as we do. Two years ago I decided not to use any items that have palm oil in them because I don’t want to support wildlife and habitat loss – there are still times when I accidentally buy something with this ingredient, but I try to really be aware of this aspect and not support the palm oil industry. I like to discover and support original vegan companies, so those products definitely take precedence over others.

Veganism for me instructs and embraces every aspect of my life. It is precisely due to this lifestyle and nutrition that I not only attained two higher education degrees at the same time, but also went further, towards a Master’s degree and subsequently Ph.D., while working two jobs (English teacher at a local school and senior assistant/language instructor at one of the state universities in B&H), doing extra work as a court interpreter, and being involved in a host of non-profit organizations. Where did I get the energy for it all? Veganism. Furthermore, I am now constantly learning about new ways of leaving only goodness behind me, so I try not to use single-use plastic, I recycle and upcycle packaging and clothing items, and overall,  I’m mindful of doing as minimal damage as possible in this world.

Is it every vegan’s duty to become an activist?

I believe every vegan can contribute to inspiring compassion, whether through campaigning, attending a vigil, participating in the Cube of Truth, signing petitions, etc. Each of us, with our own unique traits and ways of communication, can contribute to the enlightenment of others. I believe in planting seeds, so for me, one way of using social media, especially Instagram, is to make people see that being vegan is truly easier than they think! I post stories of the cruelty behind the meat and dairy industry, and my page is open to anyone in need of advice on ingredients, recipes, cosmetic products, etc. I’ve also participated in several events where I spoke about my veganism and animal protection, and I’m happy to report that this year, my civic education club is doing a project on circus ban in the town! I’m living proof that one can be vegan even in a predominantly meat-based society such as this one in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I’m happy to say that the number of vegans is growing – perhaps not so fast in smaller places, but cities like Sarajevo and Tuzla have already seen a surge in plant-based eating, and I expect it to rise even higher.

How compassionate or empathetic are you towards non-vegans?

I’m naturally inclined towards protecting children (partially because of my profession, I guess), but ever since I embraced veganism, I found my compassion and openness expanding to adult “human animals” as well. I try to understand other people’s actions and understand myself in challenging times, and my ethical principles have really helped me in those emotional endeavors. I gently nudge everyone towards plant-based nutrition who shares an issue with me about an ailment or difficulty that I can see is treatable by staying away from meat, for example.

Any recommended Vegan books?

At the beginning of our veggie journey, my mom and I first bought “The Ultimate Vegetarian Cookbook” by Roz Denny (recipes are vegan-friendly or can be made vegan), and I can also recommend “Mom, Dad, I’m a Vegan: A Guide for Understanding Your Vegan Family Member” by Casey Taft, Ph.D. In addition, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” and Jacy Reese’s “The End of Animal Farming”, among other powerful books, offer compelling writing on why it is important to further evolve and expand our compassion to animals with whom we share this planet.

Any recommended social sites, blogs or pages?

To all animal friends and people interested in veganism from this region (South-East Europe), I highly recommend the website of Animal Friends Croatia at www.prijatelji-zivotinja.hr, who are doing a tremendous job of covering all aspects of veganism as a lifestyle with a focus on the well-being of animals. I follow several great Instagram profiles, such as Live Kindly (@livekindlyco), which keeps me up-to-date with amazing vegan news, and for those interested in celebrating October 4 – World Animal Day, I recommend the official website at www.worldanimalday.co.uk, with loads of ideas and a database of past events around the world. The key to creating a better world and a better version of yourself is: learn – become a vegan – connect – create – motivate!

Do you have a favorite movie or videos or your own media that you want to share?

I was delighted with “The Game Changers” documentary that came out just last year! It was such a positive experience for me, first seeing it on the big screen in a theatre jam-packed with people, cheering away at certain parts and generally feeling like the truth is finally seeping into the mainstream! Even though this documentary is mostly focused on plant-based eating and doesn’t touch upon other aspects of veganism, I see it as an awesome start for people who are open to change and improvement of themselves, their health, and consequently, the lives of animals and the environment. I was especially taken by Damien Mander and his fight to protect wildlife. The second time I saw this doc was with my partner, and we both enjoyed it tremendously.

What’s your favorite Vegan restaurant?

I’m happy to say that my partner (who is mostly plant-based) has become an expert in vegan cooking, so I would say: his kitchen! Recently he started making homemade vegan cheese and variations of it, so I’ve been enjoying raclette cheese and parmesan, among other delicacies! I also like visiting Vegehop and Green Point whenever I’m in Zagreb (Croatia), and on my travels to other European cities such as Vienna and Berlin, I just fire up my HappyCow finder and search for something I’m in the food for munching, like pizza or burgers. It’s a delight to see the vegan network growing everywhere.

Please share your favorite vegan recipe?

My anti-cold soup is zesty and excellent! Ingredients:

  • 500 ml of water
  • spice mix – a combination of salt and dried vegetables (garlic, celery) (optional)
  • a pinch of parsley (dried or fresh)
  • a teaspoon of oil (preferably olive oil)
  • a teaspoon of ginger (powder)
  • a teaspoon of turmeric (powder)
  • a pinch of black pepper
  • a pinch of garlic (powder)
  • pasta for soup (ca 150 gr)
  • half a carrot, cut in small pieces (optional)
  • bring the water and all the spices to a boil, then add pasta and carrot pieces and stir occasionally for 10 minutes over medium-high heat

Try it and you’ll be cold-proof, heated up and excited! Perfect for the winter season. 😉

This is just one of the recipes I frequently employ in my cuisine, and I love making and veganizing traditional Bosnian meals so much that I’m seriously toying with the idea of writing a vegan Bosnian cookbook. This could be a piece of my five-year plan, who knows!

Some encouraging words for new Vegans?

You took the first and most important step towards the self-realization of yourself as a truly humane human being. Congrats! It is easier now than ever to be vegan, so go out there, explore new meals, meet new people and don’t get discouraged! You’re doing good, and your soul knows it.

What is the vegan scene like in your city?

Practically non-existent, which is sad. Some restaurants offer vegetarian options that can be turned vegan as well, but the good thing is that major supermarkets are stocked with plant-based foods and alternatives such as legumes, plant milk, and hummus, and I see new products popping up on a weekly basis. The times are a-changing!

What personal recommendations can you make for people to meet other vegans?

If you live in a larger city – by all means: look online for some groups and meet-ups! I think that’s an excellent way of meeting new, compassionate people and possibly making great friends with them. Even in a smaller town, by having an online group of people you can interact with on a daily basis, no matter where they are based, you can establish a meaningful connection and have support when needed.

I’m constantly amazed by people who have a famous profile and go plant-based later in their lives, so for example, I’ve been following Brian May’s Veganuary journey, and I hope he keeps it up! Needless to say, I would be vegan even if the entire world population consisted of meat-eaters, but it’s exciting to see more and more people becoming aware of the detrimental effect of meat and dairy on animals, environment, and health. It’s simply more fun to have some “company” out there! The story of Nimai Delgado, a vegan bodybuilder who has never eaten meat in his life, is also inspiring, and I am constantly in awe of Joaquin Phoenix, who is a beacon of light and a role model for me.

What does living cruelty-free mean to you?

I believe there is a potential for greatness in everyone, and by greatness, I not only refer to academic, sport or artistic excellence but also ethics and compassion. We have been offered the role of guardians of this planet, and yet we act as mindless conquerors. My firm belief is that we sacrifice a piece of our spirit by killing, eating and commodifying our fellow non-human neighbors and that we also sacrifice immortality in a way – because, if we are not compassionate, what do we leave behind us that is eternal other than a trail of blood, fear, and destruction?

This trail not only encompasses animals but also increases poverty and global starvation, as huge water and food resources are used to feed livestock, while there are millions and millions of people who starve every day, including children. Is it ethically right to insist on eating a steak, for which thousands of liters of water and kilos of grain were necessary, while there is even one child out there who is starving to death? The Amazon rain forest, the so-called “lungs of the world”, and other rain forests are being constantly burned and cleared to make space to graze animals for our consumption. Large meat and dairy factories are routinely built in the vicinity of the poor population, often with clear racial division, and waste ends up in nearby rivers and soil. Therefore, and for numerous other reasons, the case against veganism is actually a case against basic human rights as well.

What are your favorite Vegan non-food products or companies?

Afrodita Cosmetics has a great range of body care products, and Alverde is my fave skincare line! Saponia Osijek is my go-to provider of washing detergent, while I usually rely on Kat Von D Beauty line for cosmetics and perfume (it’s simply superb)! Basically, as soon as I see our favorite sign (the vegan V!) on a product, I’m willing to try it and make it part of my daily routine.

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What is the toughest Vegan item to find that you need?

Since I live in a smaller town, the thing I usually miss finding here is vegan cheese, but I stock up on my travels, so it’s not a big deal. I wouldn’t even say I need it, because, as that U2 lyric line goes: “What you don’t have, you don’t need it now”, and I get every nutrient my body requires in other forms of food.

Talk about a time when you struggled with your Veganism?

I have not struggled with veganism per se, but more with reactions from some people that haven’t exactly exuded positive energy in certain interactions over the past decade. I realized that, by mocking or insulting the vegan lifestyle, most people actually try to mask the conflict between ingrained notions of “tradition” and “masculinity” and that seed of compassion that plays deep down in their unconscious, so now I just smile, plant another seed – a crucial piece of information (animal farming statistics or some health-related data), and finish by saying that living humanely as possible. More often than not, those same people later come back and ask me for more information on being vegan, so I see this as a good approach.

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