Who We Are

Čuvaj Se’s Executive Director, Heather Derr-Smith, is an award-winning American poet, the author of four published collections of poetry, and a tireless advocate for refugees and other victims and survivors of violence. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and her MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She writes:

“When I first discovered my vocation as a poet as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, the war in Bosnia had just broken out. I felt compelled to do something, so in the summer of 1994, I volunteered in a refugee camp in Gasinci, Croatia, delivering humanitarian aid to Bosnia-Herzegovina and teaching English and creative writing to refugees who had escaped the worst war crimes on European soil since World War II. I recognized a resistance movement in Sarajevo committed to anti-fascism, and I made a promise then to stand with the people in solidarity to build a multi-cultural, multi-confessional democratic country. It’s been more than twenty years since the war, and the work continues.

Since the 1990’s, I have spent my life writing and publishing and traveling to conflict zones and post-conflict zones to share poetry and connect with other writers and activists resisting oppression and violence. I have had the privilege to build relationships with some of the most amazing people and organizations working hard to make the world better, more just, and kind.

In September 2017 I established Čuvaj Se as a nonprofit to seek partnerships and funding for more projects that will support poets and writers, students, activists and organizations on the ground in communities affected by conflict.

I’ve been doing work in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Syria, Jordan, Estonia, and Eastern Ukraine and have projects planned in Kurdistan. Čuvaj Se does poetry and creative writing workshops at all levels and grades, English as a second language workshops, critical thinking and media literacy workshops, pro-democracy and human rights seminars and workshops, and LGBTQ+ workshops. We also seek to support translation projects, new publishing presses, and emergency relief for students and writers caught in conflict zones or the international refugee/migration crisis.

If you are interested in supporting this work or partnering with our organization please contact me at heatherderrsmith@cuvajse.org or hsmithwdm@gmail.com.”


Čuvaj Se’s assistant managing director is teacher, scholar, and writer Tom Simpson, an instructor in religious diversity, global ethics, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy. He has taught there since 2008. From 2002 to 2004, he directed Emory University’s Journeys of Reconciliation, an interdisciplinary travel program exploring the global intersections of religion, conflict, and peacebuilding. That program brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. He has been there five times since, most recently in March 2017 to assist the TPO Foundation with the development of critical thinking and writing curriculum for youth in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 Velid Beganović – Borjen  V. B. Borjen (b.1987) writes in two languages and reads in four. His short stories, essays, articles and literary translations have appeared in various Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Hungarian, and Montenegrin magazines and dailies. The manuscript of his first poetry collection Priručnik za levitiranje (Levitation Manual) won the prestigious Mak Dizdar Award in 2012 and was published the following year to significant acclaim. In the same year his poem “Momento mori” was published in Hypothetical: A Review of Everything Imaginable, followed by a (still informative) interview. He is a doctoral candidate and lives in the Czech Republic, where he reads (on the trams, the trains, the street corners, in the cafes, on the toilet, between the lessons, while queuing or doing the washing up) and writes, Tumblrs his favourite literature and art and Instagrams his own ink drawings and silliness. Tweets as well, but too sporadically. He assists Cuvaj se as a writer, poet, scholar, artist, researcher, and translator.

Amila Kahrovic-Posalvljak Tom Simspon writes about Amila: “I met the poet, fiction writer, and journalist Amila Kahrović-Posavljak (A-mee-la Ka-do-vich Po-sav-lee-ak) in Sarajevo in the spring of 2017, when we collaborated with a local NGO, the TPO Foundation, to develop critical thinking and writing curriculum for Bosnian-Herzegovinian youth. In addition to that work, she is now partnering with American poet Heather Derr-Smith to launch the literary human rights organization Čuvaj Se (Choov-eye Say, “Take Care”), whose name derives from a farewell expression of solidarity and tenderness that Sarajevan civilians voiced to each other during the nearly four-year fascist siege of multi-ethnic Sarajevo in the 1990s, which frequently left residents terrorized and without adequate food, electricity, or running water. Amila was a child at the time; that’s where we begin as we talk about her award-winning debut novel Smrtova Djeca (roughly “Death’s Children”), religion, punk rock, feminism, and literature after genocide.”  She also assists Cuvaj Se as a poet, writer, scholar, translator, and researcher.


Dr. Jennifer Ulie-Wells


Executive Director of Please Pass the Love. She has been in education for over 20 years as a special educator.  In 2013, she founded the Please Pass the Love Youth Mental Health Initiative, which provides systemic training and support for thousands of educators, schools, and districts across Iowa while hosting the only school mental health conference in the state. She has served on a variety of behavioral health related state committees with the Iowa Department of Education and is a Iowa Family Leadership Training Institute Mentor through the University of Iowa, Department of Pediatrics. Her research focuses on racial and marginalized trauma as school mental health, and she has pending publications. She is also a West Des Moines School Board member.

Ray Nelson, Owner/Advocate: Nelson Advocacy