Despite gradual improvements in ethnic relations in the southern Serbian region of Bujanovac, discrimination and distrust can still be a source of considerable concern. In fact, relations among the three main ethnic groups – Serbs, Albanians, and Roma – have been marked in recent years by incidents of violence and a general sense of unease. Research shows that a majority of Albanians and Serbs continue to hold negative views of each other, and that discrimination and segregation of the Roma population persists. A significant obstacle to changing such views is the fact that these three ethnic groups live in separate neighborhoods with little interaction or opportunities for exchange of traditions.
The schools in Bujanovac are divided by ethnicity: the Serbs and a small percentage of Roma attend one school, while the Albanians attend the other. There is almost no interaction between the teachers and students from the different schools. This lack of communication leads to a lack of understanding of each other and contributes to an environment of misunderstanding and mistrust.
To overcome these entrenched divisions in Bujanovac, CRS is implementing a Multicultural Cooperation in Education project. The project reflects one of CRS’ key strategic priorities for the education sector: a focus on education for a culture of peace. It works with teachers, students and parents from all three ethnic groups. The ultimate goal is to change attitudes and behaviors so that there is greater understanding, tolerance and cooperation among all groups.
Through the project, approximately 200 youth are placed in multiethnic teams which then participate in extracurricular activities, thus allowing them to do something they have never had the opportunity to do in their young lives: get to know one another. Activities include learning about computers, painting, chess, journalism, dance, and each other’s languages and cultures. All activities are led by a team of trained Albanian, Serbian and Roma teachers and assistants. The culmination of their participation is a group field trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a two-day youth festival.
As the youth interact with one another in these activities, they learn about each other’s cultures, traditions and languages. They learn that there is more that unites them than divides them. Bringing youth together to cooperate on joint activities goes a long way towards breaking down barriers and building bridges across ethnic divides.
A Step toward a Better Future
It is clear that the project is changing attitudes. As a result of these activities, the youth themselves said they are beginning to understand that all people — regardless of ethnicity, nationality, or religion — have the same wishes, thoughts and feelings. One Serbian girl, when asked what she has learned since she began participating in the project, simply said this about her new Albanian friend: “She is the same as me.” Any prejudices she may have held about Albanian children before are being balanced by experience and understanding. .
Another youth participant noted the impact within the community as a whole: “When we walk through the town now, we see many familiar, friendly faces with a smile, and everything is different.” Still another student stated that “this project has helped us to make friends and meet the children of other ethnic groups. Before the project, we did not know each other, but this has now changed. This is a step toward a better future.” A future rooted in understanding and tolerance, rather than fear, of one’s neighbors.
For more information, contact Anne Sellers (email@example.com), CRS Education Technical Advisors.