I have had the opportunity to learn a lot of interesting things in Bosnia. I went to the Islamophobia conference last week and discovered how Islam and Muslims are being mistreated throughout Europe. It is interesting how a country’s citizens and government have created hostile and even violent environments for Muslims without thinking twice about repercussions even though there should be a collective memory of atrocities like the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. One of the speakers talked on how cultural ideology has changed in places like Hungary where Muslims were once more welcome and now they are not. He was proud to have a conference that was working on this issue now, especially here in Bosnia. The issue of Islamophobia is extremely frustrating to me and yet has also become so normal within modern society that addressing it is crucial. However, when I asked the panel members how this could be addressed the answer was unclear. Some local NGOs do educational work or try to complete projects that cooperate between Muslims and non-Muslims in order to foster understanding and appreciation. However, it is unclear how effective or widespread the impact is. One speaker believed that government policy was absolutely required to start shifting the change, so that at least acts of Islamophobia were better handled, punished, and Muslim rights were realized. I guess education is probably the best way to combat this, but I’m still working out how that is supposed to happen as quickly as we need it to. First and foremost though, anti-Islam rhetoric from politicians needs to stop because it is a driving force of continued abuse of Muslims in Europe and America.
I also got to hear talks from the UN to better understand how sexual violence cases have been handled here in Bosnia. There is a system available that allows women to fill out applications for resources as survivors of conflict related sexual violence. This includes economic prospects to ensure that women are no longer vulnerable and are able to rebuild their lives. I am happy to hear that there are opportunities, but the system still seems to have its difficulties. For example, women in the Republika Srpska needed to apply for these benefits before 2007. This is difficult since many women wait to come out about their assault until after they are sure about their family situation (such as after their kids have gotten older and will no longer be attached to that stigma, or after their husbands have died so as not to harm that relationship). The deadline of 2007 simply didn’t capture the genuine need women still have. Furthermore, it is completely unclear how many women have actually been assaulted because of the stigma surrounding coming out about it, so having to file paperwork to the government saying that you have been assaulted is likely a barrier. It seems like helping women, even 21 years after the war, is still a struggle and many women have lost hope of receiving government assistance. I am curious what kinds of changes can be made this “late in the game” compared to if services had been available and accepted immediately.
These are just two of several experiences I have had to watch documentaries and hear panel speakers discuss world issues. It is making me think pretty critically about if our world is making legitimate changes, and if these changes are being made appropriately. I hope and pray things will be better as the work of NGOs and International Organizations continue. It seems like in this country, what really works is initiatives started by the people who need them and who will not be stopped by government or anything else. My internship, The Sarajevo Center for Healthy Aging, is one of those groups and there are many others. Through thick and thin they have provided resources that the Bosnian government and international community was not able to provide, and this drive of the Bosnian people is inspiring. It means that even after a war and a rebuilding of an economy, peace will continue because these people are done with Islamophobia, they are done being silence by violence, and they are going to fight for their right to live happy and stable lives. I’m excited to be here and be a part of it all.