Lessons Learned

I’ve traveled to a good number of places in my short lifetime. I’ve noticed that everywhere I go I pick up a few things that stay with me. Here’s what I’ve learned in Bosnia.

  1. No sorrys (sorries?) After spending some time here, I’ve caught myself apologizing for things I really don’t need to be sorry about. Occasionally I’ll say it at work, and and my supervisor will say “no sorrys.” I think it’s a lovely thought to keep. I can’t quite explain it, but it makes the real sorrys feel more genuine and the every day bumps and mistakes just feel less heavy.
  2. Embrace the weird. There have been many times on this trip where, between the lack of language skills and just being in Bosnia, I catch myself looking around and thinking “what the shizz nuggets is going on?” Through all of these times, I’ve learned that if you can look past being uncomfortable and embrace the situation, you tend to be a lot happier, and usually come out with a pretty good story.
  3. Shit happens. For the most part I generally feel I’m pretty easy going, but everything that could go wrong on this trip went wrong at some point. Getting lost on the way to work every day for the first week; losing our bags after the peace march – just to name a few (please excuse that non sentence). A big one that still hits a little close to home is losing my phone and laptop to a makeshift pool that happened in my purse after my water bottle spilled. I’ve been amazed by how great the water is here the entire trip, but I was hating every last drop after that happened. But, here’s the funny thing –  last night after our final group dinner, it was pouring rain out. We couldn’t get taxis so we walked home barefoot getting drenched in the process. It’s funny that the same thing that caused so many problems earlier on in the week also was the same thing that created my favorite memory of my entire time here. Shit happens, but there’s always a silver lining.

What am I doing???

“Francis, what are you doing with your life?”

Here’s the gist of it. I’m spending my summer interning in Sarajevo with a non-profit called Fondacija Krila Nade (translated to Wings of Hope). The organization began in 1995 to help children whose education access had been affected by the war. Additionally, as the program grew, psychotherapy services were added to the programs. Today, WoH works mainly with women and children to provide education and psychosocial support along with a range of other services.

At my internship I mainly work on mental health projects with the psychologist and social work supervisors at WoH. My job for the summer is along the lines of program evaluation. I have been given the task of evaluating data management of the organization’s psychotherapists and psychotherapy services. Additionally, I have been given the opportunity to work with an English speaking client.

The entire experience has been so great. It has given me more insight on to how mental health works in this part of the world. I’ve spent the past few weeks learning about the conflict and seeing the need for psychological services throughout the country. Being here at WoH has helped me learn more about how to approach mental health in this specific culture on an individual level. While there are some differences, the overall nature of therapy feels pretty similar to how things are done in the States. What I have noticed is that it feels like many of the people who I have encountered process and heal through story telling. More on that later. For now, I am interested to learn more about the different idioms of distress and more about mental health as a larger system in this country.

Srebrenica

Home: It makes me think of Sunday afternoon card games, the plants that have now created a small jungle at the house, and the Hello Kitty light switch in my room that has never been switched out after all these years.  Most importantly, it reminds me of my family without whom home would have no meaning. These strong ties to home made spending this past weekend back in Srebrenica talking to survivors and listening to their stories particularly hard. My experience and reaction on the Peace March was very much about the tragedy that was committed on a broad scale, but coming back and talking to survivors made it more personal. Each survivor has a different story, but one thing is constant: each person’s life was forever changed because other humans deemed their family members were not worthy of a future. People were forced to flee their homes. The villages that housed multiple generations were burned down. The buildings that still stand no longer feel like home because the people that matter are no longer there. Home is simply a reminder of what could a been – a better future that was unjustly taken away. I’m angry that people were herded and killed like animals. I’m angry that Nura will never get the chance to play with her grandchildren. I’m angry that Saliha has to live in her home without her family. I’m angry that I’m angry. At the end of this I get to go home, but some of these people don’t have that luxury. To that I am heart broken and also at a loss.

Resilience: Lately, I’ve been having a hard time with the injustice imposed on people for just being people. This weekend didn’t give me any peace towards my feelings on human beings as a group, but it did give me some valuable insight into the resilience of people. I am amazed by how these survivors have chosen to live their lives. Even after losing their closest loved ones, these survivors feel no hatred. Hasan continues to share his story and work at the memorial where his father and brother are buried. Saliha graciously buys candy for the Serbian children. They live on. They tell their story so the rest of the world knows what happened. They do this in hopes that it never happens again to any other group of people. I’m humbled by the determination to live on, to seek justice, and to make peace with the past. These people, to me, are the faces of true resilience.

Cultural Faux Pas

I’ve spent the entire school year talking about different ways to navigate cultural competency – in life and also in the field of psychology. So, naturally, I got on the plane to come to Sarajevo this summer thinking I’m a mini cultural guru. Not so much . . .

It was the second night of the peace march. I had finally gotten it together after the events that occurred earlier that evening. It’s time for Muslim prayer, and our tent is just steps away from the group of men who are lined up to pray. At one point one of the men turned to someone in our group and asked for a blanket. I grabbed a few sleeping bags and began to walk through the group to place the blankets in front of the men who are about to kneel in the itchy field of grass, weeds. . . also those pokey plants.

For the next few minutes I was convinced I had put some good juju back into the universe for myself. Wrong. When prayer is over, a very nice man comes over and begins to explain his beliefs about prayer to me. When they pray, everyone faces the Kaaba in Mecca. From what I understand, the idea is that the everyone faces East so that the connection from God can come down through Mecca and out towards the people. At this point in his explanation I assume he’s just sharing all of this to teach us about his religion. Wrong, again. He goes on to explain to me that when I walked in front of them to put down the blankets I interrupted the connection between the people and God, but to them, it wasn’t a sin because I did the deed with good intentions. Any other time and it would have been a funny “oops, sorry” kind of moment. Not that day . . . I proceeded to unleash a wave of tears in front of this poor man because it was just one more thing after a rough day. But, looking back now, I catch myself trying to contain the laughter of unknowingly ruining Muslim prayer. Oops. Ya live and ya learn.

Alas, the more you learn, the more you’re certain that you know absolutely nothing.

Marš Mira

 

Every year thousands of people (including some of the original survivors) come together for the Marš Mira (translating to Peace March). The people retrace the steps from Nezuk to Potočari to honor the 8,372 men and boys who lost their lives in during the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica. This journey spans roughly 60miles to be completed in 3 days.

We began the first day in the area where the survivors emerged out of the woods 22 years ago. Before we began, the MC reminded us that we were going to be tired; our feet were going to hurt, but we were safe. We weren’t being hunted; we were safe. There were so many times on the walk that I wanted to complain about walking uphill in 95degree weather and 40% humidity, but the long standing reminder of the people who walked before me made my small complaints feel irrelevant. For the most part, the first day was not so bad, except. . . I remember stopping to admire the beauty of the country, and looking down only to notice the marker of the first mass grave: 153 lives lost.

The second day was the best and worse all at the same time. I was separated from my group early in the morning. I met a group of what I assume were boy scouts and their leaders. Although no one in the group spoke any English, they reminded me that march (much like everything else) is about the journey, and not a race to the end. Up until that point I had been walking very quickly and trying to power through each day. The leaders in this group would continually signal for me to slow down, to take more breaks, which taught me to be present in the moment and soak in what was going on. We stopped for countless breaks – sometimes in peoples’ houses and other times just where we could find shade. I remember being overwhelmed and so grateful for the kindness of the Bosnian people. Each year the people in the villages save up their money to be able to give out coffee, tea and juice to the people walking. I drank the best lemonade I’ve had in my life out of some guy’s wash bin that was sitting in the yard (sorry, Mama).

The hardest part of the march came at the end of the second day. Throughout the few days of the walk, people kept asking me where I was from or if they could take my picture. Towards the end it was just exhausting, and I really just wanted to blend in with the rest of my group. One guy in particular who I had seen a few times earlier came and found us at our camp site and put his camera in my face for a picture. Luckily people were there to help me, and we asked the army guys to talk to him . . . privilege. I was tired of feeling like an animal at the zoo; I was angry that he made me feel uneasy about leaving the area around our tent. I felt trapped all around, so naturally I lost it.

I can’t remember a time before this where I hated the color of my skin, but that was it.

I’ve spent some time these last few days thinking about that moment and talking it through with friends (Tim and Julia, you’re the real MVPs). I think in some very small way it gave me a glimpse into the injustice that the Bosnian people suffered. They were discriminated for something inside of them; something they had no control over. I’m still sitting in a place of trying to make meaning of all this, but, really it just sucks.

Last thing, and then I’m done. So usually at the end of a hike you trek to the top, and 9/10 times there’s a beautiful view waiting for you (Zoë, I’m still a little mad about that Vail hike). Not so much for the march. At the end of the last day you walk down a big hill to be greeted by the mothers of the men and boys in front of the memorial. As I stood there watching them bring in the 70 coffins for this year’s burial, I felt a little defeated. My heart breaks for the families, but I am also amazed by the resilience of survivors who come back and do the walk each year.

I recognize my privilege in all of this, but I also feel honored to have experienced this with the thousands of other people who walked. I’ve since come back to Sarajevo. I can’t quite place the feeling, but the air feels different. I have a new love for the people here, and I have a new respect for people in general.

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First Impressions

It’s the end of my first week in Sarajevo, so naturally it’s time to do what we budding therapists do best: reflect.

I arrived in Sarajevo late at night after a grueling flight full of crying babies and extensive circling in the air due to bad weather on the ground. Luckily, Sage was there to suffer with me, so the experience felt a little more manageable.

The first day was what you’d expect. We had a tour of the city, and we went to the tunnel people used to escape the city during siege. We went on to visit the Olympic bobsled track, Snipers Nest, and also the Jewish Cemetery. Visiting all of these places made it real for me. It’s sobering to stand in the places where so many innocent people lost their lives and to see the shelling marks on the side of the buildings. It’s also humbling to know that I am able to have a nice walk in the streets while others had to run for their lives down the same alleys.

What is most striking to me is the amount of cemeteries spread out through the main part of the city. It makes me wonder what types of places were taken out to make room for all the people to be buried. As I walk through the city I am amazed by the old buildings and the centuries of history leading up to now. My supervisor said something along the lines of “I’ve lived in two countries in my life – Bosnia before the war, and the place I live in now.” It makes me want to learn more about the time before the war, and in what ways people and culture have changed since then.

Fast forward a few days. I had my first day of internship at Wings of Hope. WoH is a community mental health organization that primarily works with women and children. My supervisors are great. I love the office space. I love the plant that I got for my desk. I will be doing some type of evaluation for the organization, but don’t quite have a clear direction of how to begin. More on that next time.

The city is lovely. It continues to grow on me every day. I’ve spent the past 10 months preparing for this adventure, and now that I’m here, I feel I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. Causal.

 

 

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