Wrapping Up the Summer

Blog post: Internship Overview

This summer I was placed at Wings of Hope, a mental health organization that began in the 90’s. I knew little about the organization prior to starting, except what I had read on their website, but didn’t know what to expect as an intern. I remember our director telling me that she thought I would fit in well, but that not everyone could withstand the kind of humor our supervisor at Wings of Hope had. Confused, I entered my initial meeting with my supervisor eager to figure out what she meant. I quickly realized the type of person that would not get along with or like my supervisor and I also realized that I was not that kind of person. Maja, our supervisor and the director at Wings of Hope, is full of energy, incredibly smart, and calls it as she sees it. In other words, she’s incredibly honest and open minded, not leaving room for people who arrive with preconceived notions about the world and how it should be. My fellow intern and I were adopted almost immediately by her, partially for our Balkan descent and partially because we reminded her of her. Maja not only gave us guidance for our work at Wings of Hope, but she gave us a different side of Bosnia that we couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Because of her honesty, she spoke from the heart, taking responsibility for her actions/non-actions during the war (which no one is able to do) and showing us a less pretty and glorified side. Maja also taught us about how therapy is done in Bosnia, what the mental health system is like, and so many other parts of Bosnian culture we could not have dreamed of finding out. She also welcomed us into her home, giving us the opportunity to see what real life looks like living in Bosnia.

Maja wasn’t the only kind soul at Wings of Hope who opened her arms to us. Throughout the summer, we spoke with and worked alongside many other persons working for Wings of Hope, some part-time and some full-time. We met a woman who does psychodrama, a lawyer, many other interns from other countries, and a diverse number of others. I felt like each person I spoke with gave me another little piece of the Bosnian puzzle. I don’t think I was every ready to be welcomed so warmly into an environment, but every day we were met with smiles and questions. We would commune to drink coffee before starting work and some would tell us stories about Wings of Hope, some about their theoretical orientation, and some about Bosnia in general. They were always curious of our weekend travel, and us of theirs. We shared these stories at the beginning of the week, and finished the weeks by comparing weekend plans.

My fellow intern and I did a number of diverse projects for wings of hope, ranging from research, to 6-month report help, to program development. We ended the summer with two workshops on stress management and coping, one for teens and one for adults. We also were able to give part of the adult workshop to other interns that were working alongside Wings of Hope at the time. Although we did not get to do a full run through of either workshop, we still ended the summer proud of the work we accomplished and especially the friends and relationships we made.


Preparation for Impending ‘Reverse Culture Shock’ [A different approach]

The human mind is programed to see differences. Tall, short, black, white. Without meaning to we’ve already analyzed situations and environments based on visual differences and past experiences. This ‘judgement’ served us well when discerning the differences from someone in your village and someone from a village that might attack yours, but in this day and age these differences pose only the threat that we create. ‘Culture shock’, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”. It is interesting to me that as humans we created this term and still use it, even though those of us fortunate to have access to the internet should really not be so surprised that differences exist and that when traveling you might be exposed to them. This being said, I experienced anxiety when ordering food for the first time, or speaking with someone whom I had little language in common with. We cannot fully prepare, and as such we have this term: Culture Shock. I pose the question however, that rather than experiencing reverse culture shock upon returning home, why not incorporate the things you’ll miss and the things that you currently enjoy into your everyday life? Some things are impossible to not have get used to again, like driving on the opposite side of the road, but smaller things like not rushing, being blunt or honest, and finding ways to laugh even when all you want to do is cry are possible to bring home with you. I may be the only one in my circle or family doing so, but just because one returns to their primary culture does not mean they must abide by every socially constructed rule (laws-yes, you still must abide by those). As such, I want to share a couple things I want to bring home with me.

Before even arriving to Bosnia, our director Ann told me as she placed me at Wings of Hope that our supervisor there was one of a kind and some could not handle her blunt honesty. She wasn’t kidding, but this was the kind of person I always wanted to be. I notice that many persons living in Bosnia reflect this blunt demeanor and even though some speak with a sarcastic undertone, the truth is obvious. At home I have a wonderful boyfriend who is always honest, even brutally so sometimes, but I never wonder if he is bending the truth or lying. Ironically his heritage is Balkan. It’s hard for me to lie to make someone feel better, even though they might ask for it, because I don’t think the world needs more dishonesty. We already can’t trust the media, or persons in power. Perhaps the dishonesty and betrayal of the Yugoslav army, who swore to protect and broke that promise, along with many other factors, contributed to this cultural honesty. No matter the reason for the existence of it, the knowledge that other people choose to live this way gives me hope and comfort in my way of life as something I plan to continue to carry out.

Another such custom I wish to bring home with me is the ability for people to slow down and enjoy. This is a skill I didn’t come to Bosnia with and still struggle to accept. I am used to a fully packed schedule and don’t do well when I don’t know what to expect. Nevertheless, I was raised to believe that patience is an important skill. If anyone knows the famous psychology experiment using marshmallows, you’ll know that delayed gratification is correlated with success in all things. One aspect of Bosnian culture I do not understand is that people seem to be in such a rush while driving, but take their time if they see a friend on the road or stop for coffee along the road for hours. In the States, there is no patience and it shows in all aspects of our culture. I find I am most at peace when I practice patience while waiting for a doctor’s appointment or for traffic to move. Letting go of that urge to go, go, go is liberating and I thoroughly suggest practicing it, even if it’s hard. There is so much to learn from other cultures and although it might be hard to apply in other cultures, sometimes it’s worth the struggle and hard work.

Little Signs, Here and There

Fellow Travelers,

This is a picture of the house of Ramiz Nukić, a now publicly recognized figure in the community for his dedicated work solo-collecting bones of victims from the Srebrenica’s genocide. Although I am not writing about Ramiz in this post, I am using a picture of his house, which I think shows a good example of how homes were rebuilt after the war. The base of the structure looks much older than the red brick used in between the grey base and outline. As you drive through the Bosnian countryside, or even in or around the cities, there are many homes that were victim to the war in the 90’s. Now, only their skeletons remain. Some are more damaged by others, where the second story has caved in and only the first remains, and some experienced less trauma, where the shell of the house exists without doors or windows. Then you see homes like Ramiz’s, where the bright red brick pops out distinctively from a green backdrop. Ramiz’s home looks as if it’s been rebuilt for some time, but other homes you drive past do not look this lived in and almost appear to have been cemented and stacked a short few weeks before. Whether or not this is true, and I hazard a guess it’s more false than not, the war shows itself in many ways, sometimes with clearly destroyed architecture and sometimes with newly filled in bullet holes, surrounded by graffiti.

The country is trying to heal itself and move on best it can, but for some, like Saliha Osmanović, even a newly built home cannot help her return to a sense of normalcy. Saliha told us that the war not only took away her husband and son, but also future grandchildren and a future in general. Picturing myself with the same mentality, I think it’s true that I take my future for granted, and I can’t even imagine what it would be like being certain I didn’t have one or one to look forward to. I look forward to getting married, getting a doctorate, having children, buying my first house…but what if all those dreams that I have were suddenly taken away? Not even just that, but to have your dreams stripped and be isolated and alone, wanting to cling to what is left: the past. I already worry about the day my parents leave this earth and how unprepared I feel to be ‘alone’. Luckily, I’m not alone, not like many women here feel, left with no relatives to call upon.

I wondered for weeks without asking why individuals would return to their homes after such destruction. It is no surprise to me that many did not and some did not even return to the country at all. While visiting Saliha, she told us during her story that she returned because there were so many good memories there, even though when she finally got back to her house, it was in shambles. I’m sure there are many reasons to return to a place of familiarity, especially when you feel you have nothing left, but even the familiar property was destroyed and had to be rebuilt by kind people who volunteered their help Saliha, because she had no family to help her. Although I speculate about all of this, I recognize that I have no idea how I would feel or what I would do. These are some of the thoughts that have constantly run through my mind walking the streets of Sarajevo, but more specifically driving through the hills of Bosnia’s countryside.

Thoughts from a Weekend in Srebrenica

Fellow Travelers,

Going into this weekend I didn’t have the slightest clue of how much our trip to Srebrenica would affect me. I consider myself to have relatively tough skin, I don’t like to show my emotions in public, and I have a pretty high bar for hearing and seeing haunting things; or so I thought. First of all, I want to remark on how great a privilege it was to have had the honor to receive 9 accounts of individual survivor stories from the Srebrenica genocide and the war. Without Ann’s kind, warm personality none of us would have been able to have such a unique experience, one that I hazard few foreigners get the opportunity to experience. For this I am extremely thankful. I also want to thank the individuals who shared their stories with us, because we saw how hard it was to share with us and yet you did it anyways. In response to your wishes, we will all do our best to educate our family and friends, and even strangers, back in the states.

It’s hard to believe that such a large death toll could result from a power struggle. I’m still wrapping my head around how complex this war was. Upon arriving back at my internship, our supervisor sat down with us and asked us about the experience. First, she gave us another perspective of the war, her perspective, and one that was similar to many who were trapped in Sarajevo because of the birthplace listed on their passport or documents. The sides were explained to us better as well, with the understanding that there were three sides to this war and because the Yugoslav army was clearly on one particular side, the Bosniaks were left with no way to defend themselves, but if they had had access to more weapons it’s possible the war would have looked differently. Additionally, we learned more about the other horrors of the war in more detail, from concentration camps to the front line in Sarajevo. Many don’t consider those who stayed, or were trapped, in Sarajevo to have a worthy war story, saying things like, “You have money, so go find your dead.” But in reality, it’s not a competition of whose story is worse. Such a large number of persons died in Srebrenica, in atrocious ways, but people were also tortured and murdered in concentration camps. Knowing this war only spanned 1992-1995, although the tensions existed prior and still continue to exist, is terrifying when you look at the death toll range of 90,000-300,000. Now, years later, we’re still not even sure of how many people were killed. I am very lucky to live in a country that has not had physical war on our land in a very long time, but people state the world is due for a world war, and after hearing stories of Bosnia, it makes you appreciate what you have, because you never know if one day you’ll be walking down the street and lose your best friend standing next to you to gunfire.

Having purposefully procrastinated writing my blog post, I had not prepared myself for the experience of talking to someone else about how I felt, let alone my supervisor. As I said earlier I really dislike showing emotion in front of others, especially those I am not extremely close with, and yet it was impossible not to in this instance. She asked me my reaction, and then surprised me by another question. She asked me what personally sparked this reaction within me. At first I was confused, but after looking past her counseling me, I realized what my reaction truly was. My reaction was not necessarily mourning for all those lost, but the lack of control and fear experienced by many individuals during the war, because I too have had experienced that lacked my control or consent. I think on some level having the experience made it easier to mentally imagine myself in their position, although I want to be clear that no experience I’ve had can measure up to the horrors that the survivors experienced. I realize this post is maybe not as in depth feeling-wise as expected, or even as my other posts have been, but I am still processing all I heard this past weekend and never expected myself to have finished that processing in 3 days. Overall I was extremely moved by the stories I heard because of the strength, resilience, and bravery each individual radiated. I hope one day to do work that is as life-changing as the work these individuals are doing by sharing their stories and supporting their communities.

You do Matter (Nell) #3

Have you ever someone say, “I wish I had never seen _____” or “I wish the memory of _____”? This past weekend I went with some friends and cohort members to Belgrade, Serbia to visit our friends we go to the University of Denver with. During our trip, we decided to go to the zoo and the fortress which were right next to each other. We had no idea that some emotional preparation would have helped prior to walking through the zoo entrance.

Upon finally exiting the zoo, I caught myself saying, “I wish I could erase the images of those animals from my mind.” Really, this statement isn’t saying that I wish I hadn’t gone in general; what it really means when we say statements like this is that we wish our ignorance was still intact, because the guilt and pain we are now subject to is stressful and taxing. How horrible for us, to have to experience such internal pain, when the animals of the Belgrade Zoo are so stressed their feathers and fur are falling out. Perhaps the worst part is knowing there is very little we can actively do. We can write to PETA, and if you look online many people have, but even then you must get signatures or go through some process to even begin the process of improving the situation. This takes time. And during this time, the monkeys are in a 10×10 cage, being taunted by tourists and locals, the hippos are swimming in their own filth in a poop not even big enough for one baby hippo, the baby bison looks dehydrated and malnourished, the elephant’s foot is visibly deteriorating, and I could go on and on. There was not one animal that didn’t look depressed out of its mind, or bored, or in pain. I wish I could hop into the cages or pens and physically take the animals with me, but I certainly don’t have a safer place for them to go and I have no training in the care of such species. The pain of not being able to do anything is horrible, but after being in Srebrenica for the Peace March and the burial day I no longer want to be that person who says statements yearning for past ignorance. Ignorance is the deadliest of poisons and knowledge is power. I can guarantee that the pain of no longer being ignorant is not worse than the pain of others, like these animals, that broke the ignorance to begin with.

Although nothing can be done immediately, a woman in our University of Denver, International Disaster Psychology program submitted photos and wrote to PETA and I followed suit. With luck, these small steps add up to a larger change some point in the future, hopefully sooner than later. The experience also makes me ponder about what can be done personally in the future. I don’t think the activist lifestyle fits very well with my goals or personality, but I have always wanted to incorporate animals into my profession. My ever-evolving dream begins with living on a medium to large plot of land, with space to grow an animal-assisted therapy program. I’m not sure of the population yet, but I know it will be with youths. Perhaps this design has room for rescuing abused exotic animals, who knows. The moral of the story is that although you personally may not be able to do something in an exact moment, your life and the actions you take still are impactful and the experiences you have can change the lives of others in the future. I may not have the resources, connections, or power to change the Belgrade Zoo, but I can positively impact the lives of other animals in the states, fight for international animal rights, and teach others the importance of shedding their ignorance and standing up for what you they think is right and just in the world. There is always something one can do and no matter how small, it does make a difference.

Blog Post #2 (Nell)

Fellow Travelers,

We were given a ‘free’ blog post this week to pick what we wanted to write about and even though it seemed obvious to use the space to reflect, I felt this was the right course of action. I’d like to say that there was a planned-out-theme for this week’s post, but the theme came to me as I was writing. I chose to write a reflection of this past week, mostly from the vantage point of someone who desperately wanted to partake in the Peace March in Srebrenica, but was unable to for medical reasons.

Firstly, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have one’s own body be the reason why I can’t participate in something that means so much to not only myself, but to an entire country, region, and collective. The individuals for whom the march memorializes did not have the luxury of deciding whether or not they were medically unfit to run for their lives. Many of these individuals, I hate to say all but that also might be true, were starving and dehydrated, and many probably had pre-existing medical conditions or physical injuries that were part of the reason for running in the first place. In war time, there is no time to stop and say, ‘can’t’, or to consider if one is ‘able’ to do something. That being said, now that it isn’t war time it’s almost offensive to make oneself do such a march with pre-existing conditions, because we do have the ability to know our limits and make decisions. I am not pained by my inability to not march however, and am instead left in complete awe and admiration for our four summer cohort members who completed the Peace March. It is not the time nor place to dwell on personal pitfalls, but instead to look around and appreciate what one has and the people that surround us.

When I entered the cemetery to find those of us who had marched, I immediately felt a thrust of emotion. One of the ladies, I won’t use names, had collapsed on the ground, now that she was finally able, and began to tear when she saw us. Once we found two more, you could see that they were visibly shaking and were covered in mud, sweat, and small cuts. And yet, they politely answered everyone’s questions about their aching bodies and didn’t dwell on the fact. Yes, there was conversation around the pain and aching, but no complaining, whining, or statements of regret. I was moved to see their strength so beautifully portrayed as they described what kept them going through the march and the people they met and walked with along the way. I understood at this point that it had been the right decision not to march, but I also understood that if these ladies could do it, so could I- one day. And that is what I plan to do.

The entire day went by so quickly once the marchers began to file into the cemetery after their 60+ mile journey. It was a blur of teary eyes, sweat, mud, interesting choices in footwear, leather and roses, and a whole lot of people coming together for a really important reason. I can’t begin to imagine how the survivors, and even those who didn’t survive, felt as they ran for their lives through land mine filled forest, and up and down mountain passes. I also can’t imagine what the families of these individuals went through or even what went through the minds of the soldiers who perpetrated or defended during the war. I pray that I am unable for the rest of my life to understand what these individuals went through. What I can offer instead is a mind that has and continues to try to understand and a heart that aches for the survivors and for those this world lost. I’ve dedicated my life to mental health work, because there is no way I will be able to understand every individual’s experience, but the one thing I can do is listen, observe, and try my hardest to use the tools given to me to heal others and be supportive. I don’t seek legacy; just the chance to make the world a better place one person at a time. I hope that when I’m able to partake in the Peace March I will be able to express that by marching I am emotionally with and in support of the healing hearts of Bosnia as someone who does not and cannot understand, but as someone who desperately wants to do all they can.


Blog post 1: First Impressions (Nell)

Fellow Travelers,

I’m not entirely sure what I expected upon arrival to this country and I suppose I am still deciding how I feel about my first impressions of Bosnia. Having learned so much about the history of the past 25 years in country and prior to arriving I am unable to play the ignorant American who can roam the streets looking for goodies and enjoying the view. I’ll be honest, the arrival into a swampy, sticky, rainy mess was not exactly the arrival I imagined it to be. It did however add to the mood I experienced as I traveled around the city on Friday with the group learning about physically significant war sites. I constantly caught myself, and continue to catch myself, admiring the beauty of a view and realizing the same view was most likely used by snipers to take advantage of far off individuals who thought they were safe. Something that caught me off guard was the use of the Jewish cemetery as a ‘sniper nest’. This visit sparked the realization that this war had no boundaries and all morals were thrown out the second the conflict started. No one was safe, anywhere, not even those you’d hope would be exempt because of factors like age, location, or gender. No women or children were given a pass or safe passage through the streets, nor were individuals attempting to bury their dead. The disrespect ran so deep that communities had to stop using their primary burial location and reopen previously unused cemeteries that were shielded from the views of the hills.

There is no way to walk through this city and not see remnants of these facts. Small cemeteries can be found in places one wouldn’t expect to see them, like behind a fence of a restaurant or next to a park. Apartment buildings still have burn marks on their sides and bullet hole imprints line the balconies. The purposefully placed ‘roses’ are impossible not to notice as one strolls down the street, and memorials are posted on every other corner. You can even see the effects of the war on the population, if you look close enough. On the city buses you notice a large number of older individuals and those with physical handicaps, missing limbs and/or fingers. I physically feel a collective silence among this population, the deep wounds around their surfaces, and a truer understanding of the differing sides this world can show you.

If you take a step back, the social and political structures shows outsiders how little has changed. Many have explained that there exists three official languages in Bosnia: Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. All three are virtually the same and the only difference exists within the grammatical structure of the language. The government is divided into three parts, and when people talk about other individuals, they make sure to first explain which ethnicity this person belongs to, especially if they differ from that individual. It pains me deeply to see this divide so obviously enforced by stubbornness and an inability to accept the similarities among a group of persons.

Although I mention all these seemingly obvious signs from the war, I can see how easy it would be for an ignorant person to visit Sarajevo and think to themselves that it’s just another bustling town. Things have the appearance of being ‘normal’, even though some museums, shops, or facilities have only just recently returned to any kind of ‘normal’ and have finally reopened their doors after many years of being closed. The Sarajevo zoo is not one of these.

This all being said, I return to the question: what are my first impressions? One first impression is that despite all the division and destruction, this community is passionate and loving, a feeling I am not used to experiencing from a group of people. It’s also obvious that resilience is in large supply and that people have found a way to stay strong with the intention of building their lives back up from the ground. Working so closely with trauma in my program we see the effects such a war can have on individuals and that one shouldn’t and can’t assume what an someone who has experienced such events will be feeling. One problem in our court system in the U.S. is that judges and juries don’t understand that someone can still fear returning to their country even if they aren’t constantly crying, anxious, and jumpy. Resilience is an absolutely amazing and beautiful adaptive tool and I have never seen it exist on such a large scale. I didn’t want to write in this post about how sad I was about Bosnia, because I don’t think Bosnian’s need or want that kind of sympathy or pity, or whatever you would call that impression. And so, I share with you my first impressions of Bosnia in a more positive light. My impressions have been extremely moving as I’ve gotten to explore a beautiful city, culture, and group of people that are ever so different than I am used to experiencing in the United States. I look forward to expanding this impression as I meet more people and explore more places.

Over and out,