Final Reflections on Bosnia

Oh Sarajevo, how I miss you. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I applied for Bosnia a few months ago. I was extremely ignorant of its past and present and now I have a much better understanding of the entire situation after in-class learning AND then working there for two months with a local internship. I am hardly an expert, but this experience has given me a glance into the culture and its population.
Culture shock would be an understatement. I miss speaking the language (though my skills were rudimentary at best), the prices where I could reasonably afford eating out at restaurants and enjoy the culture, the in-depth philosophical conversations that I was able to participate in or even just listen to, the pure fresh water emanating from the springs that were present throughout the city and the countryside, and the overall sense of community that I was immersed in.
How do I move past this experience? I am dumb-founded at the moment but I cherish the memories that I possess and were able to partake in. Thank you for inviting me into this culture and history. I enjoyed the narratives that covered a wide expanse of personal experiences and subjects. This was an unforgettable summer and I hope that the Bosnian people and its society are restored to greatness once again. They deserve it…

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Reflections on Bosnia

Looking back on my summer in Bosnia, it seems like it came and went so quickly yet I was able to experience so many great things in what seemed like quite a short time as it was happening. I really feel so fortunate to have been able to participate in this program. I was able to visit a large part of the country, considering the short amount of time I was there and our busy schedule (although, I was also made aware of so many place I want to visit in Bosnia that there was not time for). Between our excursions and my internship I really felt like I got a much deeper understanding of the country. I knew that I would find many things in Bosnia that I could relate to given my previous experiences in the region (which I did find many), but the internship and the program trips really combined to give me a sense of the many, many things that make Bosnia a truly unique country. I really enjoyed the fact that my internship was doing work with organizations all throughout the country, which gave me the opportunity to spend a good amount of time with a map of Bosnia and learning about features and issues of regions or small towns that I was not familiar with at all before the program. I feel like I have a much more complete picture of the country as a whole now. I also think that our group was wonderful and know that I have made some great new friends! (of whom I have already seen most of back in Denver) I look at the many wonderful experiences I was able to have in Bosnia as the beginning of a relationship with a country that I am sure I will return to one day. I am fortunate enough to have had a similar relationship built with other countries and I know by the feeling I had in Bosnia and now thinking back on it that it will be added to the places that have contributed (and continue to contribute) to both my understanding of the world and myself. I can honestly say that I did not have any experiences while there that I would look back on as negative and that I will indeed be back one day. Not even Bosnian bug bites will keep me away!

Featured Photo

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One of our blog assignments was to choose a photo from our time in Bosnia that stood out to us and write about it. Going back through the photos, there was so many of the great places in Bosnia and the great people I experienced them with. I wanted to choose many of those photos, but finally did not even though I plan on viewing them many times down the road to recall the great times I had with our wonderful group! Ultimately, I chose the above photo from the memorial at Potocari. I described my experience there in a previous blog and I really felt like this photo captured at least a small part of that experience. It is a photo that was taken by Jillian unbeknownst to me while I was reading about events that occurred during the genocide at the memorial inside of the factory. It was taken from far away and I am very small in the photo, which is how I felt while standing there in a way. I feel like the photo visualizes the enormity of what I was standing there by myself trying to take in. I also feel like it somehow slightly represents the silence that I spoke about in the blog describing my experience there. I know that when I saw the photo and even now as I look at it while writing this post it brings back a bit of that completely indescribable feeling that I had at the memorial.

Srebrenica

Our visit to Srebrenica and Potocari was an amazingly unique experience that weaved so many experiences and emotions into a trip that only lasted a couple of days. It really did add a completely different level of depth to the knowledge I had previously had of the Bosnian Genocide that could not be felt through any of studying or reading books or accounts about the horrible events that occurred. It was a bit difficult to process at times, meeting multiple survivors and enjoying their company and laughing with them while just moments before and after they had shared their personal stories that gave an account of the horrible events that so many Bosnians experienced. Meeting these wonderful people and becoming acquainted with them, it was difficult to think about the horror that they had experienced as they retold their stories to us. It was an emotionally challenging couple of days and we moved quickly to so many places seeing and learning so much that it was difficult to really take in the enormity of it all. From hearing first hand accounts from survivors to seeing the processes used to find and identify the remains of those victims that were still missing and seeing the bones of victims and learning about the difficult task or identifying them in order to add at least a small amount of closure towards the families of these victims who have been suffering for so many years without knowledge of the whereabouts of their loved ones. Walking through the memorial cemetery at Potocari, seeing all the gravestones marked with so many varying dates of birth and all the same date of death was emotionally jarring to say the very least. The cavernous empty rooms of the battery factory where so many people were before losing their lives was filled with people visiting the memorial, but also with an eerie silence of all the people in that place left with no words to speak about the awful events they knew had occurred there. It was a reflective and silent trip. Everyone tried to take in as much as they could and so many moments of silence were occasionally broken by attempts to lighten the air, but ultimately it was the silence of incomprehension that I noticed the most. I spent much of the time trying to process and understand what we were experiencing, without much success. I found that contemplative silence and failed attempts to add a level of reasoning to an event that seemed completely impossible to understand were all I could offer myself while visiting those places. Hearing the stories, seeing the places, smelling the smells that all gave a physical presence to the incomprehensible things that humans had done to each other was a very intense experience.It seemed as though the near deafening silence that was weighing so much on everyone standing at that place in contemplation asking themselves how those things could happen almost seemed as though it could have been something beyond human consciousness asking the very same question.

Sarajevo Film Festival

The very end of our summer program in Bosnia just happened to be the very beginning of the Sarajevo Film Festival. The festival is one of the largest film festivals in Eastern Europe and is well known in the film industry throughout the world. I was very pleased that I had scheduled my return trip a little while after the program was scheduled to end and therefore was able to attend the festival for a couple of days (Although I will say that a couple days hardly felt like enough). Many of our group were still around to check out the opening festivities of the festival and were able to watch the stars arrive on the red carpet and even caught a glimpse of Gael Garcia Bernal, who was the guest of honor. There were a lot of people that had come to Sarajevo for the festival from Bosnia and many other countries from around the world. In the three days I had to attend the festival, I managed to see eight films. I felt like a made a worthwhile go of the festival in my short time and was glad that the films were very moderately priced, allowing me to take in as many as I did. The films that I saw really did cover quite a variety of topics and genres. The documentary genre was where the majority of the films I attended fell, which was great considering that documentaries are usually a bit more difficult to come by regularly in the cinemas back in the U.S. I saw a range of really great documentaries that covered topics that varied from protest movements around the world, court cases against neo-nazis in current day Hungary, the sex lives of retired villagers on the Hungarian-Romanian border and the reception of Turkish soap operas around the world. Many of the documentary showings included question sessions following the film with the producers and directors. I also got to see an enjoyable Bosnian comedy with a surprise arrival of the entire cast at the end of the film. All in all I had a wonderful experience at the film festival and really enjoyed the opportunity to view so many good films from around the region, I only wish that I had planned better and had time to stay throughout the entire week of the festival.

Oh reverse culture shock

I once heard a singer say that one reason she loved to travel was the opportunity to look at ourselves and our own culture through new eyes. And sometimes we don’t like what we see.

Here are a few things that have stood out for me…

Relational –While in Bosnia, I heard many people say and demonstrate that relationships are a key component to their lives. “It is a wonderful thing the more we can love and be loved in return.” Or another paraphrase that I heard – “Success is measured by how many relationships one has.” U.S. culture does not share this value, or at least does not place as much emphasis on it. It has been difficult for me to readjust to this process. For the last couple weeks, people have seemed cold compared to my life in Bosnia. I know that this is not the meaning behind their actions, but after being in Sarajevo for 2 months, I have grown accustomed to doing things together, sharing nearly everything, offering/ receiving food and drinks, seeking out community, placing a priority on people, etc. A big question for me now is how do I continue a relational lifestyle in a culture that places a higher value on efficiency and tasks. Especially when there does not seem to be enough time for it.

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Bluntness/ rawness – Bosnian culture, and especially my supervisor, has a certain amount of bluntness or rawness compared to the states. Words are not usually minced, items are not usually sugar coated, political correctness is not always followed. You say, feel, express, convey what you want and then move on. It was highly refreshing for me. I used to operate in this manner when I was younger and studying to be an engineer, a profession which required a certain amount of directness or bluntness. 1 + 1 = 2. However, as I switched my major in undergrad and am now in graduate school for social work, I started dancing around topics more. But it’s never felt entirely natural or comfortable to me, and it wasn’t until this summer that I was able to truly recognize this process in myself. Now I am wondering what will my level of directness look like with others, especially clients. How will it look within a social work or a therapeutic context?

These are just a few tidbits that have been going through my mind since returning. It has been a wonderful summer in so many different ways and in large part to the amazing people in Bosnia as well as those affiliated with DU. Without these relationships, this program would not be the same or even comparable. A great thanks to everyone who helped make this summer what it was.

Goodbye for now Bosnia. Inshallah I will return soon.

Bosnia’s Continuing Education

How does one have final reflections on an experience that will continue to impact you for the rest of your life? Now that I have been home for a few days, I don’t think that you can.  The experience I had and relationships that I made while there will continue to change and grow with me even now that I am home.  There is absolutely no part of my time in Bosnia this summer that will not be with me forever.  The country is truly incredible and I already miss so many things about it.  The people, the landscape, the history which carries both tragedy and strength and the future of the place.  Being fortunate enough to be welcomed into a culture that is so warm and inviting.  It isn’t just something that one experiences.  It is something that changes you.  Something that makes you look at life and the things that were once so normal a little bit, or a lot, differently.  What I once took for granted or failed to notice about the world that I live in I now see a little bit clearer because of my time in Bosnia.  Because I think it is impossible to have final reflections on something that continues to impact you for life, for me it seems more relevant to reflect on one of the lessons about the world and/or myself that Bosnia has given me.

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Bosnia and the war that continues to have a deep impact on the people is a complex topic that cannot be understood by simply reading a few books or watching a documentary.  What I thought I knew about the place, the people and the conflict prior to going pales in comparison to what you learn from actually being there.  Talking to the people that the books have boiled down to facts and figures and names on a page.  Standing in the places that were once only spots on a map where tragedies occurred.  Being able to relate those places to people that you know now.  That is true understanding.  When watching the short film at the Srebrenica memorial, most of which was comprised of clips from documentaries that we had watched before coming the reaction that I had to the film and the meaning that it had for me was so completely different from watching it at home.  Because I was standing in that place.  I had now seen what before was only an image on my laptop screen.  I had met and talked with people who were the nameless victims in the films.  It was the same video clips but the impact and level of understanding completely changed.  I thought I knew about the war and its effects beforehand based on watching these videos at home.  I knew nothing.  Experiencing the country, the people and the places made that clear.  Even now that I have gone and done those things, this experience has shown me that you never really know as much as you think you do.  There is always a deeper level of understanding to be had.  More complexity to be uncovered.  Reading the books, watching the documentaries, looking at pictures were all just the tip of the iceberg.  Being there and doing what we did gave us a little more depth, but there is still more to be uncovered and grappled with.  Understanding this about any topic or event is something that will make me strive for deeper and better understandings of everything.  And it will also serve as a reminder that you never know as much as you think you do. If one is mindful of this it allows you the possibility to contemplate the complexities and the many different ways that Bosnia and the war, or conflicts in other parts of the world actually exist. By realizing that you never know or fully understand anything it humbles you and leaves you open to so many more possibilities and ways of helping.

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I could write a hundred pages (don’t worry, I won’t) and not even come close to talking about all of the ways in which Bosnia and its people have impacted me.  It would not even scratch the surface.  It has given me the understanding I talk about above.  It has given me the gift of making truly amazing friendships that I will have and cherish forever.  It has shown me just how privileged a life I lead and made me redefine what privilege truly is.  It has taught me how to slow down, find a sense of inner peace and focus on what is important, both for myself and in the world.  Bosnia has clarified for me so many things and given me so many gifts.  It is truly impossible to put them all into words.  It is a place that will be with me forever and one that I will definitely be going back to. 

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Mission accomplished!

It was a life time mission and on personal level the summer in Bosnia was one of the best summers I have ever had.  In this post I tried to conclude my thoughts, goals and achievements through all the trip phases as follows:

Pre-arrival thoughts and goals:

thoughts~

-I thought Sarajevo has one main street and one or two cafes!

-A destroyed city and very depressed people

-Very poor living conditions

-Unsafe to go anywhere.

-and finally A war zone full of land mines!

Goals~

-Try to cope with any circumstances I encounter

-Help as much as possible investing in any chance

-Be patient and avoid complaining

Post-arrival thoughts:

-I was in love with Sarajevo

-Plans should be changed to fit expanded goals

-More emotionally tensed being targeted and discriminated racially

-Sensitivity and emotionally involvement with war victims was highly present

-Work expectations are less than planned

-Diet constraints should be held for further notice

-Trams were full of Hygiene atheists

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-super nice people who were willing to help in all means and ways

-Facebook address is necessary to be handy, most people from first meeting ask about my Facebook account name

Midway mind’s talks:

-People are awesome but they don’t look like it, so you need to interact

-overcome any racial issues wherever you feel different

-Go out as much as I can and socialize more instead of getting stuck on my laptop after internship

-Peace march was a life time experience for me walking around 70 miles in three days however I felt little bit uncomfortable being privileged over locals

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-Ramadan was so hard, so fasting in the summer was super tough but people were fasting and working

-I need to go out and explore more things

-Ticket control officers on the trams were so racists and they picked me all the time between all the passengers just because I was colorly distinguishable

-giving even small things to the people is very well appreciated

-People say to me most of the time “Arkadash” thinking I am turkish

Pre-departure situation:

-Time flew so fast

-some places need to be checked out

-no time for sickness but I missed the last family dinner because I was really sick 😦

-gifts need to be bought ASAP

-I needed my Bosnian flag to be signed

-Thinking of my sick grand mom and aunt but soon to meet them

Major learned lessons from the trip:

-People are lovely and friendly by nature

-War did horrible things to innocent Bosnians but they are still optimistic

-War victims are abandoned mostly on their own unless far cousins or old friends support them occasionally

genocide in BiH was underestimated all those years and facts about what happened should be widely told to the unfortunately deaf world

-It’s very disappointing how other parties in BiH still deny the genocide and the massacres happened in 1992-1995

-BiH borders should be open to the world to witness and assist, being closed is not helping at all

Government is very corrupted and serious actions by the international community should be responsible as they created this complicated system

-It was awesome meeting the Bosniak president of BiH, the Saudi ambassador, minister of defense, the former US ambassador during the war, US Cultural attaché, all immigration officials and many other people who I couldn’t meet in normal circumstances.

-I am grateful for the life conditions I have besides safety, nice big family, secure awesome childhood and all the things I have been enjoying all my life until now in which others have had lost everything and suffered a lot even for the basics to live, Thanks Allah for everything!

Family # 3

Being hesitant while I was in Denver when I was asked to decide on my internship is normal but never thought the healthy aging center in a post-conlfict country would have been that much fun.  I prioritized the other three options over this center but my destiny was decided to be with the healthy aging center despite all the effort to join the others instead.  I was raised around my grand parents hence I loved them so much and love all elderlies generally but I wasn’t sure elderlies who suffered a war would be as the same as the ones who had not.  It was a rocking experience since the first day at the center, I danced and sang with them and it was incredible time. 

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Further, my friends at the internship became my family # 3 following my biological family numbered 1 and my Bosnia group friends from DU is family # 2. 

The work that I was supposed to do at the center was purely technical but I attempted to expand it to be in touch with the members and it was unbelievably fantastic!

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I was astonished how much I was loved by all the members in the center especially when they started offering me their help to find a Bosnian soulmate for me, however I was not really ready for that.  Also,  a lot of presents and appreciation souvenirs were given to me when they knew I was leaving the center even the manager (Sedjifa) who was so awesome and lovely.  I am really touched and still appreciate their kindness even though  I have done nothing extraordinary to them except chatting, smiling and drinking Bosnian kafa with them plus I was trying to deliver a message of love and peace.  Even after I left, some of them still keeping in touch and expressing their gratitude.  I miss, love and wish the best for all of them and as I promised I would visit them back in Sarajevo, hopefully soon!

Final Reflection Post

Arriving home the United States and having friends and family members ask me “How was Bosnia” has forced me to reflect on my experience and pull the things from my two months abroad that have really stuck with me. Often times when someone gets home from a vacation or an extended period of time abroad, they usually try and and come up with a fairly quick synopsis of their experience. 

It’s hard to take two months of living in a country so different from ours and crunch in down into a couple of sentences that I can share with others about my experience. Here are some quick phrases that I tend to throw out at people, and a couple more sentences that I wish I could share but usually don’t have quick enough time or patience to do so. 

“It’s absolutely beautiful there”
…especially when you get outside the city. Because my internship with an eco-tourism company I was able to spend a lot of time in the mountains all over the country. There is so much untouched nature and wildlife there, giving it huge potential for eco-tourism and outdoor fun. Unfortunately some parts of the country, even close to Sarajevo, are covered in land mines from the war. I think that slowly people are starting to get out into the mountains like they used to and explore, it’s just that it is very expensive to do trips with any sort of guide service, and the infrastructure isn’t quick there yet in some parts of the country. During the war there was a lot of fighting done in the mountains, so to some they still have a very negative connotation and they have no interest in getting out there in fear of being reminded of such a tragic time. 

“Sometimes you could still feel the animosity left over from the war”
In many parts of the country, especially in larger metropolitan areas such as Sarajevo, feelings left over from the war aren’t necessarily so apart and people are moving on pretty quick. In other parts of the country occupied just by small towns or villages, I sensed that there were still some strong feeling lingering (justifiably). The genocide in Srebrenica happened on July 11, 1995. That is less than 20 years ago. People who lost a loved one are still most likely still living their lives with out that person. I believe that time will heal some of the animosity from the war, just as time has helped heal negative feelings about other tragic events around the world. 

“The people are so kind”
Barring the shop owners in Sarajevo who are so sick of tourists speaking English to them that they can’t even muster up the slightest excuse for a smile, 99.999% of the people I interacted with during my time in Sarajevo were brilliantly patient, caring, understanding and kind. The woman who ran the hostel where we stayed was amazing. It was impossible to find her in anything besides a good mood. It was also such a pleasure to interact with the people who I worked with. Even though we were so busy with different expeditions heading out every day and they all required a large amount of planning and organization, nobody was ever sharp or disrespectfully blunt with anybody else. It was a great environment to live and work in and I was learning new things every day.

“It helped me appreciate what I have here in the United States”
I understand that not everybody in the United States lives as lavish of a life as I feel like I do, as our poverty levels and poor distribution of wealth rival that of many third world countries. Speaking simply about my own life, it is sometimes hard to compare life here in the United States to the life that many others live in other countries around the world. I have been fortunate enough (imagine that) to live in a couple different parts of the world for an extended period of time, and one of the most important things that I have taken from those experiences that we (anyone who is reading this on their computer or cell phone or tablet, etc) should constantly be in appreciation for everything that we have. 

Thank you Ann Petrila for the opportunity to participate in a program like this that has opened my eyes to yet another part of the world that both struggles and flourishes at the same time.