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Volume 8, No. 1SPRING 2005

Bosnian youth shaping a peaceful future
By Miroslav Strinic and Tina Wolfe, IOCC-Bosnia

Two members of the citizenship club show off their substance abuse poster, which will be displayed at the main entrance of Nikola Tesla High School in Bosanski Brod, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The club is a project of the IOCC-supported organization Zdravo da ste (“Hi Neighbor”), which uses the clubs to teach Bosnian young people positive values. Photo: Dalibor Vukman-IOCC

Bosanski Brod, Bosnia-Herzegovina (IOCC) — As we enter the room, groups of teen-age girls and boys are shuffling papers, drawing on flipcharts, rehearsing a song, working on a computer, cutting out newspaper articles, whispering and laughing. In the background, an old cassette player is playing a popular folk song.

Danijel, 18, a member of the recently-formed “We Care” drama club in Nikola Tesla High School, is rehearsing a skit on the topic of street violence and alcohol.

“Through the club, I’ve had a chance to meet other young people, make new friends, learn about and openly discuss taboo topics like drugs, STDs, AIDS and family violence, and to express my feelings about these issues through comedy sketches,” he said.

Danijel spends about two hours a week at the club, learning about the characteristics, threats, symptoms and consequences of legal and illegal substances through an alternative after-school program designed by one of IOCC’s local partners in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Zdravo da ste (“Hi Neighbor”), one of many Bosnian organizations supported by IOCC, is implementing an educational project to prevent drug addiction, alcoholism, smoking and other risky behaviors among youth by instilling values based on work, ethics, responsibility, healthy lifestyles, tolerance and compassion.

With IOCC’s support, “Hi Neighbor” has established four youth clubs — environmental, drama, citizenship, and journalism — to offer young people a positive learning environment and keep them off the streets.

“In addition to teaching kids about these topics and other social problems through interactive learning, the clubs offer them an opportunity to learn lifelong skills,” said Dalibor Vukman, a young “Hi Neighbor” staff member and workshop leader.

These skills include teamwork, communication, listening and public speaking, group decision-making, critical thinking, and research methods, as well as how to use computers, digital video cameras and the Internet.

With an estimated post-war population of 10,000 (35,000 pre-war, according to the last census), Bosanski Brod is a small rural county in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina that shares a border with Croatia and was the center of many hostilities during the 1992-1995 civil war. It is also a crossroads for trade and commerce — both legal and illegal.

Recent statistics show that the consumption of legal drugs (alcohol, cigarettes, glue, gasoline, etc.) by young people in this municipality has increased by 50 percent in the post-war period. Experts cite a variety of factors: poverty, rising unemployment, limited parental supervision, municipal government apathy, and a lack of extracurricular or entertainment outlets for young people.

With most of its public buildings and infrastructure devastated by the war, Brod doesn’t have a movie theater, a gymnasium, a playhouse or a decent soccer field, the sport of preference for most teen-age boys.

“Our local government is overburdened with transition and reforms, and it lacks the human resources, expertise and funding to address these problems,” said Dragica Bardak, “Hi Neighbor” project coordinator. “They’ve lost control of the situation, and youngsters are left to their own devices.”

Ms. Bardak said participation in the “Hi Neighbor” project has been much higher than expected. The original plan was to enroll 50 young people, an average of 10 to 12 per workshop. “Now we have 90 kids, 20 to 25 in each group,” she said. ”We’d like to include as many as possible, but it’s not easy to run a workshop with a larger group.”

IOCC supports grassroots organizations such as “Hi Neighbor” as a way to change attitudes, behaviors and practices, both individual and corporate, in post-war Bosnia. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, IOCC currently is working to build the capacity of more than 160 Bosnian organizations that are working for change.

‘Connecting Kids’

Young people in the former Yugoslavia are learning about each other through IOCC’s “Connecting Kids” project, a partnership with the Vlade Divac Group 7 Children’s Foundation. Here is what has been accomplished so far in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia-Montenegro:

  • Seventeen rural middle schools are participating. Each school has been equipped with computers, a printer and a hub.
  • Computer science is being taught using a hands-on approach, rather than just theory.
  • Children ages 11-14 are learning various computer skills.
  • A Youth Community Action Team has been formed in each participating school (comprising students, teachers and local residents). Each team has developed and implemented a project to improve conditions in its school vicinity.
  • Young people from different ethnic backgrounds have connected with each other across boundaries, many for the first time since the 1992-1995 war, through computers, games and other activities.

“I have broadened my knowledge,” said Jasmin, a 17-year-old member of the environmental club. “Before, I didn’t pay attention to the dangers of smoking cigarettes, but now I realize that the risks of getting cancer are much higher among smokers than non-smokers.”

“What I enjoy most about being a member of the citizenship club is our debates,” said 15-year-old Vera, “where I have an opportunity to learn about my rights and the possibility to influence my peers to turn away from risky behaviors and to warn those who are on the right path not to turn the wrong way.”

Each club, eager to share its knowledge with classmates and visitors, collectively brainstormed its ideas and findings to develop group messages through a series of practical exercises: skits, essays, articles, poll results, debates, cartoons, paintings, photos and research. The high school’s main entrance and halls are covered with a colorful array of panels echoing each club’s work.

IOCC’s grant to “Hi Neighbor” paid for the purchase of equipment and materials needed to run the workshops and club activities, as well as workshop facilitator fees and operational costs. IOCC staff also helped “Hi Neighbor” refine the project and develop the tools, systems and methods necessary to manage it effectively.

Beyond teaching students about the dangers of drugs and its consequences, the project is also having a positive impact on teacher-student relationships. “I have a much closer interaction with these kids, who are more open, spontaneous, creative and communicative than my other students,” said Mira Jeremic, a biology teacher and adviser to the environmental club.

Danijel, the drama club member, said he likes to spend his free time preparing for the workshops, volunteering in the youth club and playing handball and soccer. He hopes to become a lawyer or manager in the future.

“I think it’s good for my character,” he said confidently as he strolled back to his group.

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