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My name is Ana Mullanji, a youth worker from Tirana, Albania, founder and director of Beyond Barriers Association working with youngsters since 2014. I remember my first visit to a Balkan country, in Serbia, when I was selected to attend a training course for trainers organized by European Youth Foundation. It was the first steps of my career so I felt lucky and privileged to be selected to attend such activity. Different to nowadays, during that period the possibilities for participating in such activities were limited and the visa regime travel in the Balkan countries was making the process even more complicated for Albanian citizens. The idea to participate in that activity flattered me and without thinking twice I started the procedures for my visa. I was so happy for this opportunity that I wanted to share the news with all my friends.
Somehow my enthusiasm was interrupted after the comments I received from some of my friends. Two of them advised me not to go alone in Serbia and some others were a bit more diplomatic, stressing that I am a courageous person to go “there” in “Serbia” and they even reminded me the war of Kosovo. All these comments actually made me so uncomfortable… It was 2002 and the situation created after the war in Kosovo was still there, in people’s thoughts! Even my parents were not enthusiastic about this trip. I had already been abroad before, but the trip to Serbia caused so many discussions among my family and friends. Nevertheless, I decided to go but deep inside of me those comments remained, and especially one from a friend who told me: “When you go there, don’t tell anyone that you are from Albania!”
I went in the training course and it was an excellent experience to meet and share with young people from all over Balkans. We were 24 participants aged 18 to 25 years old and coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. We were trained how to become a trainer and hopefully a multiplier in the future in the local communities through youth work. Besides the part of the learning process in the training which was carefully and very professionally tailored from our trainers, I was amazed with discussions we had during the informal time with the other participants. By then, I was not aware of the Balkan culture, similarities and differences. I noticed so many similarities in mentality of youngsters, food, drinks, politics, and daily life of youngsters, coffee culture, family ties, white and yellow Rakia, byrek and kebab. I had the chance to discover a bit of culture from the neighbors, to discuss cultural differences in order to see their culture more in deep and to get to know another perspective, through the eyes of others. And of course the discussion about the politics and what happened in the last year in Balkans were always present in our discussions, while trying to be “officially correct” as much as we could.
I should mention here that we had an international team of 4 trainers but I especially remember our two Serbian trainers Asha and Darko, who were simply excellent, patient and very helpful and did their best that participants felt welcomed during all the activity. It was there that I established very useful contacts, which helped me a lot later on when I created Beyond Barriers Association in Tirana.
During this trip I had the chance to visit Belgrade and was positively surprised I would say. I liked the city so much and I felt that I fell in love with this city forever. As I traveled alone, I was impressed with architecture, space, culture, how helpful people were when you ask them some directions.
From that time, I have been almost everywhere in Serbia, from north to south, from east to west. Remembering my first trip to Serbia, it always brings a big smile in my face and reminds me the fear I had and the prejudices and discussions with my friends.
From 2004 and in continuation being part of Beyond Barriers organization gave us the possibility to cooperate with many youth NGO-s in Balkans and thanks to different programs financed from CoE and European Commission, young people had a chance to meet their Balkan peers, learn about each-others culture, discuss and exchange ideas and participate in common activities.
A lot has been done from the youth organizations in terms of breaking down prejudices and stereotypes among Balkan countries. Intercultural learning itself has been a corner stone for the learning process in most of the activities organized, though there is still a lot more to be done. It is very important to bring young people in contact with each other and promote foundations of cooperation and friendship. Thanks to European programs and especially the Balkan Window in Erasmus + programme, we have participated as a partner on over hundreds of projects in Balkan countries. Through all of these years’ experience I can surely say that Albanian youngsters love to learn and are eager to participate in activities in other Balkan countries.
Nevertheless still nowadays in 2017 we sometimes face cases of youngsters whom hesitate to go, especially if they are travelling for the first time and especially if they are offered to go in Serbia. This makes me always think about my first trip to Serbia. During the preparation phase among others we talk to our youngsters especially about intercultural learning process and its importance. And once they have taken this trip, participated in the event, they return with a different mindset and beg us to send them again in such events.
Young people should travel, explore each-others cultures, discuss and confront their fears, understand that the realities of youngsters in the Balkans are the same. Discussions about borders do not bring us anywhere, instead providing solutions for the problems that concern youngsters in Balkans such as employment, drug abuse, bullying, gender stereotypes etc., are much more important. No one ever gained anything from hatred and hostility or bad relations which always left marks on people. Instead we the young people should look ahead and cement bridges of cooperation. In the past 10 years, there have been lots of initiatives from civil society and other international organization who have done a lot in the foundation of a climate of change, especially engaging the young generations but not only. Creating synergies in policy level is very important but I firmly believe that bringing people and especially young people face to face to talk, exchange opinions, learn about each-others cultures is more essential.
In the past years, civil society in Balkan countries has played a fundamental role in breaking prejudices and stereotypes among young people. This is not an easy process and should be carefully addressed by youth workers all over Balkans. Thanks to the support offered from European Union and especially the Berlin process, Balkan countries are now in process of building common infrastructure such as roads, energy and railway projects, which for sure will bring more economic development among our countries. This is a concrete project and not difficult to build with the right investments. What is not easy and still remains a challenge is to bring people together, to get to know each-others culture, to create a communication bridge and the wish to know the “other perspective”. Interpersonal relations are very essential for building up a communication process which should lead to dialogue, intercultural learning and reconciliation process in our Balkan region. Working with young people is only one dimension, as well I believe that it is essential to work with all citizens, parents, pupils, teachers, other professionals, media representatives and create a dialogue among citizens and institutions from different Balkan countries.
Here is an advise for all the youngsters: – Travel as much as you can whenever you are given an opportunity, get out of your comfort zone, be open for an intercultural experience, before judging ask questions and talk to the others, be open minded towards cultural diversity!
As well I would like to tell to all the youth association, that we should create the best conditions for youngsters to meet their peers from other countries of the region, we must promote a culture of friendship and space for exchanging ideas because minds will always be closed if we don’t try to challenge our deep fears or prejudices. I believe it’s our task to give this chance our young people as well.
The young generations of nowadays are those who will become decision makers tomorrow. One of the main duties of youth organizations working in field of education with young people, is to guide them to understand the differences, not to jump into immediate judgment’s, but to try to understand the historical, political, social and cultural backgrounds. It’s upon us the youth workers and all civil society to promote dialogue instead of empty monologues.
This text was written as a part of Divided Past – Joint Future project and it does not represent nor reflects attitudes and viewpoints of the European Union, its institutions and bodies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the text lies entirely with the author.