How can children grow up peacefully in the shadow of war? Since the first shots were fired in the ethnic cleansing waged against the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina nearly 30 years ago, war has woven itself into the very fabric of Bosnian society.
In response, undergraduates from William & Mary’s American Bosnian Collaboration Project, otherwise known as the ABC project, travel to Sarejevo each summer to support local students and teachers in growing a new foundation of peace. This summer marked the project’s 20th anniversary, a testament to its long-term commitment to Bosnian children. Five student volunteers spent four weeks working with Bosnian partners in Sarajevo last summer with the ABC project, which is housed at W&M’s Global Research Institute.
The young Bosnian students’ participation in active lessons and film projects aim to address the lingering effects of violence by helping the children express themselves, develop a positive self-image and learn intercultural and conflict resolution skills. To improve the impact of the Project, the team “takes the lead on collaborative research assessing its informal educational activities,” said faculty advisor and Associate Professor of Government Paula Pickering.
Last summer’s student volunteers, representing an array of majors, traveled to Sarajevo to work with Bosnian teachers to co-teach English and media classes focused on the themes of diversity, nonviolence, tolerance, and ecology to students ranging in age from eight to 13. In the classes, the ABC team and their Bosnian counterparts gathered observations to add to the growing body of information about effective methods of teaching, how to weave non-violent communication into classes, and how students can broadcast their perspective beyond the classroom via film.
Small miracles and super heroes
Sarah Baker ’19, a European Studies major, and her co-teacher Armin Ramić discovered that participating with their students was a powerful technique to help get kids out of their comfort zones. Baker recalled that one student cried for the first several classes, terrified of communicating or using English. But the teachers’ enthusiasm, and their non-traditional approach using interactive games and songs, nudged the student to join in with the class.
“After two weeks she was not only speaking in class, but volunteering as well. It was thrilling,” Baker said.
In another class, students learned empathy in an unusual way - by drawing superheroes. These weren’t just depictions of Wonder Woman or Superman: they also had disabilities, helping to transform the children’s view of who could be a hero. Co-teacher teams asked students how it would feel to live with a disability.
“I wouldn’t want to be singled out,” one student replied. Others recounted people they knew who lived with disabilities, leading into a mixed-language analysis of how schools and workplaces could create better conditions to allow all people to reach their full potential.
Throughout the summer, co-teachers observed that students wanted to explore difficult topics, such as stereotypes. The informal environment offered an apt space for them to safely converse and learn together. Using English during these conversations provided a challenge, but also leveled the playing field, pushing the students to communicate in new and different ways.
“Sarajevo is a culturally and ethnically diverse city,” noted Antonela Polić, a Bosnian co-teacher. "Here, kids from different backgrounds get to practice their discussion skills together, discussing things they don’t usually talk about in school.” [PHOTO: Sarajevo, embedded]
Lights, camera, action
Not only did the Bosnian students talk about difficult subjects, they did so on film. Introduced to the project in 2010, filmmaking boosts young participants’ voices at home and abroad, and augments positive self-expression and teamwork skills.
Last summer’s film expert, Samantha Strausser ’19, said she “helped the students’ ideas come to life,” through short films and a documentary of the process. Like in the English classes, some children hung back at first, but the films involved everyone.
The students’ material highlighted central themes like nonviolent communication and peace-building, in addition to honing their English skills. Pickering mentioned one short film about aliens and humans meeting on earth. In a reversal of most Hollywood themes, humans and aliens worked together to save the planet. At the end of the summer session students were proud to show family members their work on a big screen. The films returned to the United States where Strausser and the other ABC team members publicized them to the W&M community and beyond, promoting Bosnian voices abroad, too rarely heard since the strife of the 1990s.
In a country ravaged by war, in a city where the streets and walls are still pockmarked with bullet holes, there’s no avoiding the evidence of conflict. ABC Project team member Baker observed that “when conflict occurs in other countries one can distance oneself because of apparent differences,” but the experience in Bosnia transformed a patch of color on the map into a city full of friends, reflecting on the project’s broader goals of intercultural communication. To this end, the U.S.-Bosnian co-teachers built connections among the students through creative activities and spurred discussion of difficult topics they confront in their diverse, but polarized community. The research team opened a window into understanding the power of film to amplify Bosnian perspectives, sewing new stitches in the fabric of a lasting peace.