by Rachel Sims
It was early 1996 – the peace agreement of Bosnia and Herzegovina had been freshly signed, and the war was at its end. Fighting had started during Larisa Kasumagić-Kafedžić's last year of high school, altering her family’s reality and shaping her early career as a community activist. Now, at the onset of a new fragile peace, her world was set to collide with students at William & Mary – forging a 20-year partnership between Bosnian and American student educators and transforming peace education for children in Bosnia.
While the war imposed a break in her education, Kasumagić-Kafedžić used her time to co-found local organization Sezam in Zenica, translating articles focused on war trauma and children. When the war ended, Kasumagić-Kafedžić was finally able to pursue her education at the University of Sarajevo where she was awarded the opportunity to join Yugoslav scholar Mihailo Crnobrnja, a Borgenicht Scholar-in-Residence at William & Mary who was teaching a course on the breakup of Yugoslavia and co-organizing a conference on Bosnia and the Balkan region. Kasumagić-Kafedžić was one of seven students from across the former Yugoslavia invited by Dr. Crnobrnja to spend a month at W&M, partnering with W&M students to develop grassroots peace projects.
A formative and productive experience for Kasumagić-Kafedžić, she was encouraged to think of ways to use the skills, experiences, and resources she was learning to implement a peace education project in her country. The program at W&M empowered her to broaden her horizons as a young student who had lived through the war, while also influencing her future work. “I thought engaging students would be a very good way to give back what I received,” she explains. Kasumagić-Kafedžić’s connection to Sezam laid the foundation for a collaboration between W&M students and the local Bosnian non-profit organization.
The William & Mary American Bosnian Collaboration (ABC Project – initially named Bosnia Project) grew from a year-long initiative sponsored by the Reves Center for International Studies in 1998-99. The collaboration between W&M and local Bosnian non-profits has since developed into a unique international service opportunity for W&M students interested in making a difference in the world while learning about a culture in-depth and up close. Every summer since 1999, W&M students have travelled to Bosnia to work alongside young Bosnian educators – most recently from the University of Sarajevo – to teach a free informal education camp for English expression and nonviolent communication skills to about 80 children. Their mission? Bring together W&M and Bosnian students to foster cross-cultural understanding and empower the youth of Bosnia to work towards positive change.
As W&M’s oldest and longest-running international service trip, the ABC Project celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year. The partnership has undergone many developments to benefit both the local Bosnian community and W&M students. In 2007, the W&M portion of the project moved under the oversight of Professor of Government Dr. Paula Pickering with the idea that it should have an academic home with an inter-disciplinary course designed to prepare students for meaningful service and research. The project is currently supported by the W&M Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations (ITPIR), the Charles Center, and Russian and Post-Soviet Studies (RPSS). As a scholar focused on evaluating international intervention into the post-conflict Balkans and author of Peacebuilding in the Balkans: The View From the Ground Floor (Cornell University Press), Pickering is a good fit to mentor the unique cross-cultural initiative as Faculty Advisor.
Additionally, the project began its move to Sarajevo in 2008-9 when ABC Project alumna Kelly Weisberger ‘04 (formerly Chroninger) returned to Bosnia on a Fulbright teaching grant to the University of Sarajevo and reconnected with Kasumagić-Kafedžić who had moved on to teach ESL Pedagogy at the University of Sarajevo. They coordinated efforts, and the new phase of the project focused on teaching children intercultural communication and basic media production skills, culminating in the production of short creative films by the Bosnian youth.
Since 2010, the ABC Project has been based in Sarajevo, now partnering with educational non-profit organization Creativus founded by Larisa and her sisters Lejla and Amela Kasumagić. Creativus teaches English-language learning in a unique way, integrating perspectives while combining art with language education curriculum for children, Kasumagić-Kafedžić explains. She says that she is committed to a career focused on helping future teachers incorporate peace education and nonviolence. She wants to help her education students put what they learn into real life in their partnership with William & Mary students, “so they can really see what it is like to collaborate with someone from a different culture – and all the struggles, tensions, challenges, issues, and rewards [necessary] to do something collaboratively.”
According to Weisberger ‘04, current Associate Director of the Center for Scholar Development at Drexel University, international service learning opportunities like the ABC Project must constantly balance and adjust between student learning goals and community needs so that both are mutually beneficial. Weisberger ‘04 explains the importance of ‘fair-trade learning’ – service opportunities which address local community-identified themes while connecting service to learning around ideas of global citizenship, civic engagement, and intercultural communication. With the tremendous growth in the field of international service learning, ‘volun-tourism’ is often carried out for personal growth and not for benefiting a local community. “Combating poor quality service is accomplished through having a strong partnership with a community organization in the host community, ideally something that’s locally grown and comes from the community themselves,” she explains.
Pickering agrees. “Continuity is a critical element of successful collaborative international service-learning programs in post-conflict environments. Building strong cross-cultural relationships and working to have an impact that lasts longer than the four-week duration of the summer English course requires conveying strong support for and consistently working with our Bosnian partners.” She also highlights the importance of the project’s willingness to evolve, for example by incorporating the innovative teaching tool of filmmaking and community-based collaborative research. Local Bosnian non-profits with strong roots in their communities like Sezam and Creativus are those ideal partners necessary for effective change. The collaboration led by Dr. Kasumagić-Kafedžić and Dr. Pickering is fostering cross-cultural understanding and creating positive change for the youth of Bosnia, as well as for W&M’s own future educators and leaders in international affairs. “There is no other initiative at William & Mary in which I’ve been involved that has had such a profound impact on student participants,” Pickering says.
Jasmine Curry, ABC Project alumna ’17 and W&M class of 2018, remembers last summer in Bosnia as a particularly transformative experience. “I’ve learned so much thanks to the project, through the class dedicated to research and teaching preparation, the actual experience in-country, and now as a teaching assistant [for the ABC Project course]. The people, the food, the youth arts center we worked in – I loved it all. This past summer in Bosnia was by far the most meaningful experience of my college career.”