via Betting on Peace.
The reflections of a recent guest we hosted in our home last weekend. Such beautiful words! Thank you Elynn!
Originally posted on ...for my long walk is not ended:
Sanski Most is a small northern town in BiH with a diverse population, and had recently been impacted by the damaging flooding in the country. This general description was about all I knew as we traveled five and a half hours by bus to the city for the weekend. David had been in communication with the organization, The Center for Peacebuilding (CIM), and they kindly invited us up for an interfaith Iftar* they were holding on Friday night. CIM was celebrating the fifth year of running the event, and its success was evident by the staff’s pride at the end of the night. During its first year, CIM found the community reluctant to donate resources due to historical religious tension and the barrier-breaking nature of such an event. However, this year a simple Facebook announcement motivated enough donations to feed about 400 people of all faiths, ethnicities, nationalities, and…
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A big, skinny dog sitting in the middle of a crowded street. His empty stare is fixed on a point, he looks hungry, doesn’t move. People walk back and forth, no one notices him. He keeps on staring at that point, looking helpless, abandoned, lost, hungry. No one stops. Why is that dog just sitting, staring in the middle of a street?
We stop. Pet the dog. He gently jumps up and puts his front paws on my hips and looks at me as if he were haunted by something. Dogs are not generally skinny here. The strays, the ones with families, they look ok. It looked like he gave up on looking for food. His look was so desperate and sad.
My neighbour here has 26 dogs. We wondered why. We found out she was taking dogs in trying to sort out international adoptions for them. A stray dog kept walking around, always at the gate, barking, running, trying to get in. It was like he knew it was a shelter and dogs were cared for inside. He tried so hard. He was then told off. He stood at the gate for a few days, watching the dogs inside play and run around happy. He stayed there for days, quiet, and just staring. He is now inside. Because of his begging, silent begging, he was invited in. I’ve been here for over a month, I’ve never seen that dog so happy before. His eyes are shinning, it’s like his soul is smiling. He doesn’t have a permanent home, but my neighbour’s children play with him now that he got a bath.
Have a look at these lovely creatures that live next to me and play in the river behind my garden on facebook .
The second week of our Storytelling Collection Project has just ended. The good news is, I have managed to speak to our volunteers individually and they have at least scheduled interviews in order to collect stories. Since I have arrived I have been posting more on social media, and have written a grant proposal for Peace Camp. I am almost finished, the only thing missing is a story of success. I am taking my time filling in that box. I know the standard would be to tell a story from the organisation’s perspective, though I would really like to incorporate a lesson learnt from globalgiving, and I have asked a person who took part in our project to tell the story from their perspective.
I find there is a lot of free time in between small tasks in CIM, so I have also started taking interviews from people who speak English well. After three stories, I realised something. Not being from here was not a disadvantage, on the contrary. I remember in Corrymeela, people would come to me, tell me their stories without any notice or context. After a casual chat where they asked where I was from, what I did there, and how I found the experience, they poured their hearts out, and I have been told on several occasions: ‘I have never told this to anyone before’. When speaking to my mentors about it, they said most likely it happened because I was an ‘outsider’. When I asked a person I had met this year through mutual friends if they could tell me a story, they accepted. I was not expecting what followed. When I got towards the end of the form, and adapted the question and asked: ‘how likely would you be to tell your friends/family or organisations about this person?’, they said: ‘I have actually never told this to anyone else before. I wouldn’t just randomly bring this up in a conversation’. This really had an impact on me, and I am now happy I decided to interview community members as well, it just shows me how important it is to ask people for a story, as otherwise we might never get to know what is important to those we wish to serve and empower. It motivates me to motivate others even more to do this regularly.
The beginning of the project has not been without challenges. The fact that we are collecting the stories during Ramadan means that it is harder to meet up collectively to follow the progress. Especially young people tend to switch their activity to night time (as they sleep late during the day, and eat their first meal just before 9pm). Iftar (breaking fast after the sun sets) is also an important family tradition here, and that means meeting people generally happens after 9:30pm, and the volunteers’ schedules vary accordingly.
Another challenge as I have been told and witnessed myself is collecting two stories from one person. People don’t seem to find it hard to think of a story, but for two they need more time. Some volunteers have been told they would get interviews from various people, though they will need to wait for them to have two stories ready. I have personally had a more spontaneous interview, and we stood there for about 20 minutes, when the person said they found it hard to think of something else, and when I sensed a slight frustration might kick in, I told them I could do with just one, especially since it was not about CIM.
The scribes we’ve recruited seem to be quite independent, despite most of them being quite young (16-18). They are happy to meet up and chat, but when I ask if they need any help or have any more questions, they enthusiastically respond that everything is in order.
Another challenge, which I’ve adapted to has been facebook. People in Bosnia use facebook as their main means of communication. I use facebook extensively as well, and post on average at least twice a day on my personal page, whilst also posting content on the organisation’s page. In Bosnia people use facebook more than face to face or phone communication. If I post an announcement about the project on our volunteers’ group, everyone likes my post. I literally get a 100% like return. No one usually comments though, not even when I post a question. I then started to send more individual messages (after I had received friend requests from everyone + their friends). This seems to be working much better, they respond much quicker and provide me with more information. It’s definitely something to think about more in order to get better at this.
Because I have more free time than anticipated, I have decided to gradually input the stories into the database as well. I realised it also pretty much takes as long, if not less than scanning everything to be sent out to globalgiving. It is more efficient this way.
Polako (slowly) we’re making progress :)
Over the past three years storytelling has become central to most of what I do. I never paid too much attention to it before, but since first coming to Bosnia I have begun to purposely acknowledge how both myself and others around me used it. I had positive experiences: listening to inspirational stories that in one way or another changed my life and the path I followed, and negative (but constructive) experiences: witnessing hopelessness, trauma, anxiety, anger, disillusionment.
From an academic point of view, this conflict transformation approach was ruined for me, and I surprised myself that despite my very negative experience with that specific module, I have not given up on it yet, on the contrary, I am eager to learn both in formal and informal ways.
I happen to be back in Bosnia. Together with the CIM directors, we agreed to apply for a grant from Globalgiving for a community feedback project. Basically Globalgiving do not only provide you with the basic tools that any other fundraising website would, but they also put a lot of time into training community based organisations. From fundraising to social media, from M&E to reporting, they do it. There’s more though. For the past four years, globalgiving have been busy with a storytelling project in East Africa. Organisations from the region and their volunteers collected 57 000 stories from local communities. A new, easy to use analysis tool was developed and all the stories now make up a huge database. Organisations can input their stories, analyse and improve their programmes according to findings from the analysis. This led to a new model to be adopted by globalgiving: listen, act, learn.
At first, I was ok with the model, it sounded very good, and I was intrigued. Then, I was a bit worried about this development. As members of globalgiving, organisations would all have to follow the East Africa Storytelling Project approach in order to become more visible and gain points: collect stories, analyse, act on the findings, learn, and repeat. I thought that many community organisations would not have the capacity to do so much work just to keep a fundraising page, when others would be much less hassle. I knew for sure, it would be difficult for CIM, and was afraid that there would be little capacity to cope with the new system, particularly since we already have our own internal evaluation system. On the other hand, I like to challenge myself and to find the best possible solution to a potential problem. I know this made me even more committed to find local capacity for CIM to fundraise on globalgiving, which is on my to-do list for this trip, and I am getting closer to ticking the box. In this way, we can ensure that feedback collection will happen on the ground, and I can still handle the communications and analysis from anywhere in the world.
I see globalgiving raising the bar by raising the standards for local organisations in terms of programming. So indirectly and slowly, globalgiving could create a network of grassroots organisations that have a professional level in fundraising, evaluation, and programme development. The tools they need are easy to use. The points based system is somewhat competitive. The rewards they get are too good to move away from. Those who will be serious about development work, will have adapt, improve and sustain an impact on the ground in order to keep getting the benefits. It really seems to be a win-win situation.
The whole process of planning the project happened very fast, I made a draft plan when the grant proposal was submitted, and since I heard we got it, I’ve been planning and thinking of strategies and back up plans on buses, trains, and flights, whilst the other CIM staff were recruiting volunteers. It was a massive incentive to move forward and brought a lot of enthusiasm to the office. Of course, some things have worked well so far, but I have also found it a bit challenging. The Bosnian way of working is way more relaxed than what I am normally used to. Thankfully, I am the flexible type, and despite the fact that I cannot relax so much and need to have a regular intense mode to function, I manage to work well with the local culture. I think it is the Bosnian humour which I find strange but hilarious that helps a lot. Having Balkan roots also means I am familiar with the work ethic. The centre directors really trust me and let me do the work at my own pace, knowing that I can slow down when I have to, and whenever I’m alone, party time: intense work mode switches back on so I can really feel like I’m maximising productivity in the time I have.
I am focusing a lot on monitoring the project development and identifying strengths, weaknesses and possible solutions to the latter. Last night I got a tip from a globalgiving staff member, used it, and got a great reaction from a volunteer I trained, which was very rewarding. I also met some volunteers from another local organisation which has a soup kitchen and a hostel for people in need of food and shelter. I am hoping to chat with them some more, and see if both the organisation and the people who benefit from their project might be ok with us making some coffee and cake and collecting some stories one afternoon. I remembered that once I witnessed a violent scene with a homeless person who was very drunk. I asked people what was happening and they said he was an alcoholic who lost his whole family during the war, developed an alcohol addiction and lost everything. The locals I was with said that no one pays attention to him, and ignore him completely. It is a memory that really stuck with me. As a peacebuilding organisation that focuses mostly on youth, we don’t usually have access to people in such situations, and I think it would be good for us to document their stories. The organisation I mentioned above has been working with CIM very closely in relief efforts during the floods, and the storytelling collection project could perhaps lead to even closer links.
In terms of analysis, I am playing around with the tool built by globalgiving, and trying to master it by the time we will get to do our own analysis and compare and contrast trends with other peace and conflict stories in the database. I am very excited about it, especially since I may be getting some input from an economist/political philosopher, and a former CIM volunteer who is specialising in gender issues.
This week I had to fly to London for an interview. As much as I put a lot of effort into preparing myself, and really focused on what I was there for, I managed to really enjoy the whole process, including everything non-related to the event itself. There were many things I was surprised by, learnt, discovered, and liked in my 5-day trip.
1. We are interconnected. There is no doubt about that. It is more amazing when you can actually see how much it counts to think positive and be determined to achieve high goals, as the attitude can be a bit ‘infectious’ and though you may leave one place, you would have had an impact on the attitude of those you were in contact with.
2. Solidarity. So much of it that I started to feel overwhelmed.
3. Justice vs Injustice. We need more people to stand up when we see someone trying to take advantage of the vulnerable. Living with ‘I should have done something about it’ is not worth it.
4. I had two of the most amazing conversations in my entire life, by being in the right seat on the train. I am happy I took off those headphones, put my book down and responded to people’s mild efforts to make a casual conversation. It turned out I met some of the kindest, wisest, and loveliest people in this way. In particular, after about 2 hours of conversation, a woman from Ecuador told me there is no way I will fail my dreams, I was not born for that, I was born not only to be a leader, but one that the world needs. You get so much desire to work to achieve such goals when you realise even strangers believe in you.
4. In line with the last comment, women need to empower younger women. Whenever possible, and by all means.
5. A picture is worth more than a thousand words. We need to do more and talk less. In some circumstances though, saying few meaningful words can make all the difference. I bought them, I offered them, and meant them more than many other things i’ve said in my life: “Do it with passion, or not at all”
6. Gut feeling. I always thought it sounded so awful. On my journey, someone said it was the stomach’s brain at work. That doesn’t seem great either. It might be a form of intuition. By all means, when you are presented with an opportunity, and this intuition of yours tells you to take it, it is highly likely you won’t regret it. It might even make you feel more alive than ever.
7. Be kind, be mindful of those around you, care, love, but never let others make decisions for you. The decisions you make are yours and yours only.
8. I have been apart from some of my best friends for a long long time. I got the chance to meet some throughout this journey. It was like I never left. Like they never moved to other places all over the world. I am fascinated by these types of relationships. We change , but our compatibility and connection never left. Instead of taking this for granted, I will try my best to keep them closer to me, in any way I can.
9. Freedom: to make decisions, to live, to try new things, to discover, to grow, to develop, to achieve, to do the things you want to do. It’s what we should never stop fighting for.
The list is to be continued, as I have even a longer trip waiting for me very soon.
A few days ago I had an interesting conversation about Northern Ireland and Bosnia. It all started with being asked whether I head the “thunder” in the morning. I had heard a big noise at about six am. I can normally sleep through anything, though this was very very loud. A few months ago I shared with friends a sad realisation that when you live in Northern Ireland, things like shootings, pipe bombs, molotov cocktails, protests gone violent become common and you just get on with your life. We had a lot of bomb alerts (real ones), and partially exploded bombs in the centre, and many threats over Christmas. Did that stop people from getting on with life and doing their last minute shopping? Hardly. At that point I wondered if that was good (people making a statement they won’t be intimidated) or not so good (people accepting this as a reality and be passive about the situation).
It might seem crazy but this week when I heard the noise, the most likely explanation I could find was that a bomb had exploded somewhere in North Belfast. The least likely explanation I could think of was “thunder”.
The conversation I mentioned above took an interesting turn. It went back into the Bosnian court, mainly because someone I know is fascinated with this comparison. Then I shared my opinion on the biggest difference between the two regions. The similarities are endless: consociationalist structures, hard hit economies, youth unemployment, nationalistic politics, party politics divided by religious views, religion as an ethnic marker, separatist ideas, prejudice, stereotypes, segregation, etc. None of the regions are post conflict. At best Bosnia is in a frozen conflict state, where things could deteriorate very quickly. Having also lived in NI for just over two years, observing, taking things in, studying about it, having discussions with those involved in the process and those who research it, I have had my beliefs confirmed that NI is in fact conflict, not post conflict, nor frozen conflict. The main characteristic of the Troubles was its “sporadic violence” element. That has not stopped. It seems like the latest contentions issue of the flag, has in fact made it even worse. People ignore the dissident republicans because they are “small” and don’t have much influence, yet the threat and even sporadic physical violence continues. The fact that a large number of areas are patrolled by paramilitary organisations is tacitly accepted by the large majority of their residents which give in to paying “protection fees”. It is even argued by some that these effectively illegal organisations are used by politicians to “stir things up” when the level of support for their ethnic and religious based parties drops.
In order to give a practical example to the big difference between conflict/frozen conflict, I pointed at how context matters when you implement peace projects. The conflict transformation idea of storytelling has been used in many parts of the world as a tool for reconciliation and specific peace projects. There are many such initiatives both in Bosnia and in NI. If you have read my blog you have probably heard me saying all these things about local ownership and how much context and culture matter. When it comes to a personal transformation, yes storytelling does miracles. I have personally, professionally and emotionally witnessed first hand how this transformation works and I vouch for it. However, storytelling as a means to bring about social change at the society or political level will not be equally as effective everywhere. I believe it can work well in Bosnia, and my conclusions are based on research and a few years of observation of such as programme. A lot of people involved in that programme actively participated in the recent protests and in drafting clear demands from citizens to their government taking it a step further from the street. Some had solid resources to do this as they established civil society groups and organisations across Bosnia after they took part in the programme. I have had the chance to see this at work in Northern Ireland as well, and I think when it comes to change at the society/political level it doesn’t have the same results. When people go back to their communities in Bosnia the context allows for them to share their opinions or continue the type of work they have done with other young people. In Northern Ireland, in the areas this type of initiatives are most needed, it’s very risky and dangerous, so people may not share the opinions they had before, but they cannot verbalise or try to share what they’ve learnt because of the risk of physical threat to them and their family. Pressured by the circumstances, they might even continue to financially support paramilitary groups. The pressure extends to maybe not sending children to an integrated school or teaching them to speak up against prejudice or mix with children from other communities because doing so will put them at risk. This is not to say exceptions do not exist thought sadly I personally think it happens in a vast majority of cases.
If you think all of this is common sense, then why are universities and governments referring to Bosnia and NI as post conflict. I was taught something very different before I had the chance to experience it. I went to Bosnia and asked why all the projects mentioned conflict and resolving conflict, when I though we were doing post conflict peacebuilding. I now look back and think I was very naive when I left university. I am just pleased my mentors and professors encouraged me to go out and see for myself how the reality of these places looks like, and I am grateful for it.
The past years have seen the rise of UKIP in opinion polls, and their growing support base is becoming increasingly apparent all over the UK. Mainstream parties are in the news all the time criticising UKIP intensely with good points to make as well as weak political tactics and comments which are ultimately seen as “political attacks” and only aid UKIP’s campaign. Nigel Farage, a political entrepreneur who charms the masses with his “polite xenophobia”, simplistic solutions, and exaggerated or false statements, leads the party.
The main attraction to UKIP is the radical Euroscepticism if I may call it that: the complete withdrawal from the EU, whilst “the doctrine of multiculturalism should be ended by all publicly funded bodies, the Human Rights Act repealed, and Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights”. (Jupp, 2010)
UKIP has existed for years and it has never had any significant political influence, with the most successful outcome being Farage and a few other party members comfortably being paid as MEPs to protest against the UK’s membership of the EU. However, the recent development in immigration scandals, namely the lifting of working restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians has come to the party’s advantage. Tabloid newspapers set the scene in portraying a decaying future for Britain as millions of Eastern Europeans would come to take British jobs and Farage comfortably used the figure of 29 million as a fact to further ignite the fear in British voters, as well as stressing the very little control British voters have over their future and the amount (mainly fabricated) of laws that are made by foreign bureaucrats in the EU. A lot of this has come to surface in the debate with LibDem leader Nick Clegg.
Recent “political attacks” on Mr Farage included being accused by former party members of mishandling allowances from the EU, which were not used according to EU guidelines but migrated into the leader’s personal bank account. The New Statesman published a video from 1999 where he pointed at games politicians play such as “employing their wives”. It is ironic that Nigel Farage is in fact now employing his wife with his EU allowance. The article is published here though the video now reads “this video is no longer available because the uploader has closed their youtube account”. The media frenzy was meant to expose the leader’s hypocrisy in criticising corrupt politicians. Farage came fighting to turn matters into his own favour saying how easy it is for MEPs to get money and not have to account for them. With his background he comes across and the honest British politician who knows all about the EU because of his role, however, it is ironic again that figures suggest Mr Farage has in fact not been doing his job as an MEP. As uncovered by the Financial Times earlier in this article it seems that he has attended only one out of 42 meetings he was responsible for. At the time he was accused by former UKIP members and other British MEPs of not helping them make Britain’s vote count in the EU.
As UKIP play the immigration card obsessively, their new campaign which alludes to a hard core message that British jobs should only go to British workers unfortunately is not surprising. Today mainstream politicians accused the party of “racism” and some drew comparisons to a former BNP campaign. Cheap foreign labour is seen as damaging to national interests and the British public. What British citizens who buy into this don’t realise is that UKIP is doing no more than dealing with a symptom of a larger problem. Having recently watched a documentary about the “black market” of labour in the UK, I realised that some of the problems are there because of ripe conditions for exploitation within Britain. The documentary uncovered the poor conditions in which immigrants live, the efforts of the British and Romanian police officers to investigate cases of illegal activity and a large scale of employers breaking British and EU laws. My point here is, if the UK would focus on bringing to account those employers (British or not) who exploit immigrants for cheap labour then the problem would be nowhere near as grave.
UKIP however have no interest in stopping the exploitation of foreign migrants, but to use them as “a common enemy” that all British people must stand against. They make it personal to the British, they generalise the foreigners, they stereotype and use prejudice as their main weapon to seeking political power. Over the course of history we’ve seen or read about so many populist leaders that we should be able to realise that the large majority have little substance to their claims and policies, and the only way to keep their position in power is through manipulation and abuse.
Last weekend was not just marked by a farewell to Nelson Mandela in my circles, but also another great leader. When going up to Ballycastle to volunteer with a youth group in Corrymeela, I was told that there would be a farewell for our community leader, Inderjit. After two years of being the leader (CEO) of the community, Inderjit proposed new structural changes to the way the organisation was ran, and they were accepted. However, just as he said in his speech, Inderjit was the kind of person who was not there to hang on to power, but knew when to step down. Given that some of his suggestions were acknowledged, he mentioned he was not fired, he did not resign or retire, but was simply moving on.
This decision had a great impact on me. When I first arrived in Corrymeela I was coming from a very small organisation, a different culture, where I worked in a very small group. I knew everything from financial accounts, history, the lives of those who built the organisation who were and still are like my family, all their projects and visions for the future. When I arrived in Corrymeela I came into a very large organisation, a complex system, with so many people that it was hard to even get to remember the names of the volunteers I lived and worked with, not to mention staff, community members and associates. However, few days after I arrived I was in the queue to get lunch and an elderly man who looked of Indian origin had come to talk to me. He asked about my life, how I came there, how I was doing, and said it was a pleasure to have me there. When I said I was still adjusting he gave me a hug and said I was the kind of person that would do well in Corrymeela. When I sat down to have my lunch I asked who the man was, thinking he was a visitor, or a group member. I was told he was the leader of the Community. I was so surprised of how much attention this man had paid to me, and how he talked to me, considering I was just a volunteer for a few months there. Also, waiting for everyone else to get lunch and staying at the back of the queue.
As I stayed on in Corrymeela, I realised Inderjit was a very wise man. I did adjust quickly, and I fit so well in Corrymeela that after a few years, I felt ready to become a community member and work alongside other dedicated members to work for social change in an active and passionate way.
Inderjit is what I call a great leader, perhaps more spiritual than technical. His warmth and positivity help you become more calm, and not stress so much about things. He is humble, and supportive. He knew the volunteers working on the ground, and cleaned dishes with us, gave us lifts to Corrymeela and back, supported us, regularly asked how we were feeling, and cared for us. There are so many community members I never met, or do not know, and yet the person at the very top was so concerned with our wellbeing and our thoughts and opinions. He supported me with my studies and my research. My sister always said that other than the markers, probably no one else will read your thesis, and she was right. Now, apart for those, I have two other people that read it for sure. One was my super friend Mylene who also took the time to proofread, and the other was Inderjit. His support for the volunteers could also be seen in the way his farewell card was written. There were a lot of messages in there, from so many people, however, those in the queue were complaining that the volunteers were writing “biographies”. We might have written more, and that was because we got so close to him and had so much to say.
I will miss Inderjit. His inspiring words, our long conversations, his humility; his calm and loving nature, his amazing hugs that energised me and made me feel at peace, his leadership style, kind nature, and so much more. Given that there is no spiritual leader at this point here, I can’t help but think a void will be created. For sure, his leadership and personality will be hard to replace, though as in any organisation, change is necessary, and in some cases vital. Inderjit was the first non-white leader of Corrymeela, to date all the permanent roles for the leader were filled by great people, though all white, male, protestants. I feel safe to say some of us, and me in particular, are waiting for the leadership of a woman.
In Corrymeela you are confronted with many challenges. Being there is a very hard process, though no matter what you go through, goodbyes are always the worst. They’re so heartbreaking that you’ll be shattered for months. This is why it is so hard for people to let go. By leaving, Inderjit made a powerful statement. We always say “Corrymeela begins when you leave”. So many people want to stay on though, and I feel sometimes that by doing that as volunteers, we take away this amazing opportunity from other people. There are also other examples of not letting go, and not making space for new people, and this should be a lesson we all should learn from. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for this community, our community, is to take a step back and leave space for new voices and new faces. I will admit that one reason why I wanted to stay in Northern Ireland so much was because I wanted to step up and be more involved in Corrymeela. However, last Sunday, and Inderjit, taught me that leaving the place will be heartbreaking though I must let Corrymeela begin. Then I will be able to help much more than I am now, and be able to contribute in a better way.