Dobrodosli u Beograd– Welcome to Belgrade!

 

 

 

This first week in Belgrade has been very eye-opening and fascinating. I am enjoying learning about the rich history of this city, and the preservation of the region’s culture. In class, we talked about the rather tragic, repetitious demolition of Serbia over the centuries, and it makes me appreciate how prosperous this place truly is. Astonishingly, Belgrade has been ruined and rebuilt roughly 140 times which speaks volumes about the character of Serbian people. Although this area has been through tough times, the people are (at least they seem to be) open to harmonious interactions.

Before coming to Serbia, I was very nervous which is a testament to the stigmas associated with Eastern Europe. My loved ones (and a number of service providers) continued to express concern for my safety and a lack of understanding for my desire to come to this non-Western part of the world. There are also some locals who are also puzzled by our group’s interest in this region evident by statements such as “I do not know why you are but welcome.” It was a rainy, gloomy day when I arrived and I was sure that was a sign that this trip would be difficult, but the following day proved just the opposite. After leaving class with some knowledge of the area, we walked down the busy streets of Belgrade in the beautiful, warm weather and I felt very comfortable. I was very surprised by how quickly I got acclimated considering that there is very few Black people in this region.  I would get confused looks while walking down the street, but rarely looks of malicious intent. We had one awkward, racist encounter on the bus stop with a group of drunk men that made me very uncomfortable. The group of men exited the bus in a rowdy manner and began making barking sounds when they saw our rather diverse group standing on the bus stop. That moment shattered my precious bubble view of Belgrade, and I quickly came back to reality and acknowledged that the world is still, indeed, racist. However, I would say most people here are genuinely curious about where I come from rather than threatened by my presence. I also received a lot of smiles and blown kisses in public which is very affirming.

I love that food is very inexpensive here. We have eaten very fancy, delicious meals including drinks for the equivalent of about $13 USD. I also want to be conservative with my spending so I went grocery shopping and bought a week’s worth of food for about $12 USD. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with their drinkable yogurt but I am. My favorite meal so far has been in Skadarlija—a quaint area of town decorated with pastel colored building and cobble stone streets—where we were serenaded by a quartet at the dinner table. I ate a chicken dish that had sweet tomatoes, onions and robust peppers with pomfrit (French fries).

There is keen juxtaposition with the culture and history of this city and my home Chicago. The neighborhood structures with high concentrations of specific identities and the variable atmosphere reminds me a lot of home. Chicago was also burned to the ground and rebuilt as a great metropolitan area. Ironically enough, Chicago has the second largest Serbian population in the US. It’s always great when I meet new people and tell them that I am from Chicago because it prompts very positive responses.

I would consider my first week in Belgrade a major success.

Chinese market in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) on a 96-degree day

Slow, not steady. Am I ready?

The past few days have been a whirlwind of emotions: excitement, elation, confusion, despair…the list goes on. The year’s ending, my senior friends are graduating, the residential college i’ve lived in for two years is shutting down for renovation, and I still haven’t finished packing yet to go to a land I know little about. I think it’s safe to say that i’m a bit overwhelmed. Two months away from home, in unfamiliar lands that don’t speak my native tongue. Is this how my parents felt when they crossed the sea with their families, seeking opportunity?Abandoning all: their friends, their relatives, their homeland in the hopes of succeeding in a land promising prosperity? I can only imagine now how lost they had felt then, as I currently sit here pondering what shoes to put in my suitcase. My trip is two months; thiers was a lifetime. How did they do it? I question whether I am ready, if I can do this, even though I am a living testament to their resilience and relative success. Although, my situation is significantly different from what they had to go through, I think I can garner courage from their example. Even when things are unstable, we can pull through. I’m starting to get excited, packing while listening to Hide Me (Kirk Franklin), for what life’s got in store for me. If my parents did it, maybe so can I, and I can’t wait to see how i’ll grow in these next few months.

MY SUMMER IN SERBIA AND BOSNIA IS ALMOST HERE

I still remember the first time I came the United states. I was so excited to be going to another continent, and I made a mental note that Europe should be the next continent to go to. When I found out that I had gotten in the Northwestern Study Abroad program in Serbia and Bosnia, I was so excited that my dream to go to Europe was coming true. Also having an opportunity to visit these countries was so exciting because I am from a country that went through war 23 years ago, and I knew I would learn a lot from these countries because they also went through the same tragedy.

In addition, as a Global health minor, I wasn’t just excited about the similarities these countries have with my country, I was also excited about learning about the public health sectors in both countries and how they operate to ensure good health outcomes for the population.

Now that the time to leave is approaching, I am sitting in my room making plans. I want to try the local cuisine, I have to go to at least one cultural event in each country, and I have to make local friends. I need to learn the basic words such as greetings, thank you, I am sorry, etc. My only concern is that people there won’t speak English, but then again I am going with other Northwestern students and google says that most people there are fluent in English. I can barely contain my excitement but I still need to pack.

My empty suitcase waiting for me to pack!!

Pre-Departure Thoughts

“Wow! I’m proud of you, kid” said my older cousin in sheer excitement after hearing the news of my upcoming travels. What an honor for a kid from the south-side of Chicago to be taking an international trip. Conversations with family members who never left the country are filled with concern, happiness, and unanswerable questions. They all want to know why and how a kid from the south-side got the opportunity to travel to Eastern Europe– someplace they know nothing about outside of anti-communist rhetoric. I am honestly quite nervous to travel to across the world for the first time, and I hope my excitement leaves me more optimistic than anxious. This moment feels so surreal, and I don’t yet have the proper words to describe exactly how I’m feeling. These past few days have been very hectic between preparing for the trip, finalizing responsibilities on campus, and trying to connect with friends and family before I depart. I already feel the weigh of this trip as I imagine how far I’ll be away from my family. I hope that I can find small things and people that make me feel like home away from home.

 

I am extremely excited to find out what’s in store for me this summer. My goals for the summer include: 1) fully engaging in my coursework so that I can get a better understanding of how mental health structures are constructed locally and federally, 2) acquiring extended language skills, 3) reflecting on ways to contribute to the field of mental health post-graduation, 4) experiencing the authenticity of places that I’ve never been, and 5) enjoying myself.

Last days on Northwestern campus 6/15/17

 

Reminiscence

With the days of summer long gone and the inevitable fall starting to creep in, I have found myself starting another year at Northwestern. With it, I have been bombarded with familiar faces and friends that have spent some time away from. They all eventually get to it in their own way, but each one will eventually ask the same question, “What did you do this summer?”

I cannot help but recount in detail the stunning things that I have seen and amazing stories that I have heard from the people of Serbia and Bosnia. Each recount, each retelling further anchors those memories and stories. As I retell each experience, they become more natural and more a part of me. This summer was not some surreal experience; it was a very real one. This was not someone else’s experience; this was mine and mine alone.

I will not ever forget the things that I saw and experienced in Serbia and Bosnia nor will I ever stop telling others about these things. As time passes, I come to appreciate more and more the opportunity that I was afforded and want to tell as many people as will listen to me. I have only an inkling what the future may hold, but I do hope that it gives me an opportunity to return to these places.

Remembering My Experience

As I begin my last blog entry, I cannot quite put into words how much my study abroad experience has both impacted and meant to me, but also how strange it is to be back. I have realized this time and time again when people ask me, “how was Bosnia and Serbia?” I often reply, “I don’t even know where to begin.” However, I’ll give it a go here in this entry.

This summer has fundamentally changed my view on global inequalities, health and trauma. I learned from many knowledgeable experts in the field and learned just as much from individuals that I came to know during my time abroad. I had an opportunity to be immersed in not only one country but two countries, while also having chances to visit other countries. I enjoyed my time there so much that I’m currently looking for ways to travel back after I graduate.

The sense of nostalgia for Bosnia and Serbia began almost instantly once I returned from Sarajevo as I had become completely immersed in the culture and lifestyle of the Balkans. I realized that despite all that I would try explain and show, the experience was a very personal one that only those who went on the program with me could begin to understand.  Although when remembering my time abroad, I usually end the conversation with people by saying, “it was the experience of a lifetime and I cannot wait to go back.”

Just 20 Years Before

Sarajevo is a beautiful city surrounded by picturesque mountains and has its own unique mix of eastern and western influences. It is easy to forget when walking through the streets that just a little over twenty years ago this city experienced the longest siege in modern history. It is easy to forget this when walking past all the cafes and seeing all of the faces in the crowd that are just going about their day as usual.

It is easy to dismiss the history of this city and be somewhat disconnected from the realities that Sarajevo has faced. The fact that war was a very real thing here in Sarajevo is something you start to realize more and more as you spend time in the city. As you get more familiar with the city, you start to recognize the places that people refer to when giving their accounts of the war. Remember that street with all the shopping centers and cafés that you are so fond of? That street saw sniper rifle rounds flying over head and mortar shells raining down on it every day. That alley with the nice bakery? Many citizens of Sarajevo lost their lives there. It is harder to be disconnected when you can attach a place, a name, or a picture in your mind to the things that you hear or to the memories you relive through the accounts of people who were there.

These kind of connections are not just a sort of sobering thing but also a reassuring one. This city saw the end of war and fighting no longer than twenty years ago, and yet the city was able to re-cultivate the things that made this city beautiful. The fact that there are cafés and bakeries in p

Sarajevo during and after war

Sarajevo during and after war

laces where nothing but shrapnel and bullets could be found is a testament to the resiliency of Sarajevo. I cannot wait to see what change another twenty years will bring to this city of Sarajevo.

11/07/95 Gallery

I have waited to write my last blog post until the end of the trip to allow myself some time to process the past few days. We have gone to various museums and listening to many testimonies, which have greatly impacted me and changed my outlook on many greater societal and global structures.

One of the most impactful moments of the entire study abroad program just happened a few days ago and this moment was visiting Gallery 11/07/95. The museum is the first memorial museum and gallery for Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is an exhibition space aiming to preserve the memory on Srebrenica tragedy and 8372 persons who tragically lost their lives during the genocide. The moving exhibit showed various images ranging from the refugee camps to the individuals who lost their lives during the genocide. There were also various videos shown throughout the gallery concerning the Siege of Sarajevo and the genocide itself.  Some of the most memorable quotes from the movies were discussing the genocide itself when mothers and wives were discussing their sons and husbands saying “humanity was taken,” “we were robbed of our integrity” and finally “to understand our situation and the war, you must be here to understand the war against the citizens.” Tears filled my eyes as I saw the many images and heard the trying testimonies.

At least half of the people in Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been through trauma.  Despite all of these traumas and the war, people are optimistic and are some of the kindest people I have ever met. The optimism, perseverance and resilience of the people from this region is astounding and admirable. This trip has been eye opening in more ways than one for me and I will certainly never forget my time in Sarajevo and greatly look forward to when I will be able to come back.

Bridging the Gap

Imagine the city that you called home became a battlefield. Imagine that the city became split right down the middle and people who were once neighbors are now being forced to fight each other to survive. This was a reality for the people of Mostar.

The first week in Bosnia we had the opportunity to travel to the Herzegovina region of Bosnia and to the city of Mostar. We were able to walk through the city of Mostar and learn about its history, both ancient and modern. We came to learn about what had transpired in the city just twenty years before.

The war in Bosnia saw the city of Mostar divided into two parts based upon ethnicity. The Croats held the western part of the city while the Bosniaks controlled the eastern parts of the city. People who may have once been neighbors were forced to fight one another. The Old Bridge which had long been a symbol of the city would be used by the media as symbol of the division among the people of Mostar (the media commonly referred to the bridge and river as the dividing line while an nearby street was the actual dividing line between the two forces). The Old Bridge would be destroyed by Croat forces and come to further symbolize the depths of the division among the people.

Over twenty years have passed since the war and the Old Bridge that Mostar has become synonymous with has been rebuilt, but it may take more time for the bridge between the people of Mostar to be rebuilt. The city still retains some of the ethnic divisions it once held with the different groups occupying the same parts of the city they did during the war. Some signs of division can still be seen in the city. The two parts of the city have become connected once again, but it may take more than some stone and mortar to bridge the gap between the people of Mostar.

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Београд је свет

 

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Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP

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The people of Serbia are no strangers to social movements. From the student-led protests in 1996 to the Bulldozer Revolution in 2000 to the protests and sit-ins of today, Serbians have come together to protect what they think is important using any means that they can.

During our time in Serbia, we were able to meet the organizers of two different movements taking root in Belgrade. Both had a similar goal: to not allow Belgrade’s commercialization to destroy its history and culture. One sought to achieve this by occupying theatres that had once hosted independent movie makers and cinephiles. Having fallen into a state of disrepair, these theatres were nothing but empty halls void of the cheers and laughs that had filled them in the past. Their real estate was tempting for many a buyer though. These theatres would be reduced to nothing more than supermarket chains and clubs. A group of young adults in Belgrade took it upon themselves to occupy the theatres and restore them to their former glory before this happened to them.

Another group in Belgrade had different means but a similar goal. Along with the development of Serbia economically came the interest of outside investors. The bank of the Sava River was a prime place for these investors to set their sights upon. Rallied behind the symbol of a duck, this group in Belgrade has sought to protect the historical and aesthetic features of this land along the river from the impeding commercialization.

Times have changed, but the people have not. The people of Belgrade still believe in the power of coming together and forming a movement. From revolutions to protests to sit-ins, the purposes and means have changed, but I doubt that the emotions that tie them together will ever really change.