Home (Bitter)Sweet Home

Returning to Chicago after eight, life-changing weeks has been very awkward. It is not awkward in the sense that I no longer feel comfortable at home, but I am hungry from my experience abroad to live more simply and with purpose. Being away gave me an opportunity to self-reflect on my core values and reconsider my academic and professional paths. When people ask me about my experience abroad, I find it very difficult to translate my thoughts and feelings into intelligible, relative words. After all, how could they possibly understand such a transformative experience? I’ll ponder better ways to explain this to others in the future; but, for now, I’ll just describe some valuable lessons learned.

1. History is not something of the past.

Throughout the process of learning about public health structures and local culture, it was very clear that the wars that erupted in the Balkans were responsible for the current living conditions in both Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although, we often think of past events of something in the distant past, the effects of such events have living,eternal consequences that can be felt in the present. Therefore, it is always important to acknowledge events continuously and actively work to promote justice for a tragic past in the present.

2. Be audacious and persistent.

We were fortunate enough to be instructed by very passionate, dedicated intellectuals who were always reminding us to be critical and active with our knowledge. After hearing personal stories of some of our instructors who lived through the aftermath of wars, I was inspired to approach my studies and daily life with courage and the burning fire to help create change in my community. The path to our goals is never easy but the work we do along the way is worth it.

3. Be a better community member.

The kindness and generosity I encountered while abroad inspired me to be a better community member. In times of struggle and need it is important to take care of one another and stand for each others’ rights. When visiting the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, there were many gifts that neighbors gave to one another including hand-made clothes and toys. There were many recounts of people more generous and kind during the war than before and many people continued to be more kind afterwards. It is really easy to give up kindness in the middle of tragedies and only focus on the self but it is better be helpful, selfless and supportive towards others. Also you never know another person’s struggle, so just be kind.

4. Use your privilege purposefully.

I realized the weight of my privilege through my mere presence in another country and being able to be taught my powerful leaders in a foreign space. Because this is not an experience everyone gets to have, it humbles me to be appreciative of the efforts that went into this program. It is very normal for Americans to be demanding and detached in foreign spaces. I recognized that it was a privilege to be where I was which made me want to be more engaging and progressive with building relationships with those around me rather than just consuming whatever they were providing and being dismissive. I am privileged to have learned and had meaningful conversations that will help me reassess my position and use my talents to serve others.

 

Different Clothing Items from War Period

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Message to the Museum Audience

War Childhood Museum Swing

 

 

 

Public Health in Serbia & Bosnia-Herzegovina

The public health systems in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina both follow the Bismarck model of healthcare in which citizens are covered with state funded insurance. In Serbia, there is one Health Insurance Fund that uses compulsory contributions from employers, employees and the state to cover insurance for the population. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, funding for health coverage is obtained by taking 12.5% of everyone’s salary. This socialized medicine ensures that citizens have free access to basic healthcare.This is a contrast to the American model of healthcare which integrates the private sector and generates a lot of revenue. The motivations for working in the health sector become drastically different across cultures due to the model. I have realized through learning about these systems that cost of care and quality of care are not correlated.  Although I believe the Bismarck model is the most ideal model of healthcare, it is a system that is not optimally supported in a post-war context.

One of the major issues that the public health system is facing is “brain drain”. During and after the war, a lot of students left the region to seek better job opportunities in Western Europe. Consequently, there is a lack of manpower in the current healthcare system. The unemployment rate in Bosnia-Herzegovina is nearly 50% and wages for medical professional jobs rarely exceed $500/month. The current financial structure of the public health system does not support a growing medical workforce. Our group visited the primary healthcare centre in Belgrade, Serbia which supported multiple areas of care including urgent care, in-patient care, preventative care, etc. The facilities were originally built to support a federal forestry department but was restructured to accommodate a hospital. One medical staff professional explained to us that there are employees that are committed to working double shifts multiple times a week in order to keep the hospital functioning. The lack of healthcare professionals forces the current employees to be knowledgeable in multiple fields of healthcare which creates a more versatile, dedicated personnel.

Our visits to primary care facilities in both countries demonstrated a divine work ethic from medical staff. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the system is much different because there are thirteen different entities that create legislation for public health throughout the region. Therefore each canton and district has different regulations and models of functioning. The de-centralized public health system creates problems with collaboration and cooperation throughout the region. Also, each canton or district has its own sources of funding which creates a variety of disparities throughout the country. Socialized medicine is not optimal in BiH because the entire public health system does not follow the same standards and the monetary allocations are not sufficient to keep a well-resourced environment.

What system of health care can best support a post-war society going through social and economic transition?

Primary Health Care Facility Visit

 

 

 

My study abroad experience in BiH

I still remember the first day we got in BiH. The nature was very inviting, and I couldn’t wait to settle down and explore the city. I was still a little bit sad because I enjoyed my time in Serbia and I wasn’t ready to start over again in familiarizing myself with a new place. For example, I was stressed out about laundry, I didn’t understand the currency, and I was mostly definitely sad to leave behind the amazing night life of Belgrade. However, I knew that as it didn’t take me long to get used to Belgrade, it wasn’t going to take long to get used to Sarajevo either. This journal is about what happened during the past month and the key lessons I learned.

Independence

The fact that Sarajevo is a small city, speeded up my process of getting familiar to this place and in less than a week I had already regained my independence. I took Miljacka river as the focus point (all roads lead to the river), and apparently this river goes through Sarajevo with its total length. I also took as reference point, the place where the two cultures meet which is very close to Hotel Saraj. There reference points helped me navigate the city without the fear of getting lost, and they helped me become more independent especially when planning out my days because I didn’t have to depend on anyone to take me to places.

Openness

People here are so open and very friendly. I was very surprised to see how open people were about sharing their personal experiences with us. Professors shared with us their war experiences, and their stories inspired me and changed the way I thought about wars and conflict times. Coming from Rwanda where most narratives about war are about victimization and blaming “the others”, I was amazed by how these stories were about survival and succeeding despite what happened. Having people share such personal stories to us made me also more open to share my story with others, and I was happy to receive positive feedback.

Passion

We were so lucky to meet so many people who are very passionate about what they do and I am going to mention few of the things I learned from them. One professor came with us to the trip to Srebrenica on his son’s birthday, which is also the date of his father’s death. I can only imagine how emotional this day was for him, but he still came with us because he saw this as an opportunity to celebrate his father by sharing his knowledge with us. I learned from this to take advantage of every opportunity no matter what circumstances in which they find me. Another professor shared with us how she kept working during the siege and I was very impressed by her passion. During this time people were dying while they are on the lines waiting for bread, and she still had the courage to keep going to work knowing that it wasn’t safe. I learned from her, that there shouldn’t be any excuses as to why we can’t use our skills/knowledge to contribute to the betterment of our communities.

Gratitude

Learning about the siege and what conditions people were living in for 3 years, made me realize that I have to be more grateful. So here goes: I am thankful for the water; I am thankful for the food. I am thankful that I was able to go to 3 countries (Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia) this summer alone. I am thankful for the friendships built here; I am thankful for all the connections I made. I am thankful the peace in BiH, in Rwanda and in Evanston. I am thankful that I can walk outside without being scared that someone could shoot me. I am thankful for my education, and most of all I am thankful that I am still alive.

One view of Sarajevo

The river that runs through the city of Sarajevo

Hotel Saraj

The Mountains Echo

Welcome to Sarajevo. It is now week 3, and I have had some time to become acquainted with this city after the bittersweet departure from Belgrade. Everything here is much different. Sarajevo is much smaller than Belgrade with less of an urban feel. However, the smallness of this valley city brings everything closer together which makes it feel like there is even more to explore. The first thing I noticed was the mountains. They tower over the city and add bursts of green to the landscape. (They also provide the only exercise I’ve gotten this summer.)

But to the locals, the mountains have a less beautiful, more tragic reputation.

In 1992, Sarajevo was under attack by Serbian forces of the Milosevic regime. For three years, citizens were terrorized and murdered in the streets by snipers who camped out in the mountains. At this time, the former Yugoslavia was falling apart after the death of their previous leader, Tito, and the republics within the former Yugoslavia fueled a series of wars between one another after political and economic tensions dismantled the code of unity and brotherhood. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was a center of ethnic diversity and a direct threat to nationalist agendas in the region. Home to the largest European Muslim population, Bosnia-Herzegovina witnessed a gross attack on unity with movements of ethnic cleansing. In 1995, mass killings were performed in Srebrenica which claimed the lives of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims. The politics behind these high numbers continue to stir tension among the Bosnia population. There are some citizens who deny the mass killings and there is very little international recognition on the tragedies that occurred here.

Our group visited the Srebrenica Memorial to observe the large grave site and the headquarters for the United Nations diplomats present during the 1995 crisis. It was appalling to see so many white headstones aligning the field in semi-perfect rows. There were new graves placed in between older ones– recently found remains being buried next to their loved ones– and a large list of names carved in marble to remember the lives lost. The most recent year I saw was 1982, which means that person was 13 years old when they were murdered.

A child. Murdered.

There are many other grave sites in Sarajevo. They are everywhere. You can not go anywhere without seeing the white stone erecting from the Earth. You are constantly reminded, everywhere and everyday, what has happened here.

On the mountain tops, you see them. On the mountain tops, the sounds of a tragic history echo.

Monument in central Sarajevo honoring the lives of children lost during the siege

Mountain view

Graffiti in UN Headquarters “I’m Your Best Friend/ I Will Kill You For Nothing” (left) UN Negligence (right)

BiH, week 1

The first week in Sarajevo has been amazing and also very informative. The city is very unique and rich in history. One of feature that makes this city unique is its architecture. When coming from the airport, you see modern architecture but as you progress you pass through Austro-Hungarian architecture and later on you notice Ottoman empire inspired architecture. This diverse architecture says a lot about the history of this region and the history of the previous occupants.

Sarajevo is very beautiful, hilly and it reminds me of Rwanda. The nature is so breathtaking and it made me feel very relaxed. People are also very welcoming and very nice, which also reminds me of Rwanda and make me miss my family. There are so many museums to visit, so many cool places to see and I am really glad to be here. In addition, the history of this country is so similar to the history of my country but people from here have their own way of mourning that is different from the way people in my country mourn. For example, you can see tombstones in the city next to restaurants, residential houses, etc. This acts as a constant reminder of what happened and this so different from Rwanda where people try to forget what happened as much as they can.

We also visited other cities where we saw more interesting places. We visited Tito’s nuclear bunker near the city of Konjic. For me, this was the best place I have visited on this whole trip. I thought this place was so interesting because it was built for only a limited number of very important people from ex-Yugoslavia but now it’s open to everyone, and this contrast is so cool. This place reminded of the Paul Farmer’s quote that “the idea that some lives matter more than others is the root of all that is wrong with the world”. I guess this reminded me of this quote because, choosing just 300 lives to save, somehow meant that to someone their lives were considered as more valuable than other lives.

Bosnian Nuclear Bunker

The Beauty of Palimpsests

If I were to characterize the city of Belgrade, I would have to say that it seems to be both a pastiche of the various cultural influences on its history, and yet also a distinct entity in its own right. As a border town to various conquering nations, the city has constantly been destroyed and rebuilt; and remnants of each iteration of its history can be seen interspersed throughout the landscape. As such, it seems to be conflicted in what it wants to be. The city and its residents seem to be proud of their rich cultural heritage, and they know (perhaps all too well) how much an impact perceived distinctions have on their history and identity. However, there also seems to be an intentional effort to change the capitol into a typical western European city, typified by iconic places such as London and Paris, imitating their characteristic vistas and open-air cafes.

As we were learning about the city and its cultural heritage, the concept and idea of palimpsests was introduced to us. Palimpsests are manuscripts that have been reused and repurposed to record new text or ideas. The writing on these manuscripts have been superimposed on the text that had been previously there, and traces of its buried past can still be seen. Belgrade, with its many cycles of being destroyed and rebuilt, can be described as an archaeological palimpsest, with traces of its past present in its various different architectural structures and its constantly shifting landscape. Remnants of its past as a part of former empires, the capital of a powerful communist nation, and its tumultuous and violent transition into an independent capitalist state can all be seen by just walking along the main road for ten minutes. In addition to this, the city seems to be in another stage of rewriting its identity. It’s rich and varied past is now being buried by more overtly western and european institutions. This convergence of east and west, past and present, paint an interesting picture of a city with many wonderful secrets and hidden gems to discover.
Walking through the city, I am always excited to see what I will find. The city itself is very organic, layering and building on top its past experience; a collage of everything it has been through and what it aspires to be. The atmosphere is very dynamic. This city has life, and I can feel it breathing. It has a complex character of being ambitious, yet laid back; adopting some aspects of its “predecessors” while yet also trying to forge its own path. Meandering through the city, you could walk through what seems to be an empty alleyway, turn the corner, and unexpectedly come across a bustling marketplace. It is never boring, always changing, ever evolving. Although others may see it as a pale imitation of something greater, I see it as a beautiful mosaic with its own little quirks and ideas. Being here the past two weeks, the city has really grown on me; and i’m excited to see more of what it has in store for me in the weeks to come.

Week 2 in Belgrade

I can’t believe week 2 is over. Since getting here, we have been learning a lot. In this blog I will be discussing topics that were interesting to me because they had something similar to what happened in Rwanda. First, we learned about the ethnic conflicts that occurred in the former Yugoslavia. It was so interesting to hear that people from different states of ex-Yugoslavia (example: Serbia and Croatia) are only different in terms of religion and dialect but that there was no difference in terms of physical appearance. This was very interesting to me because when comparing this to the conflicts in Rwanda, people had physical difference but shared the same language and religion. It is just so sad that no matter how similar people are, they always find differences to focus on instead of focusing on their similarities.

In addition, a visit by someone from the Nansen Dialogue Network, an organization that focuses on promoting inter-ethnic dialogue in the western Balkans, was also very interesting to me. This talk also made me realize how different the post-conflict era in this region is very different to the post conflict era in Rwanda. While in the Balkans differences are still emphasized, in Rwanda the focus is to forget that we are even different in the first place. For example, we learned that in the different states of the former Yugoslavia, regions are ethnically segregated and in some schools with students from different ethnicities, history lessons are also ethnically segregated. On the other side, after the genocide Rwandans have been focusing on raising a new generation of just Rwandans with no ethnic differences, a generation of “Abanyarwanda” (Rwandans).

A quote by John F. Kennedy

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!!