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Young Interfaith Activists take on the Balkans

Finding a Pass Through the Mountains

The mountains of the Rila, the largest mountain range in the Balkans, tower over the town of Kostenets, in Bulgaria. – Photo: WikipediaThe Ottoman Turkish word for mountain, balkan, became the name for a whole part of Europe, its southeast. However, the history of the Balkans goes beyond its Ottoman past. As a cross-roads between Europe and Asia, the region has been a strategic territory, an important commercial and military route, controlled at times by ancient Greeks and Romans, with other empires doing everything they could to conquer these lands. Historically rich, the Balkans have been as proud of their glorious past as they have been conflicted internally. The peoples populating the Balkans have lived in faith-based separation, cut off from each other by the ‘mountains’ of religious difference.

Young people, however, do not have to remain stuck in their past and are struggling here to release themselves from the chains of their intolerant heritage. The transition to democracy for them means getting to know each other, exploring how to live together despite the hate history books teach them.

Some countries in Europe’s Southeast are already part of the European Union; the rest of the Balkan countries are actively involved in the European integration process. As a result, Europe is diminishing the mountains that stood as a symbolic wall of division for too long, helping Balkan peoples overcome all “mountains.”

The task remains considerable. Imagine the children of those opposing each other on the battlefield never meeting: such is the usual narrative in the Balkans. The borders are too far or too difficult to cross. Securing a passport and transportation is not feasible for many due to low income in the region.

Even harder is overcoming the stereotypical fear and hatred that families hold against those living in neighbouring countries. Grandparents, with memories of wars decades ago, have a strong say in most conservative families. The patriarchical power of parents who survived the wars of the 1990s is even stronger. Add the persuasive, nearly brainwashing power of nationalist education and media, and you see boundaries growing in height, becoming as intimidating as the Balkan mountains.

Making a path through the mountains requires time. I clearly recollect the astonishment of my family (so powerful an influence in a Balkan young person’s life), when I told them I became a friend with a Macedonian peer – and my country was never in conflict with Macedonia! My grandparents were similarly shocked when I told them that I went for a training course in Novi Pazar, in Serbia, and had made new friends among young Muslims and Christians my age who are living in peace.

I keep telling my relatives stories after the fact. Otherwise, I would have been forbidden to travel abroad, or expelled from the family. Indeed, I have yet to reach the point where my family quits being surprised. Meeting those that live in the adjacent country is still considered adventurous or perilous: “Have you lost your mind?” and “Why did you throw yourself in the Balkan toilet instead of going to the West?” are frequently questions that I have to answer.

A New Day

All that said, making friends in the Balkans is actually easier than in the West, which young people dream about. Our shared past, common culture, cuisine, music, dances, and customs (as well as our fears and stereotypes about one another!), mean we start to get along minutes after we meet. We do not have to know each other for ages before we become friends.

A French map indicating the different religions in the Balkans. – Graphic: WikipediaTraining others to achieve the luxury of making friends across the mountain-type boundaries in Southeastern Europe is becoming more common. Since my teenage years I have attended numerous youth encounters bringing young people from various corners of the Balkans. I began as a participant but in the past decade have become a trainer and facilitator. An increasing number of youth networks now stretch across the Balkans: young people get united around topics such as youth unemployment, local participation, education reform, and sustainable living, to name a few. We see many common problems and exchange best practices to help us design and devise the most efficient solutions.

As multinational corporations begin to penetrate the Balkan market, they actively seek a better understanding of the faiths in this region. Understanding the complicated religious environment paves their way to higher revenues from the local market, and they also want to know how to motivate their employees.

The best alternative for these companies is employing young people to provide corporate training: we know the religious, cultural differences, and we have explored approaches in overcoming them. And it’s working. CEOs today that rely on interfaith training from young people perform better and find their investment generously repaid. Their profits increase through social projects that bring together people from multi-religious backgrounds. For those multinationals, travelling through the mountains comes through organizing their operations across differences and achieving returns from their emerging role in local communities with a variety of faiths.

You may still wonder what “Balkan” will mean in the future. The good news is that young leaders are capable of forging an interfaith connection among us all. The geographical mountains will remain in Southeastern Europe, but the mountains of division are gradually disappearing.