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Bridge in Višegrad, crossing the Drina River


Video Testimonials


Photo-testimonial from volunteer Jessie O'Neil

US Ambassador to Bosnia (who is being introduced in this picture) came and made a speech in Sarajevo (in Bosnian), re-iterating the United States' commitment to the preservation of Bosnian culture.

In the Baščaršija section of Sarajevo.  It is said that if you drink out of this fountain you are destined to return to Bosnia.

From the "War Tour" our group went in while in Bosnia. This picture is of a cemetery that was made out of necessity during the violence in order to bury those lives lost.

Jessie with her class of Beginning English students, ranging from the ages of 6-14.


From some of our Bosnian friends:

                                                                       

Hi, Tom.

For the last three years I have been taking classes of English during the summer and I have to admit that I learned a lot.  I think that education is very important, so you have to take advantage of it.  These summer classes have helped me a lot because we have learned some things that we don’t even mention in school.  But, that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t organized the program.  You have to know that you are really important for us. When I think about that, I realize that without you, I wouldn’t even think of coming to the USA.

You are the one who put the idea in my brain.

I am very thankful to you and for all you have done for me.  I want you all the best in your life.

Selam

Ramajana


For the last two years I have been going to English summer school. I think that this school is very useful; it will help in my future studies .… We learn a lot about American culture, sports, music, and other interesting things.  With this letter I want to thank you for coming in Bosnia.  I hope you spent a great time here.  That’s very generous of you.    

Delila Delić


In my holiday I have a lot of free time which I could spend at the swimming pools or with friends, but I have found another activity that makes me really happy.  I go to this “English Summer School Program.”  This is the second year I have spent in this summer school.  Well, I go to this program because I will learn English as much as possible.  I feel better and really happy when I speak this language and my dream is to be a translator so I want to study the English language.  This summer school is very important for me because I can meet a lot of people and learn about their culture, their way of life and about their feelings.  In fact the English language is important for conversations all over the world, because in every country I know, the people are speaking this language. This summer school helped me a lot more than I hoped.  Thank you for everything.

Unsigned


A few years ago I signed up for the English summer break course just out of curiosity, but also because I loved and still do love to speak English and I wanted to see my boundaries when it comes to the English language.  The first day it was great, but I didn’t feel good with the fact that I had /a/ man for teacher; I wasn’t optimistic about it.  Oh what a surprise!  He was great; although he was over 30 years old his behavior was childish.  Through the years the teachers were coming, /and/ so did he.  But this year he didn’t and I was feeling sad about it, until I met my new teachers, Deanne and Kevin who are great.  They came with Tom and a group of other teachers.  At the moment when I saw Deanne and Kevin entering the room, I thought I want them to be my teachers .… I think it’s great to have this kind of relationship between two countries.  Now I’m thinking that next year I won’t be here and I feel kind of sad, but I know for sure I’m going to keep my memory of them forever, every laugh, every new thing, our conversations, the time I spent with them. 

Unsigned


It was really great these four weeks, I’m mad only because I couldn’t sleep but I’m happy because I was part of this.  Maybe this is really funny, but we don’t have many chances to meet people especially strangers…   I met all of you and I’m really happy and I changed my opinion about life, my life.  I thought I’m not so happy but now I know that life’s not horrible.  I can thank Nina and all people who talked with us about our problems.  Before this I thought every problem is like a mountain, but now I think they are much smaller, like hills (ha, ha, ha).  So, Tom, come back.  Coming to Bosnia isn’t a mistake.  That’s hope for us.  It’s a hope for living and being happy…. If we would have /the/ chance to come to America, I think we would, all of us.  So don’t take this /away from us/.  It was really, really, really great.  I hope you’ll be here next year, too, because we didn’t learn enough.  We want to know more.  I want to know.  In the beginning it was weird but day by day we were much closer and now we are like family and Nina is like a mum.  Young but funny mum.

Jenja-Dženita Hodžić.


The Workshops /On Youth Issues/ are great and they help us to talk about our problems and then we feel better.  I know that coming here is really exhausting and you need a lot of money for this and if you want to quit, it’s o.k.  But thank you for being here all these years.  It’s nice to know that some people, who don’t have to, actually care about us, about Bosnia.  

Maja

 


From some of our past volunteers:

Testimonial from Bob Friel

      It certainly was a life changing experience.  I will try and give you some insights and observations on my Bosnian experience during the summers of 2003, 2004, and 2005.  Getting to Sarajevo presents its own challenge, as flights are not that frequent.  I chose to fly to Vienna and take the bus down to the Balkans.  It is about a 12-hour bus ride and coming out of Austria is one of the most gorgeous panoramic sights in Europe.  It was like driving in wonderland. 

     The first time I took the ride ­— the bus was packed.   We shared food, day care, practicing my feeble Serbo/Croatian, enjoying the ambiance of the culture and scenery.  Border checks along the way made for some interesting situations; people being taken into customs for not having the right boomaga (paper in Russian).

     Cab drivers were numerous at out 6 am arrival — right on schedule and that is an accomplishment when you see the roads we traveled on; many destroyed during the war (1991-95).  A cordial introduction to Sarajevo culture — polite drivers asking where I wanted to go.

     The Bellvedere hotel was an excellent selection for hosting our initiation/orientation session.  The good doctor was in his element; recalling his youthful days as a Fulbrighter in the early 50's.  After spending a few days in Sarajevo we all realized that an adventurous, insightful experience was on the horizon.  We were separated into two groups — one off to Mostar, the other to the quaint village of Gracanica. 

     Here I was with over 100lbs of books for the library.  We were in Gracanica in 3 hours, Dr. Butler assured us we were right up the street from the Pensione.  It was a sight to behold — 10 Americans dragging their baggage up dusty streets it certainly raised a few eyebrows.  Fortunately, I was given the St. Francis room on the 2nd floor little did I realize that the local teenagers found the beautiful park across the street as their nightly drinking hole — another myth debunked; some Muslims like their wine/beer.  Right of passage does not know cultural boundaries.

     There was a building project on a hill in town where I found myself working for three summers.  Grunt worker we were, some of our young college students were teaching three levels of English and a few joined me as day laborers.  OCHA would have a field day with this project.  We did it all: unloading trucks, mixing mortar, digging ditches, wheeling barrels of cement for foundation/ceiling structures.  I usually stayed for 3 1/2 to 4 hours every morning.  We would get a group of Bosniak high school students for five days every now and then.  I distinctly remember one of the students asking me how much I was paid.  When I informed him that we were volunteers he asked me if I was crazy/let out of a mental hospital, on meds or drugs.  You have 4 degrees and your digging ditches.  I explained to him that it was an invaluable experience and not all academics write books/ pontificate on their navels, or hide out in research libraries.

     I taught a course on Yugoslavian/ US relations in the 20th century, Intro to American History, and the American volunteering story.  Capitalism entails many diverse citizens — do not stereotype us all.  Some days I would have 6 students other days 20+.  It took me a summer to realize that not all students had marks to take the bus to school — what we take for granted.  Students were perceptive, alert, interested, and a pleasure to teach. 

     I'll give you two anecdotes.  It was approaching 100F I was finishing my 90-minute class on the Brown v Board of Education decision of 1954 on school desegregation.  A student raised his hand, “Professor would you mind going longer today as this is interesting”.  I asked the class, and it was one of the larger ones, they all concurred.  My response was “Only if we can have that question repeated for National Public Radio and all American teachers/professors”.  This is why I am in Bosnia.

     Our common meals helped us bond during our month stay; evaluating the day’s activities; improving our language skills and sharing our daily failures and successes.  The evenings were filled with the nightly ritual of miroshna (Russian ice cream), the fashion parade to the disco sound.

     Weekends were filled with trips to local towns of historical impact.  The opening of a mosque where villagers from the surrounding towns hiked the mountainous roads to listen to the Iman and convocation ceremonies amongst the hawkers, skewing of lamb, and general dispora of the local people.

     One can never forget our trip to Srebrenica.  It was a moving ordeal, cementing the horror of war, mass murder, the helplessness of the Bosniaks, the striking reality exhibited in the museum, and the marked wooden graves-never let us forget 11 July 1995.  One could feel death in the air.

     Our week in Dubrovnik was invigorating after a month in the village.  The ride in the cambia was harrowing to say the least.  As we avoided serious injury or death avoiding an oncoming car.  Our driver was up for saint hood after that ordeal.  How he found a spare tire in that country still baffles the brain cells.  As we were stopped by customs upon entry to Croatia passports were taken as I walked into customs and asked if there were problems.  A small bride was freely accepted and off we went.  Having many experiences with border crossings in Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union I knew the game plan.  A small price to pay on such a gorgeous day.

     Visiting the National Museum in Sarajevo, learning of the history of the bogomeils, day trips to Birchko, Eagle Base, Mostar, Tuzla (one of the salt capitals of the world), swimming at the health spa in Gracnica, walks in the forest avoiding land mines (over 1/2 million supposedly still in Bosnia), listening to the combined choir of Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (organized by Father Markos), intellectual lectures by the good padre, cruising the Adriatic from Dubrovnik to Riaka along the clear waters of the Adriatic, walking the wall city of Dubrovnik, visiting the fruit and flower gardens outside Dubrovnik, working with a variety of American college students  (under the competent skills of Dr.Butler), taking the train to Novi Sad,  Serbia to attend at rock concert called Exit 4 with a Bosnian nurse and psychiatrist,  visiting the home of Svetlana Broz (granddaughter of Josep Tito) and too many others to innumerate upon.

     The journey was productive, rewarding, and hopefully encouraging for our Bosniak students.  They taught us much.  A corollary on the human condition — the least always give the most — the west can learn many lessons from the less fortunate.

     In concluding, a few recommended books: Good People in Evil Times; The Bridge Betrayed-Michael Sells; The Balkans-Misha Glenny; and of course articles by Dr.Thomas Butler.

     I will keep our good friend Micky who joined us frequently for coffee, meals, walks after his daily factory work for a few marks an hour in the God /Alla Box-he took his life a few years ago.  Another tragedy of the war and what it does to the human psyche.  May his soul rest in peace.

Peace Corps Essay #2

Your success as a Peace Corps Volunteer is based on the trust and confidence you build by living in, and respectfully integrating yourself into, your host community and culture (Core Expectation #4). Describe an experience you have had in living or working in a social or cultural environment different from your own. What specific challenges did you face concerning trust, confidence, and/or integration? What did you learn from this experience that you will bring with you to your Peace Corps service?

The sky is shrouded in dark clouds, and the airport is poorly lit on this June night in 2008.  There is no one waiting.  There is no reception.  I disembark alone.  In the distance I can see a faint green and yellow glow of what I imagine to be the lights of a small city or large town.  I think to myself, ‘That must be Sarajevo.’  I hail a cab and hold my breath, hoping that whoever answers my call will speak some English, or at least tolerate my poor attempt at pronouncing the name of my destination.  I’m late by about a day.  ‘Where’s that sheet of paper?… I lost it… Oh!  Here it is, in my pocket.’  The folded sheet has two names on it; my contact here in the city, and the hotel where I am to meet him for the first time.  The cab ride is a blur.  The streets, the city, and the country are still covered with the thick blanket of night and the unknown.  I entered Bosnia eager, nervous, and open to the experience ahead. 

I had traveled halfway around the world in order to join an organization formed in the shadow of the devastating conflict that rocked Eastern Europe.  Builders for Peace was founded in 2002 by Dr. Thomas Butler, a Harvard professor, with the intention of participating in the rebuilding process of this region in the most concrete way: recruit and send volunteers overseas to teach, rebuild, and learn from the people of Bosnia.  With this vision in mind, volunteer teachers would attempt to bring the younger generation of Bosnians, often separated by ethnic tensions, under one roof to share in the acquisition of knowledge.  This is the aspect of the mission that I took to heart because of my own bicultural experience.

After a few days of orientation in Sarajevo, my team and I disembarked for Fojnica, a small town best known for its 14th Century Franciscan monastery and hot springs.  Shell holes from exploded mortar rounds could be seen every few paces along the road; bullet holes were so common that it was odd to see a wall without at least a couple.  A few buildings had even been bombed-out or mined beyond reason.  All these were realities far from what I knew.  War had not spared even this holy and charming place.  Despite the cessation of violence, the social imprint of war could be felt all around.  Its people who had once been tolerant neighbors, turned into bitter enemies, and now are scarred survivors attempting to rebuild what they had lost.  Fojnica was split into two main ethnic groups/religions, the Roman Catholics/Croats and the Muslim/Bosniaks.  It was in this small town that I would live and teach English for the next four weeks. 

I did not, and still do not, speak Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian.  I had never taught a class before, and I knew little about monastic chores.  However, I stepped into my new roles as I had first stepped into the country; eager, nervous, and open to the experience ahead.  It’s the first day of summer school.  I am to teach Basic English to approximately 40 children.  The desks are old, the floor is dusty and some of the windows are broken.  Class starts in one minute.  I shuffle my notes, wipe the sweat from my face, and try to look professional.  My class files in.  I grin.  They smirk. Class begins.  What feels like only one minute was actually an entire hour. Class ends quicker than I thought it possibly could.  I can’t stop smiling, my mind is a buzz with new ideas, and I can’t wait until tomorrow.  Day after day I left the school in this same mood.  In the meantime, I became involved in the lives of my students and in the community to which they and I belonged.  It began in the local café, then in the market on the corner, and before long my comrades and I were waving and chatting with a majority of the townspeople.  Even though most of my conversations were in broken English, faulty Serbo-Croatian and hand signals trusting relationships were being forged.  Soon I was accepting invitations to birthday parties, soccer games- as both a player and spectator-, and community outings such as barbeques and hikes.  In only a few short weeks I had found great friends. 

The day I left it was quiet.  Most of my goodbyes had been completed either at the quaint graduation ceremony, during visits to the local cafes and bakeries, or through quick but sincere farewells from neighbors and passers-by.  ‘This was good’ was all I could say as I boarded the bus to head back towards the capital and eventually to the U.S.  Bosnia left me with two parting gifts: 1) war has no morals, and can only be equated with destruction, and 2) peace is not founded in governments or by politics, but is built and shaped by individuals working face-to-face.  This is process I was honored to be a part of.  I carry these two truths with me now, with no intention of leaving them behind in my future travels around the world.

Marco Rufolo


 Dear Tom,

I wanted to write you a short note to let you know how appreciative I am of the time, energy and love that you have put into this trip.  Your care for the Bosnian people shows to everyone you encounter in this country, and everyone you bring here.  I feel extremely lucky to have been offered the chance to accompany Builders For Peace on this journey.  My “academic” interest in Bosnia has been grounded by experiencing the complex, challenging and beautiful human element here.  I hope to take this knowledge back to the classroom this fall and beyond.

The most important thing I wanted to share with you is that this trip and work experience would not have been nearly as enlightening without your guidance.  Your deep understanding of the culture of this region, and your personal relationships with wonderful Bosnians, have supplemented profoundly the experience of teaching beautiful students at the Gračanica school

Letter from Nina Catalano, a Harvard junior and volunteer teacher


Dear Tom,

Thank you so much for the opportunity to work in Bosnia.  I’ve tried my best to hold onto as much of this experience as I can.  I’ve got notes all over the place… Looking over my notes now, I can’t believe I’ve been here only five weeks.  My students have taught me so much.  They’ve shared their stories, deep and burning like fire, and I’ve done my best to process those stories and give back the little wisdom I can share.  This town is beautiful, this country is beautiful, and the people are strong, strong enough, I believe, to take your philosophy of forgiveness to heart. …

Kevin Feeney, Harvard College junior