State Magazine May 2013 : Page 17
EYE-OPENER Exchange Students Thrive in Bosnia and Herzegovina By Thomas E. Mesa, public affairs officer, U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo As the female members of a local family gathered for the traditional prayers of remembrance on the anniversary of the head of the family’s death, their sacred “tevhid” ritual, a key Muslim custom, was made even more special because one of the invited females was not a family member or even a long-time friend of the family. She was an American teenager in Sarajevo under the auspices of the Department’s YES Abroad program. The student said it was a surprise and a privilege to have been invited to witness this private moment in the life of her host family. She added that it gave her a new perspective on the importance of prayer and family in Islam. For another student on the exchange, her Christian belief helped her better understand Muslim beliefs and practices. Through conversation with friends and her study of Islam, she found the gulf between the two major religions is not as wide as she had thought. The experiences of these two students exemplify the spirit of the YES Abroad program, which involves a close encounter with another culture and society, and a personal look at the core of everyday life there. Administered by the American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the program offers American high-school students and recent graduates a full scholarship for up to one academic year to live and study abroad in countries with significant Muslim populations. Eleven countries have a YES Abroad program, but this was the first year that the program was offered in BiH. The five U.S. students, who return to the United States in June, are enrolled in the Baccalaureate (IB) Program at the Druga Gimnazija (Second Gymnasium), an elite academic institution in Sarajevo that conducts classes in English with a college prep focus. They have found it an eye-opening experience. The students, who prefer not to be quoted by name, say they admire the seriousness and dedication of the teachers in the IB program, but also the intellectual debates with their Bosnian classmates that reveal different angles to an issue. That’s especially true in their history class. “It is one thing to sit in the U.S. and study European history detached from Europe, and another being in Europe where the issues we study are closer and feel more real,” said one student. The American students are surrounded by stories of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the suffering it caused. The director of the IB program, Tomo Maltar, said he is pleased with the how well the students have adapted to the school and excelled in the classroom. “Not only have they brought great insights about American society into our discussions, but they have dispelled the prejudice of some of our students, drawn Exchange student Katie Wells, far right, visits a local historic site with her host family. Photo courtesy of Katie Wells from watching movies and hearing of violence in American schools, who wondered whether the American educational system produces good students,” he said. “The proof of excellence was right before them.” Outside the classroom, the students flourished in Sarajevo, a city with a rich history dating back more than 500 years, but still marked by the scars of war and struggling to maintain its multicultural and multi-ethnic heritage. They went bowling, watched movies, relaxed with classmates and friends and explored Sarajevo, especially its old town. They also travelled to ancient fortresses and the birthplace of Ivan Andric, winner of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1961, in Travnik. One student said she was especially impressed by ordinary Bosnians’ kindness and “interest in me as a person.” A sales lady who spoke with her in Bosnian, a baker who always says hello and remembers her love of cornbread, and a gentleman who once held the bus for her were all engaged in “sincere acts of kindness… [that] strengthen my faith in humanity and make me more aware of how possible it is to bridge cultural differences,” she said. Volunteerism is encouraged in the YES Abroad Program, and the five students have spent several Saturdays at an orphanage with special-needs youths, working for two hours at a time helping them with English thought games during play periods. The American teens were treated as family members by their host families, who told them folk wisdom, such as keeping doors and windows closed to avoid the evils of a draft, and weather wisdom, such as how to dress for the chill of a wintry night. They shared jokes over coffee and debated events of the day while watching the evening news. The students talked with their classmates, friends and host families about life in the United States, and shared their BiH experiences with their U.S. families and friends. “Some of my [U.S.] friends have actually gone and read more about BiH after reading my blog,” said one student. Several of the U.S. students say the exchange has changed their world view and given them a greater appreciation for the U.S. role in the world. What happens in BiH, a small country, may not have repercussions outside its borders, but what happens in the United States may have international repercussions, one student concluded. After they return in June to their homes in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Michigan, several of the students may pursue international studies, such as Slavic studies or international business. Several said the bonds created during this past year, especially with their host families, will draw them back to BiH. There is a saying in Sarajevo that those who drink the mountain waters of the Sebilj Fountain in the heart of the old town will find their way back to Sarajevo one day. The exchange students have drunk from that fountain, and time will tell whether the prediction comes true.